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Jim Curtin: Union made ‘a strong statement’ by trading away draft picks to boost academy prospects

The Union's decision to trade away all their draft picks was a vote of confidence in the club's academy prospects. More of those players may get pro contracts in the coming weeks.

Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin.
Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer

CHICAGO — As the crowd filed into the ballroom that hosted the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday, a few jokes went around about whether the Union would bother showing up after trading away all their picks earlier this week.

They did show up, for the record, and Jim Curtin even was kind enough to stick around for much of the proceedings. But there was never any sense that they’d do anything, and sporting director Ernst Tanner left about an hour after the draft started.

“I think we made a strong statement,” Curtin said. “There’s still going to be a few kids this year that get selected that go on to have great careers, and that’s one pathway that can be successful still. We believe, though, that our kids — 17, 18 years old — [have] much more years and room for growth and development under our own pipeline. ... That is a different pathway than maybe some other clubs, but at the same time I think our actions spoke loudly.”

Curtin also said the Union’s message wasn’t just intended for fans and rival clubs. It was meant for players in the team’s youth academy whose path to the pros might have been blocked by draft picks.

“We believe in them, we want them to be the ones that are coming through,” Curtin said of the academy prospects. “And they deserve to be, quite frankly, because they have a wealth of talent. I don’t want to slight the draft, but this is the direction we’re going in.”

The Union have already signed two academy products to MLS contracts for the coming year, midfielder Brenden Aaronson and goalkeeper Matt Freese. A third academy product, midfielder Zach Zandi, signed a USL contract with Bethlehem Steel this week.

Curtin indicated that more academy products are likely to be signed to pro contracts before the season starts, and perhaps even before the team heads to Clearwater, Fla., for preseason training at the end of this month.

“Absolutely, that’s very likely,” he said. “It’s no secret that we have some roster spots to fill. There’s discussions that are going on with some really talented young kids that I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with. We’re going through that process right now, and we have some that are close”

Curtin wouldn’t name names, but one player who has been the subject of much speculation is winger Issa Rayyan. Currently at Duke University, he won ACC freshman of the year honors this past fall. He has trained with the Union’s first team in the past, and Curtin said “we liked what we saw.”

“His talent speaks for itself — he’s a guy that we’re very high on,” Curtin said. “He’s certainly one of those that’s on our radar and playing very well.”

Sporting director Ernst Tanner said some of the upcoming academy signings are more likely to go to Bethlehem Steel, because that team’s roster needs filling out. He also said that there are more foreign signings coming for both the Union and Steel.

“We are very close with a goalkeeper, we are in very good discussions with fullbacks and midfielders,” he said. “I’ve been in Africa [scouting], and we will soon announce something.”