The Union signed one of their more intriguing youth academy prospects, defender Nathan Harriel, to his first professional contract on Friday.

Harriel, 19, will spend the rest of the year with the Union’s minor-league team in the USL Championship, then move up to MLS in 2021. He plays primarily as a right back, but can also play centerback.

“Nate is a promising young player who has a lot of potential to thrive in our style of play,” sporting director Ernst Tanner said in a statement. “He can dominate wide areas with his speed and looks to play forward quickly after winning the ball. His versatility on the backline makes him a valuable asset to the team, and we look forward to watching him develop as he continues to progress through our system.”

A Tampa-area native, Harriel moved north in 2018 to attend the Union academy’s high school in Wayne. He made his debut with the USL team, Union II, as an amateur last year and played over 1,800 minutes across 23 games. This year, he played in Union II’s season opener before the coronavirus pandemic stopped the campaign.

Along the way, he has earned call-ups to U.S. youth national teams in the under-18, under-19, under-20 and under-23 age groups.

“I’ve been working for it my whole entire life,” Harriel said. “When I came to Philadelphia, everything really changed for me, my mindset changed. Getting those games last year [in the USL] and being a younger player, it gave me a lot of confidence.”

The Union also published a video of a call Tanner had with Harriel to celebrate the signing.

“When I saw you the first time training … I knew that you were able to do it,” Tanner said. “We are opening up a stage now where you really can do a career. You have all the physical conditions, you have the right attitude, the right mindset. And of course, you always need some kind of luck, but you know to work – and the ones who work hard, they deserve luck.”

Nathan Harriel posing for a picture in the Union USL team's jersey.
Philadelphia Union
Nathan Harriel posing for a picture in the Union USL team's jersey.

Harriel’s luck extended to a tangle with Major League Soccer’s complex rulebook. Even though he played for the Union’s academy, because he grew up in Tampa he was in Orlando City’s homegrown catchment area. So Orlando was able to ransom his rights, and took the Union’s first-round draft pick next year.

“We understand that particular circumstances made him join Philadelphia,” Orlando sporting director Luiz Muzzi said, “and [we] are happy to come to a deal that offers us a valuable first round draft pick.”

It’s not actually that “valuable,” though, and the Union have led MLS in proving that. If your academy is as strong as the Union’s is, you have better players than you can get in the draft. Tanner has traded or passed on all of the Union’s draft picks in the last two seasons, and 2021 will make it three straight years that he’s dealt his first-round pick.

If Harriel plays more than whoever Orlando drafts – and the odds of that are pretty good – the Union will have won another bet.

Coincidentally, the Union and Orlando meet in MLS’ tournament at Disney World on Monday (8 p.m, TUDN and Twitter). The winner will finish in first place in their group.

Union II’s season resumes Saturday night at Subaru Park against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, as the USL Championship becomes the first U.S. soccer league to play games in teams’ home stadiums. Some USL teams have had fans in the stands, but Union II won’t for at least the rest of this month.