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How the Union got Christian Pulisic, Kaká, and Fernandinho to do Zoom chats with their prospects during the coronavirus lockdown

From the academy to the USL team, the Union's coaching staff has an impressive Rolodex. They've been putting it to use during the coronavirus lockdown.

Christian Pulisic went from Hershey to Germany's Borussia Dortmund to England's Chelsea, above. Once upon a time, he played in a youth tournament for a Union-branded team.
Christian Pulisic went from Hershey to Germany's Borussia Dortmund to England's Chelsea, above. Once upon a time, he played in a youth tournament for a Union-branded team.Read moreAnthony Devlin / AP

In late April, a video from the Union’s YouTube page went viral on the kinds of European soccer websites that normally don’t pay much attention.

If you watched it over here, you might have had the same reaction as other Union fans: Was that really Fernandinho, the Manchester City and Brazil star, on a Zoom call with kids from the Union’s youth academy?

Yes, it was. And it was one of many such events the Union have held during the coronavirus pandemic.

Another Brazilian legend, 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká, also talked to Union academy players. So did Gilberto Silva, the former Arsenal stalwart.

Quinton Fortune, the South African Manchester United forward of the early 2000s, took a turn. West Ham manager David Moyes, a Premier League veteran, spoke to the Union academy’s coaching staff.

And in early May, there was perhaps the biggest headline grabber of all. Christian Pulisic got on the line with players from the Union’s USL team, some of whom became pros as teenagers like Pulisic, the Hershey native, did.

How did the Union pull all of this off? The coaching staff has an impressively big Rolodex.

The Union’s World Cup winner

Start with Kléberson, whom fans might remember played here in 2013. He didn’t play much, but he liked the town and the team. In 2017, he came back to take a coaching job in the academy.

If you know his whole career, you can start to connect the dots. If you’re a newer fan, settle in for a fun history lesson.

Kléberson isn’t just the only former World Cup winner to have played for the Union. He’s one of just 11 World Cup winners to ever play in MLS.

In 2002. Kléberson, Kaká, and Gilberto Silva were on the Brazil squad that won the nation’s record-setting fifth men’s World Cup crown. Kléberson was a starter in the final, a 2-0 win over Germany, and assisted on Ronaldo’s title-clinching goal.

Kaká was just 20 years old back then, the youngest player on the team. Kléberson, at 22, was No. 3. (The guy in between them, also 22, was superstar-in-the-making Ronaldinho.) Gilberto Silva and Ronaldo — the original Ronaldo — were 25.

In the summer of 2003, Kléberson moved to Manchester United for two seasons. He was teammates there with Fortune, and they helped the Red Devils win the 2004 FA Cup.

What about Fernandinho? The answer might surprise even Premier League diehards. Both players came out of the same Brazilian club, Atlético Paranaense. When Kléberson began his professional career there in the early 2000s, Fernandinho — a central midfielder of similar style — was in the club’s youth system.

“I always gave him advice in training, and he observed everything — and then he exploded,” Kléberson said. “He was very quick, he was very smart, his quality in midfield was unbelievable. I would joke with other guys, ‘Oh, I need to go away from here quickly, because Fernandinho’s growing fast and he’s going to take my space.’ "

On the Zoom call, Fernandinho noted that Kléberson gave him a pair of cleats when he was a teenager.

“He was my biggest idol in football when I started to play,” Fernandinho said. “He was a role model for me, inside the pitch and outside the pitch.”

The 2002 World Cup was nearly 20 years ago now. The kids Kléberson teaches now weren’t born yet. Fortunately, he has YouTube highlights to play with the stories he tells. And with these Zoom calls, he can take things to another level.

“When I was a kid, I never had an opportunity to talk with players like that," Kléberson said.

Ties to Scotland and Germany

Union academy director Tommy Wilson and Moyes have been friends since the early 1990s, when the two Scotland natives were teammates at Scottish club Dunfermline Athletic. They’ve stayed so close that seven years ago, Moyes wrote a recommendation for Wilson’s work visa to move to Philadelphia.

The Pulisic connection might be the most surprising. It has nothing to do with his Hershey roots or his Philadelphia sports fandom (especially the 76ers). Sven Gartung, who became coach of the Union’s USL team in February, has known Pulisic since Pulisic first started at Borussia Dortmund’s youth team five years ago.

Gartung has been under the radar since joining the Union, in part because he coached just one game before the USL season stopped. (His predecessor, Brendan Burke, is now the organization’s chief scout.)

Through mutual acquaintances, Gartung knew of Pulisic before the player arrived in Germany in 2015. Back then, Gartung ran the youth academy at German second-division club Eintracht Braunschweig. His teams played against Pulisic’s Dortmund squad, and the connection grew stronger. The connection has remained through all their world travels.

“I asked, he agreed, and then we did it,” Gartung said. If only it was that simple for all of us.

Pulisic wasn’t just asked about his experiences on the field.

“It was also big time into, like, OK, how do we behave in a new culture?” Gartung said. “How was it to learn a new language? How was it to make friends in a very competitive environment?”

If Pulisic was starting his soccer career these days, the Union might have been able to get him into their academy. Of course, when a club like Borussia Dortmund comes calling, you don’t say no — especially if you have easy access to a European passport, which Pulisic did.

There was, though, one time when Pulisic and the Union crossed paths. In 2012, before the club had a formal academy, Pulisic played in a tournament for a Union-branded under-15 team made of kids from area youth clubs.

If you’re wondering what if, you’re allowed. There isn’t much to do these days, after all. But know that, as Wilson said, the Union had “really no chance of signing him.”

Gartung said Pulisic “wished the MLS team good luck, and the USL boys as well."

That’s plenty for now.