In an ideal world, Matthew Real would have earned his MLS debut by rising up the Union depth chart instead of being the next man up after a teammate's injury.
But when Fabinho suffered a sprained MCL and torn meniscus against Columbus earlier this month, Real's path to the field got accelerated.
It isn't official yet and won't be until an hour before Saturday's 9 p.m. kickoff, but the odds seem strong that the 18-year-old Drexel Hill native will make his first MLS start when the Union visit the Colorado Rapids.
Union manager Jim Curtin wouldn't say it publicly before the team left for Denver on Wednesday, a few days earlier than usual to get acclimated to the high altitude. As usual, he didn't want to tip his hand to the opposition.
It's a safe bet, though, that Curtin didn't ask the U.S. Soccer Federation to send Real home from a trip to Europe with the under-20 national team without a plan to play him.
Ray Gaddis is the other option. The veteran right back plays left back when needed and is a consummate loyal player.
Real, as Curtin acknowledged, is "the true left back and has played that position his whole life."
Although Real will have some jet lag to overcome — he was in Philadelphia for only a few days before heading west — he doesn't lack for game fitness. He played all 90 minutes in the U.S.' first game in Spain, a 2-0 loss to France's under-20s on March 21, and the second half of a 1-0 win over France on March 23. Before heading to Europe, he put in a full shift in Bethlehem Steel's season opener March 18.
Real conceded that the preseason injury "did put a little bit of a block in the way." But he said, "Everything that I've been through since then, with the Steel game, the U-20 camp, has been prepping my fitness more and more for this."
Curtin said U.S. coach Tab Ramos told him that he played Real for only a half in the second game to leave some fuel in the tank for a potential MLS debut this weekend.
"I'm grateful to Tab and the U.S. national team staff for understanding the need. … They understand that it's important for young players to be getting 90 minutes in MLS as a professional," Curtin said. "Matthew is a guy who, and Tab agrees, is very good at getting forward and has the engine to make a lot of aggressive runs and overlaps."
If Real does play at Colorado — and that quote from Curtin was a pretty big hint — he'll be the fourth Union academy product to take the field for the senior team this season. One of his predecessors, Auston Trusty, will likely line up next to him on the back line. They are 18 and 19 years old, respectively, but have already played together for quite a while.
"Me and Trusty have gone way back since playing next to each other in the academy … carrying on to the Steel and now here in training every day," Real said. "That's definitely helped for sure, and the more chemistry we build, the better it will be for our future here."
Centerback Mark McKenzie, another academy product, will be one of the defenders on the bench Saturday. The 19-year-old Bear, Del., native was also part of the U.S. under-20 team in Spain and stayed all the way through the trip. After the two games against France, the U.S. played big Spanish club Atlético Madrid's under-21 team on March 27.
That meant flying back from Europe on Wednesday, arriving in Philadelphia in the afternoon Eastern time and meeting the Union at the airport to fly with them to Denver. It was a bit hectic, but his game action has him in rhythm.
McKenzie is needed because Josh Yaro is out with a groin injury, and Richie Marquez is sidelined for a few weeks after sports hernia surgery.
"Mark is pushing and is a guy who has gotten better each and every day," Curtin said. "I have no hesitation if there's an injury early to put him out there."
Haris Medunjanin retired from playing for Bosnia & Herzegovina's national team this week. His 60th and final appearance for his country came Tuesday in a scoreless tie with Senegal in Le Havre, France.
A child refugee of the war that wrecked Bosnia in the 1990s, Medunjanin grew up in the Netherlands and played for Dutch youth national teams. He switched allegiance to his native country in 2009, and went on to play in Bosnia's first appearance at the World Cup, in 2014. Among his souvenirs from the tournament was Lionel Messi's jersey from Bosnia's game against Argentina.
Medunjanin was a key player in Bosnia's efforts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They fell short in the final days of the campaign.
"I've been thinking about it for a long time and made this difficult decision," Medunjanin told the Bosnian soccer federation's website. "The fact that we did not qualify for the World Cup is a sign that we, a little older players like me, need to give the younger guys a chance, and I wish them success in the coming times."
Union at Colorado Rapids
Saturday, 9 p.m. at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, Colo.
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Union's record: 1-0-1, 4 points (5th in the East); 0-0-0 on the road
Colorado's record: 0-1-1, 1 point (10th in the West); 0-0-1 at home
Series history: Rapids 3 wins, Union 2 wins, 5 ties
At Dick's Sporting Goods Park: Rapids 1 win, Union 1 win, 2 ties
Rapids players to watch
GK Tim Howard: Colorado has made some big changes this year under new coach Anthony Hudson, but the U.S. national team goalkeeping legend remains a key presence in net.
M Edgar Castillo: The winger/outside back also has a U.S. national team pedigree, including at the 2016 Copa América Centenario. He moved to MLS in January after 12 years in Mexico. He'll keep Keegan Rosenberry busy with runs up the left flank.
M Marlon Hairston: Another speedy outside player with a few tricks up his sleeve. He'll be on the right side of the field, and will give Real a good test.