The story of Matt Real's 2018 season must be viewed in the proper context: Philadelphia Union were committed to Auston Trusty in the center and, over time, they were able to integrate Mark McKenzie as a calm, ball-moving presence alongside Trusty, creating a center back pairing so young as to be almost unimaginable at the MLS level. Trusty and McKenzie went through their ups and downs during the season, and when Real was given an opportunity in the back line early in the season, he flashed a similar mix of culture and naivete. Surprising? Not really. But with the Union working primarily up the right side in attack, left back needed to be a position of defensive strength.
Thus, Real spent most of the year with Bethlehem Steel, becoming a more consistent defender and learning to be more patient with his offensive skill set. His progress was significant, and the young defender's ability to stay close and in front of his 1v1 matchups had improved by orders of magnitude come playoff time. Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke had no qualms about using Real on the road in Pittsburgh, and the team felt the left back's absence severely a week later in Louisville.
One irony of the success McKenzie and Trusty had this season is that it can give the incorrect impression that teenagers should be able to slot relatively effortlessly into a MLS back line, with their obvious quality outshining their equally obvious limitations. This is not the case. And Matt Real's future remains extremely bright despite his inability to lock down the left back spot after outings against Colorado, San Jose, and Orlando City. He was named the captain of the US U-20 National Team for their recent group stage matches, and he showed clear growth in the areas that looked wanting back in April.
"His range of passing, his technical ability in tight spaces, that stuff has always been there and it's getting better and better," Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke said after the season, "But I think just on the individual defending side, when Matt gets put on an island or presses higher up the field and defends in space, he's able to do that far more consistently now and that allows him to become a player you can trust in your back four."
Real will be about 19-and-a-half years old when the 2019 MLS season starts. He'll have a full season of work with Steel FC under his belt and a full year of training with the Union first team. He will still be one of the most talented young talents at a position that Major League Soccer teams (and the US Men's National Team) have struggled to fill with consistency. He's already a good soccer player, and the next year, with Philadelphia and Ernst Tanner continuing their strong emphasis on developing young players, Matt Real will continue to get better. And if he hits his ceiling, he will provide an enormous competitive advantage to the Union in the future.