As Philadelphia Union II Interim Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc drafted his starting XI Wednesday night there was no doubt as when he looked down his team sheet who would be leading the group out of tunnel of Subaru Park. As the club’s youngest starting lineup took to the field it was defender Brandan Craig, the youngest among them, sporting the captain’s armband.
“Putting the armband on a 16‐year‐old was not by mistake,” LeBlanc said following the match. “I think the idea is to challenge these guys and take them out of their comfort zones and for them to reach heights that maybe they don’t even realize they can reach. I give Brandan that armband because he deserved it number one. And because he’s got my trust and the trust of this team.”
While youth development has already been the focus for the USL Championship side of the Union’s organization, 2020 has seen the average age of the teamsheet pushing new records. Despite that, LeBlanc sees every single minute as valuable to a player’s growth and it’s starting to take root in performances on the field.
“[Brandan Craig] will be upset that we didn’t get the result and now you got a Union II group playing 16 and 17‐year‐old that’s upset about not getting results in these games, and you think about where we were a month and a half ago and where we are now,” LeBlanc said. “Guys like Brandan Craig are only going to grow and get stronger from it. And each time we put them in these environments where we're in competitive matches against older pros and they continue to find ways to be in them. Eventually they will figure out a way to get a result out of it as well.”
While Craig is the youngest captain in club history, he’s been around two impressive former Union II leaders at the academy. Ryan Richter, the club’s first captain, and James Chambers, It's longest-serving captain. Craig said joining any list with those players on it is a huge honor.
“It’s always a great honor to captain a side, but it’s even a greater honor to be the youngest person on the team,” Craig told members of the media Wednesday night. “I have it on my shoulders, it’s a big weight to carry especially for this team. We’re a very young team and we’re all leaders on the field.”
As Union II continues a blistering end of the season stretch that’ll see the club play 10 matches in 32 days, LeBlanc sees much potential for his youngest player at both center back and possibly at the No. 6 spot as well.
“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of what he’s going to be,” LeBlanc said. “I think we’ve got him in the right spot now playing as a center back and playing as a 6. Think of the first few games you saw Brandan Craig playing out wide and he’s more than capable of doing that and is certainly willing to do it but as you can see when he plays in the spine of the team at centerback or as a 6 he certainly affects the game a lot more.”
Craig agreed with his coach, saying that while his natural position finds him guarding the front of the Union II goal, he sees the benefits of gaining experience at the No. 6 slot because flexibility is an asset for young players with first team aspirations.
“I think its beneficial for me to go into the 6 as well,” Craig said. “For the 6 it’s different because I must be a lot quicker on the ball and center back its more defensive and I have to be in tackles harder. My duels, aerial duels, have got to be tougher especially at this level playing against guys that are maybe twice your age. But for me I think its very important to play in your natural position and I’m glad and excited.”
Craig and the rest of Philadelphia Union II begin a three-game road trip on Sunday taking on Eastern Conference leaders Tampa Bay Rowdies. Kick off from Al Lang Stadium is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN+.