The Union's top prospect is officially ready for the team's biggest stage.
Derrick Jones, a 19-year-old central midfielder, has signed a contract to join the senior team. He is the Union's first homegrown player since 2012 and the only current such player on the roster.
The "homegrown player" designation within Major League Soccer's roster rules allows teams to sign its academy prospects without their going through the draft. Clubs can also exempt an allotment of homegrown signings from the salary cap.
"I'm very happy that the technical staff put their trust and belief in me," Jones said. "I'm thankful for that and the opportunity to play here, and I'm willing to give my all to the team."
Jones' arrival at the senior level is a moment loaded with symbolism for a Union organization that badly needs it. He is the first player who has risen through the Union's full-fledged academy structure, including the much-touted full-time high school at YSC Sports in Wayne.
The Ghana native became the first-ever signing by the Union's minor-league USL team, Bethlehem Steel, last December. Earlier this month, Jones made his Union debut in the exhibition game against Crystal Palace.
Prior to joining the Union's academy, Jones played for the Southwest Philadelphia-based Junior Lone Star soccer club, which brings in African immigrant children and uses soccer to help make the city their home.
Jones emigrated from Ghana to Philadelphia in March 2012 and started playing for Junior Lone Star soon thereafter. He caught the eye of Union academy director Tommy Wilson late in 2013, when Junior Lone Star's under-19 team beat the Union's under-18 team.
"He reminded me immediately of Yaya Touré," Wilson said, referring to the star midfielder for English Premier League titan Manchester City. "His ability to move the ball and how tall he was. ... Normally I'm so focused on my own team that I don't notice the opposition, but on this occasion I did, and I knew almost right from the first minute that here was a talent."
That led to an invitation for Jones to join the club's youth teams, which he did in November 2013. He enrolled in the high school in August 2014 for the 2014-15 academic year.
"We took him out of that [home] environment because we thought we could accelerate his development by putting him in the academy and the school," Wilson said. "The change in him off the field as much as the change in him on the field was quite stark. It's part of the success of the [academy] project that we're able to develop not just players but individuals."
The Union's academy isn't yet as prolific as MLS's best. Teams such as Dallas, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Vancouver have produced fistfuls of homegrown players in recent years. But Wilson's program has quietly turned a lot of heads in American youth soccer circles. Now he has real proof of its potential.