Union make tough cuts, but keep Anding & Fernandes

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Union make tough cuts, but keep Anding & Fernandes

With the Union’s preseason drawing to a close, the club’s opening match roster has tightened, leaving touted youngsters Damani Richards, Eric Schoenle, Alex Mendoza and Stephen Okai seeking employment elsewhere.

“We still have a number of decisions to make in terms of players that we think will make us the most competitive team we can be on the field,” Union manager John Hackworth said from the team’s preseason camp in Deltona, Fla. “Those are tough decisions but they are ones you want to have because it means we’re having good competition for spots.”

Knowing that their camp would be a competitive one, the Union’s coaching staff was ready to make tough roster decisions. And even though the Union only have one exhibition game left to play on Saturday before returning back to Philadelphia on Sunday, releasing Okai, the 31st pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Schoenle and two young recruited talents, left many observers wondering.

“Stephen Okai is simple, we go through an MLS draft and we have his rights. But if that player is not going to make your roster, you release him,” Hackworth explained. “That’s the case with Okai, he’s a good player. All these guys are good players and there is a reason they were here in the first place. Our job is to take a large number of players and narrow it down in compliance with roster spots and salary cap constraints. That process is extremely competitive.”

That noted competition also pushed defender Richards, 18, who signed a contract with the Union on Jan. 19, off the club’s roster and into more of a developmental path.

“He brings some qualities that every coach looks for,” Hackworth said. “But he’s very young, very inexperienced -- in fact no experience as a professional athlete at all. It was very difficult for him to make this roster, which is very competitive and has very few spots. That doesn’t mean we’re totally giving him up. We have an affiliation with Harrisburg [City Islanders] and we hope he will still be under our watchful [eye] and can develop.

“The reality is there are better players here.”

The biggest surprise however may be the release of Schoenle, a 2013 Supplemental Draft selection out of Yardley, Pa. The defender was considered a sleeper prospect. He just missed the cut.

“We have released Eric Schoenle,” Hackworth said. “He’s a guy we really like and he’s a fantastic soccer player, and if we had a way to keep him we would certainly keep him. He’s a guy we want to put on a developmental path. It’s important for him to grow and continue developing.”

The Union also released 34-year-old Greek international, veteran and trialist, Pantelis Kafes.

“He’s a guy we wanted to look at and he’s had a fantastic and illustrious career,” Hackworth said. “He’s a good player but he’s a little older and doesn’t really fit what we were trying to do. So he will not be with us and is not with us any longer.”

Though the Union have released some noticeable talent, the young players looking to make the Union’s final roster for the March 2 opener against Sporting Kansas City are just as intriguing.

Drafted 26th overall, 21-year-old Don Anding has impressed Hackworth and is penciled in on the left-back depth chart behind Gabe Farfan and Ray Gaddis. Leo Fernandes, another Supplemental Draft pick, also is expected to make the team in the midfield.

“I don’t know if you watched the game [1-1 draw versus DC United] last night, but Don Anding started at left back probably made one of the best plays of any game I’ve seen,” Hackworth said. “We have had excellent competition at left back and we start this season, this moment, with three very qualified players. In our humble estimation as coaches, we have elected the three best guys for us to be successful heading into the season.”

One battle still playing out is between former Real Madrid youth, 21-year-old
Jordi Vidal and other depth forwards on the Union roster. Shrugging aside the tough transition from Europe to the MLS, Vidal has the Union very intrigued.

“Jordi is with us and we really like him,” Hackworth said. “He has a really tough job of trying to beat out a guy who is currently under contract at one of our forward spots but he is currently doing very well.

“Jordi is a good player, technically he’s sound. He came through a very famous youth academy at Real Madrid. The one thing I think is tough for a guy coming from abroad, they have to make an extremely quick transition to a very different culture and different environment. But he’s still here with us and he’s giving us an extremely tough decision to make.”

For Hackworth this offseason, it wouldn’t be the first.

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after most of the Union players retreated from the heat Wednesday, Derrick Jones remained on the practice field. Not even his new rookie responsibility of carrying the bag of balls could dampen the 19-year-old’s enthusiasm of participating in his first official training as a member of the Union.

“I was just excited,” said Jones, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union a day earlier. “I was just happy. I didn’t know where I was going to be four years ago.”

Jones' path to the pros was certainly an interesting one as he came from Ghana to South Philly in 2012, and at the time, “didn’t know anything about the Union.” But he soon found his way to YSC Academy, the Union-run high school in Wayne, and after graduating from there, was the first player ever signed by the Bethlehem Steel, the team’s expansion minor-league affiliate.

