Every professional athlete started out as a kid who wanted to play the sport he or she loves for as long as they possibly can. They dream of the biggest moments on the largest stages, playing under the bright lights of a professional soccer stadium.
Friday night’s matchup between Villanova and Georgetown isn’t the big leagues, but for three kids, it might as well be.
Villanova’s roster features three boys from the Delaware Valley who grew up wanted to play on the Talen Energy Stadium pitch. Sophomores Conor and Shane Bradley and junior and co-captain Zach Zandi all grew up playing for the Union Academy, dreaming of one day playing in front of fans at Talen Energy Stadium.
The Bradley Boys started playing with the Union organization with the Union Juniors program and officially joined the Union Academy in their freshman year of high school. They stayed with the organization through graduation, playing for the U16s and U18s. The two were always on the same team, growing their games together.
“We’ve been around the Union our whole lives,” Shane said. “We started with the Union Juniors. We’ve been around the program forever. We got picked up by the Union our freshman year of high school and they taught us so much about the game.”
“They developed us into better players and better people, using soccer” Conor added. “They created opportunities for colleges and in our lives. They really helped us become better players.”
Both Conor and Shane were recruited by various colleges while at the Union Academy, but there was one school that was particularly close to their heart: Villanova. It was close to home, and it was the family school. But the deal was they both attend the same school to play soccer together. Thankfully, Villanova offered them both.
“We’ve been close our whole lives,” Shane said. “When it came down to recruiting, we decided early we wanted to go to school together, we were going to look at the same schools in the process.”
“The Union coaches helped us reach that goal,” Conor said. “They were there every step of the way, giving us advice. It really, really helped.”
Now in their second season with the Wildcats, the two have become important cogs on the pitch. Shane plays as a centerback, whereas Conor is a defensive midfielder. One plays right in front of the other, and the two have created a great understanding of each other’s playing style, fostered through their time with the Union Academy.
“Growing up together, you learn how the other is going to play and what to expect each game,” Conor said. “It shapes you. You know exactly what you’re going to get. It’s really helpful in games, because you know where he’s going to be because you’ve seen it so many times.”
“He’s always right in front of me,” Shane said. “It’s someone you have trusted your whole life and someone you know you can trust in a game. Having a family member, it’s obviously beneficial, but at Villanova, we’re all a family. We all look at each other as brothers. Conor and I being on the same team makes things simpler.”
The two and the rest of the Villanova family now face one of their toughest tests of their collegiate career when the team welcomes No. 9 Georgetown to Talen Energy Stadium. But the two aren’t worried about the Hoyas, as the duo is confident in their team.
“They have a good attack, but at the end of the day, we just can’t let the pressure get to us,” Shane said. “We definitely have the talent to beat Georgetown, we just have to play the game we know we can.”
“We just need to play like we know we can,” Conor said. “If we do that, a win will come.”
Leading the team against the Hoyas is Zandi, who is very familiar with the Bradleys. Zandi was also a member of the Union Academy, and often played with the Bradleys throughout his time there. Playing for the same Academy has made the three very close, which has paid dividends on the field.
“I was able to play with them before coming to Villanova, and I was really able to get to know who they are and what they were about,” Zandi said. “Having that, it was really helpful when they came to ‘Nova.”
Zandi developed his leadership through his time with the Union. During the summer, he has also played with the Union’s PDL affiliate in Reading United FC. His time with the Union and Reading helped him greatly with the skills necessary to compete in the collegiate level, and his three years with Villanova has expanded his game even more.
“It was really a great experience for me,” Zandi said. “I was able to progress a lot as a player and learn a lot from the coaching staff there. And playing with Reading over the summers, it feels like I’m still a part of the Academy. It all really helped with my leadership and ability to help others on the team.”
Tonight, Conor, Shane and Zandi will all take the pitch at Talen Energy Stadium, a place they’ve wanted to play ever since they started at the Union Academy. And all three hope it’s not the last time they take play in front fans at Talen Energy Stadium, maybe next time with a Union kit on.
“You go through the Academy system, and you look to play there your whole career,” Zandi said. “That’s something you really look forward to. Being able to play in the stadium, it brings those emotions to a head. It gets me excited to maybe playing there with the Union first-team after my college career.”
“The coaches always said that we should one day dream of playing on that field,” Shane said. “And we all do. We all wish to go pro and be able to play regularly on that field. The fact we’re going to be playing on that field is just unreal. It’s a dream come true.”
“It’s a dream come true, to play there to be honest,” Conor said. “Words can’t describe how excited I am and how thankful I am to have this opportunity.”