Matt Real knows his first year with the Union didn’t live up to expectations.
The Drexel Hill native first took the field as an 18-year-old last April, three months after turning pro out of the Union’s academy. He came with the promise of enough talent to make him the Union’s starting left back, which the Union needed. And given the scarcity of American left backs across the landscape, the hype meter went up even more.
Perhaps there was a bit too much hype. Real hadn’t earned a starting spot when the season kicked off, and ended up playing just four times for the Union in 2018: three league games in April and an early-round U.S. Open Cup contest in June. He looked good at times, but too often looked overmatched against older and more experienced opposition.
Real was sent down to Bethlehem for the rest of the year and was able to get more seasoning with less spotlight. To his credit, he was realistic about not being ready for the big-time quite yet.
“Obviously, it didn’t look like I was really ready to step into MLS this year,” he said recently. “In my games in MLS, I don’t think I had strong performances. I obviously had defensive lapses that could have been much better.”
The time at Bethlehem helped considerably. Real played 21 games and logged more than 1,800 minutes, highlighted by a 120-minute shift in the playoff win at Pittsburgh. He even delivered from the penalty spot in the shootout, helping Steel get its first postseason victory.
Real’s good play earned recognition not just within the USL, but also from the U.S. national team program. He played a big role in the U.S. under-20 team’s recent World Cup qualifying success, splitting the captain’s armband with Union colleague Mark McKenzie. The honor came in part because unlike other U-20 players, Real and McKenzie were getting substantial playing time for their clubs.
“I know so many players who have been in and out of the U-20 cycles who they come in as a big name, they’re signed with the team that they play for, but they don’t get any minutes,” Real said. “It’s not good as young players to be kind of pushed aside. ... It’s really good what we have here.”
Having helped the U.S. book a trip to that World Cup, set for next May and June in Poland, Real will be a prime candidate to play in the tournament. He’ll also stand a fair chance of being involved in the 2020 Olympic cycle in the under-23 age group. And his odds will increase because he has started to play some centerback, too. Versatility is a big asset when competing for the limited spots on a tournament roster.
(It will also help Real adjust to new Union sporting director Ernst Tanner’s playbook, especially when Tanner wants to play a 3-5-2 formation.)
“Having the experience that I’ve got playing centerback gave me more knowledge of the ins and outs of that position," Real said. “I think it will definitely help me in my development as a player that I can play multiple positions, especially for the World Cup.”
Now Real is ready to step back up to MLS. He knows the Union need him to win the starting job this year, and he wants to do so.
“The attacking side of my game is there, but defensive awareness, being aware of my surroundings, one-on-one defending, I’ve been focusing in on really, really hard during my time at Bethlehem,” he said. “I really feel like I’m really comfortable at the USL level doing that. To the point where I think it’s really time to re-challenge myself stepping up to MLS. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity again to do so.”