VANCOUVER, B.C. - For some time now, Union manager Jim Curtin has preached the gospel of how important it is to play young players in Major League Soccer.
On Sunday, Curtin put his money where his mouth is, and he reaped a big reward from it.
In the Union's scoreless draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps, midfielder Derrick Jones became the first product of the academy to start a MLS game. Though the senior roster has had homegrown players, Jones is the first player with that designation who is a product of the full-fledged academy program the Union launched in 2013.
Curtin's decision to start Jones wasn't just about symbolism. It was a sign that the Union's much-vaunted development program is producing talent good enough to play in the league.
"If I'm not brave enough to put him on the field, when does he get that first shot?" Curtin said. "It's very easy for a lot of coaches to say, and a lot of coaches do say, 'I'll play young players.' But very few actually have the courage to do it."
Curtin deployed the 20-year-old Ghana native as a defensive midfielder. That was no small task against a speedy Vancouver attack that included 16-year-old wing phenom Alphonso Davies and big-money striker Fredy Montero. And if that wasn't enough, the game was played on BC Place's notoriously bouncy artificial turf.
Jones more than held his own. He covered plenty of ground and was strong in tackles but was also impressively composed. He kept his passes simple and smart, allowing the Union to retain possession at key times as they finished off the shutout.
"I thought his passing accuracy was excellent. He kind of calmed us down when we needed to calm down," Curtin said. "For a kid as young as Derrick and as inexperienced, I thought he really stepped up and grabbed a hold of the opportunity."
Alejandro Bedoya played in front of Jones Sunday night and has kept a keen eye on Jones' development. As a U.S. national team stalwart, Bedoya knows a prospect when he sees one. Jones, who has trained with the U.S. under-20 team, fits the bill.
"A lot of people here see the potential he has. He's got the size and athletic ability," Bedoya said. "He'll be the first one to tell you that I'm hard on him, and I give him tough love because I see so much talent in him."
As imposing as Jones is on the field at 6-foot-3, he was quiet and humble after the game. Jones said Curtin told him "to enjoy the moment. Have fun. Play hard," and it's clear he did.
"It felt great," Jones said. "I think I've worked hard, and I've earned this spot, so I'm just going to keep going."