A new era will start this weekend for the Union’s reserve team when it plays its inaugural game in the new MLS Next Pro league.

First known as Bethlehem Steel and now called Union II, the Union’s reserve team is in its seventh full year of existence. From 2016-20, the team played in the USL Championship, along with some (though not all) other MLS reserve outfits.

When the pandemic delayed the launch of MLS’s new reserve league until this year, the Union had to find a new home for the reserve team in 2021, and ended up not finding one. The squad played a series of friendlies throughout the year, enough to be substantive but not enough to be satisfactory.

Now things will get back to normal in MLS Next Pro, a competition created by Major League Soccer for its clubs’ reserve teams to give young prospects playing time they can’t get at the first-team level.

Intriguingly, there is no salary cap, minimum salary or maximum salary. That has allowed front offices a lot of flexibility — in fact, far more than they have at the MLS level.

“I like the fact that we can kind of mold this team into the shape that we want it to look like,” Union II coach Marlon LeBlanc told The Inquirer this week, ahead of the season opener Sunday against FC Cincinnati 2 at Subaru Park.

Kickoff is set for 2 p.m., with all tickets $12 for general admission. The game will be streamed live online for free (as will all games leaguewide this year) at MLSNextPro.com.

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Development over winning

Union II will be one of many teams across MLS Next Pro that care more about developing players for the first team than winning games.

Fans will see the youth academy’s top amateur prospects get minutes before they turn pro. Eleven of a roster’s 24 places can go to amateurs, with a maximum of five allowed on the field during games. You’ll see many first-team players with the reserve squad on weekends when they don’t play in MLS games, to keep them in rhythm through the season.

Fans can also see some significant young international signings, and this is where the spending flexibility becomes a big deal. The Union paid a transfer fee of over $1 million to acquire 18-year-old forward José Riasco from Venezuelan club Deportivo La Guaira, a deal that took months of negotiations and finally crossed the line this week.

It’s a big investment for a prospect, more money than the Union have spent on many first-team signings. But sporting director Ernst Tanner is confident in the bet he has made, because of a bet he made at his last team before coming here.

In 2018, Tanner convinced his colleagues at Red Bull Salzburg to spend $3.7 million on a teenage striker named Karim Adeyemi, from the under-19 team of a German third-division club called Spielvereinigung Unterhaching.

Four years later, Adeyemi is one of Europe’s rising stars (and a teammate of Brenden Aaronson). After delivering nine goals and 11 assists in 39 games last season, he has 19 goals in 36 games this season, including three in the Champions League. Adeyemi even scored in his senior German national team debut, a World Cup qualifier against Armenia.

Salzburg will likely sell him for a huge sum this summer. German power Borussia Dortmund has bid $41 million for Adeyemi, and English giant Liverpool is also in the race.

Riasco probably won’t be a $41 million player here, of course. But Tanner believes the Union can make back their money and then some.

“We have watched Jose develop for some time,” Tanner said in a statement. “He’s a young striker with great potential and [we] look forward to seeing him grow and progress within our system.”

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Forward progress

Among academy products contracted with Union II so far, a name to watch is forward Nelson Pierre.

“Nelson is one that’s got an unteachable skill that’s just pace to burn,” LeBlanc said of the 17-year-old from Harrisburg. " He can absolutely fly, and I’m hoping that we can put him in a position where he’s scoring goals and he’s using that pace and getting better on daily basis.”

LeBlanc also knows well that the Union’s academy hasn’t yet produced a forward who plays regularly for the first team, the way it has done at every other position. Jack de Vries could have been it, but he went on loan to Italy’s Venezia before becoming established here. What happens after the loan ends this summer remains to be seen, not least because de Vries has scored 11 goals in 19 games for Venezia’s youth team.

“Center-forwards are the hardest players to produce around the world,” LeBlanc said. “And if you finally do get one that’s really good, you probably don’t get them for too long — especially if they’ve got dual citizenship with another country. … I do think we’re going to see a first-team player from the second team that’s a No. 9 in the next couple of years.”

Other notable signings include Venezuelan midfielders Maike Villero and Juan Perdomo; and forward Chris Donovan, a Drexel alum from Paoli. He was drafted by the Columbus Crew in this year’s third round, but didn’t make the cut.

» READ MORE: The Union’s trade of Jamiro Monteiro made room for the team’s rising stars. Now they have to play.

As LeBlanc continues to put the pieces together, he knows he might never truly finish the puzzle. Indeed, with players set to move in and out of the Union II squad all year, the system is set

“Our priority is to keep a smaller training roster within the second team to make sure that we’ve got room for the first-team guys to come in and get minutes,” LeBlanc said.

That will be a boon for players like Brandan Craig, a 17-year-old centerback who turned pro last year after being scouted by foreign teams including Liverpool. But he didn’t play a minute at the senior level, understandably given his age. Union II is the right place for him to hone his skills.

“He’s got soccer in his in his brain,” LeBlanc said. “He knows how to break lines with passes, he knows how to read angles well. And now he just gets to put it into practice on a weekly basis.”

LeBlanc’s own potential

LeBlanc has plenty of soccer in his brain, too. The longtime varsity men’s coach at West Virginia University (where he coached Jack Elliott and Ray Gaddis) joined the Union’s academy staff in 2020 after his son Kellan entered the academy the year before. (Kellan now plays for the Union’s under-15 team.)

The elder LeBlanc admitted he’s now higher up the coaching ranks than he initially thought he would be, and he knows what that means. If he succeeds as Union II coach, he’ll likely get offers to lead MLS teams.

That would be a big deal well beyond the Union.

There has never been a Black American-born manager in league history, and the desire for that wait to end goes right up to commissioner Don Garber. (Former USMNT player and current Colorado Rapids head coach Robin Fraser was born in Jamaica.)

Last December, Garber helped usher in a new mandate that MLS teams must interview least two non-white candidates for any open sporting-staff job, and at least one candidate must be Black.

For now, LeBlanc isn’t thinking too far ahead.

“I’ve learned over the over the years to enjoy the journey and not so much worry about what comes after,” he said. “Each day with the second team and in this organization is a new day, and a new challenge, and new things.”

But LeBlanc knows the landscape. He noted that new Los Angeles FC manager Steve Cherundolo (who is white) moved from the club’s former USL affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights, after one season.

Cherundolo was a U.S. national team legend as a player, and spent a long time coaching in Germany after playing there for 15 years. But his record in Las Vegas was 6-23-3.

“I figure if I win as least as many as he does, I’ll probably be in the picture,” LeBlanc said.

There wasn’t any malice in those words. Still, just like LeBlanc knows the potential in his players, he knows the potential in himself.