He then played well enough for Bethlehem this season to ink a deal with the Union on Tuesday as their first Homegrown signing since 2012 and just the fourth in franchise history.

“It's a proud moment for me as a coach, a former academy coach,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d like to thank (YSC Academy head and Union part owner) Richie Graham and (academy director) Tommy Wilson for the job they did developing Derrick, and also (Bethlehem Steel head coach) Brendan Burke sprinkling in that extra polish for the half a season that Derrick put in. I'd also like to thank the players because the one thing people don't always get to see is how valuable it is with our first-team players being around Derrick in the preseason and putting him under their wing and all of those little things. 

“As a club, it's a proud moment because everybody has played a role, from our medical staff to our trainers to our equipment guys, all the way through our academy to Bethlehem to now our first team.”

Ever since the franchise’s inception, Union coaches and executives have always said how they wanted to build a team from their youth ranks with several players hailing from the Philadelphia area. But, as it turned out, it was easier said than done.

Zach Pfeffer was the first player to sign a homegrown contract (an MLS mechanism that allows teams to directly sign youth players from their own development academies) as a 15-year-old Upper Dublin High School sophomore in December of 2010. And although he showed some promise, the teenager was never able to become a regular and was traded to the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Former manager Peter Nowak signed two other homegrown players — Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez — during his tenure but neither played much and they're no longer with the club.

You can certainly argue that Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez were all victims of an old system that didn’t allow them to properly develop at such a young age. In many ways, that’s why the Union launched YSC Academy and the Bethlehem Steel: to create a more surefire pathway from high school to the pros without throwing teenagers directly into the fire.

And Jones, the only current homegrown player on the roster, is the first to truly benefit from that improved structure — and will very likely usher in a new, better era of youth development for the Union.

“Everyone likes to compare who's doing it the best, and there's a lot of really good things being done right now in the U.S. Developmental Academy and specific MLS academies, but I can say with confidence, having coached in it and lived through it and having seen it up close, our academy is the one that prepares these kids for life more so than any,” Curtin said. “So everyone wants to talk about the successful homegrowns and how many each team has, but no one writes the article about a lot of the homegrowns that are out of this league in a year and no one cares about them anymore.

“It does need to be said that our structure, in the way Richie Graham has set it up, is holistic in every way. The school and the things that they do there, it is amazing. It’s a special environment, and it’s one that is based on each individual kid and their needs, because every kid has different spurts in their development, highs and lows. And the support system that they provide at our academy is second to none in this country.”

Curtin’s glowing praise of YSC Academy is not hyperbole. The school is the first in the country to fully integrate a college-preparatory education with an MLS-affiliated youth soccer development program with practice time embedded into the school day. And although Jones is the first from the school to sign with the Union, many others in the first two graduating classes have moved on to play high-level Division I soccer (and can still sign with the Union, or the Steel, as a homegrown player if they shine at the collegiate level). 

“They helped me a lot,” Jones said of YSC Academy. “It was good. I got to train twice a day. I spent my whole day over there. In terms of working on my fitness, it really helped me.”

The school also helped Jones adapt to the United States away from the field, and even though he’s a quiet kid, his new teammates made sure to greet him with a lot of smiles this week. MLS veteran Chris Pontius said he expects Jones’ personality to come out in a few months and praised his soccer skills, calling him “a good two-way player” in the midfield.

It might be unfair to expect Jones to play right away for the Union, but the 19-year-old will certainly be ready if called upon, as early as Sunday’s home game vs. Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN).

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like,” Jones said. “Maybe I’ll get nervous since it’s my first game. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Midfielder Derrick Jones has made Union history.

On Wednesday, the club announced Jones, 19, has been signed to the Union first team as a Homegrown Player. Currently playing with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jones is the first Union Academy graduate to make the move from Union Academy to Union first team.

“Derrick’s progression through our system has been quicker than anticipated and it’s evident that he is ready for the next step of his career,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in the team’s official release. “This is a testament to Derrick’s commitment to his trade, and it should be considered a tremendous accomplishment to become the first player to come through our Academy, to Bethlehem Steel, and finally to the first team.”

Jones, who moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from Bantana, Ghana, and worked his way through the Union Academy before joining the Steel in 2016, made his Union debut in a friendly match against Crystal Palace on July 13 at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The 6-foot-3 rangy midfielder, who doesn’t have a set position, showed well playing the entire second half, presenting his on-the-ball poise at the attacking mid position.

“Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system,” Stewart said. “That there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals.”

Jones is the first Union homegrown signing since 2012. Homegrown status means the player avoids being submitted into the MLS SuperDraft. The Union Academy has been around since 2013 and is located at the YSC Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

“I’m delighted that Derrick is our first and that the work of our staff has come to fruition in this way,” Academy director Tommy Wilson said. “This is a proud moment for Derrick and his family. I would like to congratulate them and everyone else who has played a part in his development.”

Inside Doop: Union limp home after brutal week

Inside Doop: Union limp home after brutal week

It’s time for the Union to get some rest — and try to forget what happened over the past few days.

On Saturday night, the Union suffered their worst loss of the MLS season just four days after getting knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup in crushing fashion.

What went wrong on the road trip? And how can they move on from such a brutal week? We’ll examine in the latest edition of the Inside Doop:

Three thoughts from the past week
1. Following last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls, Union head coach Jim Curtin sort of dismissed the idea of “squad rotation” while several players praised the team’s fitness for being able to rally from two goals back to tie New York. And it was true that the Union had successfully managed busy weeks for much of the last two months. But even the most fit and deep team would have struggled with what followed for the Union, who lost in an Open Cup shootout in New England after playing 120 minutes before then leaving the country to face the star-studded Montreal Impact, who drubbed them 5-1. Curtin said he wouldn’t use the grueling schedule as an excuse, but it’s certainly obvious that it played a big role.

2. Before saying he would “tear up the tape” from the rout in Montreal, Curtin candidly stated the team was “beat by stars.” That’s certainly true as the ageless African legend Didier Drogba netted his second MLS hat trick and standout Argentine playmaker Ignacio Piatti assisted on two of those goals and also scored one of his own. Perhaps in the subtext of that statement is this: the Union don’t really have any true stars of their own (except perhaps a rising one in goalkeeper Andre Blake), and while they’ve won a lot of games this season by playing well as a unit, sometimes the talent gap can be too much to overcome.

3. There’s no sense analyzing too much of how the Impact were able to score five times in a single game. Everyone along Philly’s backline played poorly and even typically surefire midfielders like Tranquillo Barnetta didn’t do enough to slow down the Montreal attack as the floodgates opened. But the fact that it came just four days after the Union had a bad breakdown to leave a player wide open on a free kick and let New England score basically an uncontested goal is troublesome. And that came just three days after the team gave up two goals at home. In other words, you can be sure a defensive-minded coach like Curtin will work to correct some of these glaring issues moving forward. Speaking of which …  

Three questions for the week ahead
1.
For a team that’s worked tirelessly on its fitness, sometimes even training twice in the same day, this week will start in somewhat of a unique way: the Union will get Monday and Tuesday off. It’s certainly understandable why Curtin wants his players to get time away from soccer after an arduous 11-game-in-39-day stretch. But will it help reenergize and galvanize the group heading into Sunday’s home game against Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN)?

2. One player to keep an eye on during this week is Maurice Edu. The Union captain has yet to play this season because of a stress fracture but recently returned to the training field. Curtin has stressed the midfielder still needs time to get his fitness back up to where it should be, but there’s no question his return would give the team a big boost at a time when such a thing is needed. Could we see him get on the field, perhaps off the bench, in Sunday’s game?

3. Two players that won’t be with the Union for most of the week are goalkeeper Andre Blake and right back Keegan Rosenberry — and for good reason. The team’s two young rising stars made Thursday’s All-Star Game and traveled to San Jose today to begin preparations for the contest that features the top MLS players vs. English Premier League power Arsenal. Seeing how the two players both perform — and how much playing time they get — in such a marquee matchup will certainly be fun for Union fans. But either way, the fact both players simply got there so early in their careers is quite an accomplishment.

Quote of the week
“We've been a group that's been together and has been a team all year, and that's why we've had some success. Tonight we were beat by stars. Drogba and Piatti were unstoppable.”

-- Union head coach Jim Curtin

Stat of the week
Saturday’s 5-1 loss was the Union’s worst since they lost by the same scoreline to the L.A. Galaxy on June 20, 2015.

Player of the week
It sort of got lost in the general frustration of the week but rookie Fabian Herbers did a lot of damage off the bench, scoring his first career U.S. Open Cup goal in dramatic fashion before getting a secondary assist on Philly’s only goal Saturday. Did he earn himself a start coming up?