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Union sign academy-bred defenders Matt Real, Mark McKenzie

It wouldn't be surprising if Real is the Union's starting left back on opening day.

Philadelphia Union academy prospect Matthew Real (right) in action for Bethlehem Steel, the club’s minor-league USL team.
Philadelphia Union academy prospect Matthew Real (right) in action for Bethlehem Steel, the club’s minor-league USL team.Read moreCourtesy of Bethlehem Steel

The Union still haven't made the big-money, big-talent signing they repeatedly promised would happen this winter. Their only roster moves so far have been a promotion from their minor league USL team and a few re-signings.

Their fans are understandably restless. They want a reason for optimism that this year might be better than last year.

On Thursday, they finally got something tangible.

The Union signed defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie, both products of the team's youth development academy, to MLS contracts. The deals have been expected for some time, and bring further proof that the academy is capable of bearing professional-caliber fruit.

Real, 18, is a left back. He played 18 games for the Union's minor-league USL team, Bethlehem Steel, last year, and has been ticketed for the top flight ever since. It wouldn't be surprising if Real is in the Union's starting lineup on opening day. He'll get every chance to earn the job during the preseason, which begins Monday.

"Left back is a difficult position, and Matt was exceptional against good competition for Steel last year," Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. "He brings an attacking-minded outlook to our fullback corps. We look forward to seeing him take the next step here in Philadelphia."

McKenzie, also 18, is a centerback. He spent last summer at Bethlehem, and last autumn at Wake Forest, where he helped the Demon Deacons earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Though he earned a MLS deal, he'll likely shuttle between Chester and Bethlehem in 2018.

"He made a difficult decision to leave school to sign with us, and we don't take that lightly," Stewart said. "We look forward to helping him with his development as he takes the next step with the Union."

Both players have local roots: Real is from Drexel Hill, and McKenzie grew up in Bear, Del.

In addition to their Union deals, Real and McKenzie have drawn interest from the U.S. national team. Both attended a recent youth national team program scouting camp in Florida, along with many other Union prospects.

Both players will be officially introduced at Friday's Major League Soccer SuperDraft at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The event starts at 11 a.m. and is free of charge. The Union have no picks in the first two rounds, which are the ones conducted in public; the third and fourth rounds will be held via conference call on Sunday.

But with Real and McKenzie in the fold, they have two players who are just as good as any they'd get in the draft, and perhaps better long-term prospects.