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Union's youth academy prospects get U.S. national team vote of confidence

Twelve of the Union's best potential future pros are spending part of January at a U.S. youth national team scouting camp.

Playmaking midfielder Anthony Fontana has joined the Philadelphia Union this year after rising through the team’s academy system. He has also earned attention from the U.S. national team program.
Playmaking midfielder Anthony Fontana has joined the Philadelphia Union this year after rising through the team’s academy system. He has also earned attention from the U.S. national team program.Read moreGREG CAROCCIO / PHILADELPHIA UNION

With a little more than two weeks until the start of preseason training camp, the Union still haven't made any major offseason moves. A striker from their minor-league USL affiliate in Bethlehem has been their only "new" signing. There haven't even been many rumors to keep the hot stove burning.

This story won't fix that. It won't bring the Union a marquee playmaker or winger, and it won't help the team overtake rivals that made the playoffs in 2017. But it might bring reason to believe the team is doing something right when it comes to the long term.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is holding a youth national team talent evaluation camp in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., about an hour south of Tampa. A total of 153 players across five age-group teams — under-20 down to under-16 — received invitations. Twelve of them are tied to the Union, including eight current academy players. The latter figure ties for the most of any club in MLS, with Atlanta United. The other four Union-tied players are academy products.

"It's great for us, great for our profile, great for recruitment," Union academy chief Tommy Wilson said. "It speaks highly of the work that we're doing, and it can only help us."

Here is the list of names. Players who hail from the Philadelphia region have their home towns included:

Under-20 team: Defenders Mark McKenzie (Bear, Del.) and Matthew Real (Drexel Hill), midfielder Anthony Fontana (Newark, Del.), and forward Justin McMaster

Under-19 team: Midfielder Brenden Aaronson (Medford) and forward Jeremy Rafanello (Delran)

Under-18 team: Goalkeeper Kris Shakes and forward Axel Picazo

Under-17 team: Midfielder Julian Anderson and forward Aboubacar Camara (Philadelphia)

Under-16 team: Midfielders Selmir Miscic (Royersford) and Nicholas Pariano

Some of those players have already gotten a taste of professional life. The best-known is Fontana, who joins the Union's senior team this year. Curtin has said before that said he plans to give Fontana a real shot to play. He reiterated that in an interview this week.

Curtin also reiterated that Fontana's progress doesn't preclude the signing of a big-name playmaker. But the potential is clear. Curtin wants to get Fontana and fellow young creator Adam Najem on the field with veterans Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin in preseason games. If they rise to the occasion, they could produce some interesting soccer.

"You will see a Bedoya-Medunjanin-Fontana combination in one of the [games] we have against MLS teams," Curtin said. "Adam has shown he deserves an opportunity there as well. … We know Adam has the ability and the quality to do it."

Real has strong odds to be the next homegrown signing after an impressive year for Bethlehem Steel. McKenzie and McMaster have also played in Bethlehem, and are in college at Wake Forest. Don't be surprised if they leave early.

"It's not far-fetched that in the future you're seeing a Real, [Auston] Trusty, McKenzie, [Keegan] Rosenberry back line," Curtin said, listing the players from left to right across the defense. "I understand [fans'] frustration and urgency, but the engine that we've talked about over the years is our youth academy. You're starting to see some fruit from that, and it's important."

Aaronson made his Steel debut in 2017, playing eight games on an amateur contract. Union academy director of talent identification Pete Pososki said he believes Aaronson is on a "really fast" development track.

"He was a very small, undersized kid and he's not anymore, but he's kept all of his soccer skills, and his athleticism is stepping up," Pososki said. "The experience he got with Steel was incredibly beneficial. … He was a kid who was tossed in and rose to the occasion."

Shakes got to train with the Union's senior team during one of its its 2017 preseason trips to Clearwater.

Now, a new set of players is entering the spotlight.

Wilson said when he told Rafanello of the national team call-up, the player "was almost emotional, it meant so much to him." Other players reacted in similar ways.

"I wouldn't underplay it, in terms of what it means," Wilson said. "One or two of their fathers have phoned me up and said, 'Is this for real?' "

Miscic has a story on and off the field. He is a son of Bosnian immigrants, and has shown real attacking prowess. Wilson doesn't like hyping individual talents, but he can't help seeing something special.

"In Selmir, there's a desire to be a professional that you see rarely," Wilson said. "You can see it burning in his eyes. He's desperate to succeed."

It can never be said enough times that just because a player has potential doesn't mean he'll become a great pro. These prospects still have plenty of work to do, and there's a long history of hype trains leaving stations before players have arrived in reality.

"When I spoke to the kids before we left for the Christmas break, the question I asked them was: 'What's next?' " Wilson said. "Because we're all patting ourselves on the back at the moment at the academy for a good half a season. We've won a lot of plaudits. We've had good results. We've put players on national teams. But the top ones never settle."

Wilson recalled attending a seminar featuring legendary former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a fellow Scotsman. Ferguson was asked what drove him, and answered: "When you get there, there is no 'there.' You're always looking for the next thing."

The Union have many resources to help players find the right balance between ambition and grounding. There are sports psychologists on the staff, and senior team players regularly offer advice.

Bedoya has worked with Fontana and Derrick Jones, who played for the U.S. at the under-20 World Cup last May. Medunjanin, a Bosnian national team veteran, has gotten to know Miscic and his family.

"A guy who's going through that hype train has had conversations about how to deal with those kinds of things," Pososki said.

Of course, the ultimate burden is on the player.

"It's got to be up to the kid," Pososki said. "You can only do so much."

At the moment, the Union's recipe has the right mix of ingredients. The national team's endorsement is proof.