There was a point last year when it seemed that Derrick Jones' path to the Union had taken a significant detour.
Before Bethlehem Steel was officially launched, Jones committed to play college soccer at the University of Rhode Island. But when given the opportunity to join the Union's new USL team as its first signing, he backed out of the "traditional" American route to the pros. Instead, he took a route that much more closely resembles what the rest of the world calls "traditional."
"There's now a pathway to the pros that is clearly visible and in line with what's happening in other countries," Union academy director Tommy Wilson told me. "We'll always produce players who go to college, and through our school we are doing an excellent job there. But we're a professional club, and the fruits of our labors should be seen in our first team."
Jones isn't the first Union homegrown player, of course. Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernández preceded him.
But there's little question that Jones is the most significant homegrown signing in Union history, even above Pfeffer. That's how much it matters that he's the first player to come through the club's true academy program and reach the senior 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 after Jones' signing was announced. "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. ... Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system, that there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals."
It is also a testament to Wilson's success at building the Union's academy into one of the best in Major League Soccer.
Youth development isn't as glamorous a subject as who the next big Designated Player signing will be. But for the long-term health of American soccer, it's just as important - if not more.
"We've got an ownership group that is prepared to invest in youth development, and a staff with the first team that believe in it and have experience with it," Wilson said.
Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin have often talked about giving young players a real shot on the field. But it's one thing to say it and another to do it - and Curtin knows that especially well.
Few people in the Union organization know the team's academy structure as well as he does, because he coached the club's youth squads before joining the senior-level coaching staff.
Curtin has long wanted to be known as a coach willing to give young players a fair shot. But that's hard to do without a good crop of prospects to harvest. It's increasingly clear that the Union's past young prospects simply weren't good enough.
Now, Curtin has players who are good enough in Jones and draft-bred rookies Keegan Rosenberry, Joshua Yaro and Fabian Herbers.
"I've thrown young players into the fire" this year, Curtin said. "I'll do that with Derrick when he's ready."
Curtin will get many more chances to do that, because there are some big-time prospects in the pipeline. They might not be ready in the short term, but they will be in the medium term.
Even fans who don't follow the Union's academy teams closely may have heard these names from the Union's under-18 squad: goalkeeper Andrew Verdi, defender Auston Trusty, midfielder Raheem Taylor-Parkes and forward Yosef Samuel.
The Union's staff is also keeping a close eye on academy products in the college ranks, especially Maryland striker Sebastian Elney.
"We do have, in my opinion, scattered through the academy a number of players who have the talent to become first-team players - as we should, if we're doing our job right," Wilson said. "If you've got a conveyor belt and you've got one or two each year, sometimes maybe three or four, that's a healthy situation."
It's particularly healthy that the Union are willing to look for talent in parts of the region beyond the traditional suburban youth soccer hotbeds.
Curtin does not shy away from the fact that for far too many soccer prospects in America, making it as a pro requires financial resources that they and their families simply don't have.
So, yes, the Union are scouting the region's immigrant communities. Curtin specifically noted the local Hispanic population and the West African enclaves in West Philadelphia. That's where Jones lived when he came here from Ghana in 2012, and it's where the Junior Lone Star youth program has become wildly successful.
"A lot of times, soccer is a privileged sport," Curtin said without a hint of hesitation. "Derrick and a lot of the Junior Lone Star kids, they earn everything they get. … He went through the hard moments, and now I'm very happy to reward him with a first-team contract. But it needs to be said he's the one who earned it."
In short: Jones is from a rough part of West Philadelphia, and soccer got him out of there.
Now that he's with the Union, what will Jones bring? You got a taste of his potential when he made his senior-level debut in the friendly against Crystal Palace earlier this month.
Jones' skill set in central midfield might remind some Union fans of Vincent Nogueira, who departed the team earlier this summer because of health issues. It's mostly coincidental that Jones has a chance to step into a Nogueira-sized hole in the Union's lineup - but not entirely.
"It's a skill set that we need," Curtin said. "Is Derrick there yet? He's not quite, but he's not that far off."
Curtin made it clear that the Union are still shopping for players who can boost the team's chase for the playoffs.
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