Union ready to bring elite prospect Anthony Fontana to senior team

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Anthony Fontana, one of the most promising prospects in the Philadelphia Union’s academy, will join the senior team starting in 2018.

Anthony Fontana hasn’t been escorted through the American soccer youth development ranks on the same kind of hype train as some of his contemporaries across the country. But if you ask around the Union’s academy you’ll hear praise that is impossible to ignore. Indeed, many say he’s arguably the crown jewel of the academy at the moment.

It won’t be long before Fontana isn’t a secret anymore. After giving the 17-year-old a taste of senior-team action in Saturday’s exhibition against Swansea City, the Union announced Monday that Fontana will come to the big leagues starting in 2018.

“It’s awesome – there’s really not a better feeling than this,” Fontana said. “There’s been a lot of hard work from me and from the whole organization just to get all this done. I couldn’t be happier right now.”

A native of Newark, Del., Fontana entered the Union’s academy program in 2010, the club’s first year. He made his way up the club’s youth team ranks, and along the way got invited to a U.S. under-18 national team camp in April 2016. Three months later, he began playing for the club’s minor-league USL team, Bethlehem Steel, last July. This past February, he got his first taste of life with the senior team when he joined the Union’s preseason training trip to Florida. While there, he played in two preseason games.

Jim Curtin has tracked Fontana’s growth since well before he became the Union’s head coach. Even before coming to the coaching staff as an assistant in 2012, Curtin had a key role in overseeing the early years of the Union’s academy.

“It feels like a long time ago,” Curtin said. “To see him grow as a young player and as a young man has been impressive. The fearlessness is always the one thing that jumps out. Where [sporting director Earnie Stewart] and I get excited is when we see young players that aren’t scared. To go into preseason games with us against top MLS players, to go on the field this past weekend against Premier League players, and not be nervous, and just jump in.”

Fontana really did do just that in Saturday’s exhibition game against Swansea City. He played the last 14 minutes of the 2-2 draw, and gave the fans in attendance a glimpse of his potential with a cutback dribble and shot that went just over the crossbar.

Now he is the Union’s sixth all-time homegrown player, a title given to products of clubs’ youth development academies. More importantly, he is the third such player to reach the senior level since Stewart became sporting director.

“It’s still a long road … This is the first part in getting there,” Stewart said. “But [he’s been] given the opportunity to sign a professional contract, live the life of a professional, and be able to put those hours in that are needed to make that debut in a full MLS game. And hopefully, Jim at some point will start him.”

The last part of that message certainly got through.

“The game speaks for itself, and he has talent,” Curtin said. “There’s no such thing as young or old — there’s just good and bad, and he’s a very good player with a bright future.”

Stewart offered even higher praise of Fontana’s potential – and with it, a fascinating insight into the former U.S. national team star’s development philosophy:

When I go watch all these academy games, the things that we certainly look for in the game that’s there today is that decision-making is a great part of this game. That is one of the things that you look for with academy players – how they encounter situations and what kinds of solutions do they find, and have they seen that before, that the solution for the problem actually gets there.

Anthony is one of those players that, through his experiences with the academy and Bethlehem Steel, always seems to have solutions already in his mind. That means he scopes and scans the field as you should as a player, and that’s why he’s always a step ahead in a lot of the solutions that he has. That is one of the main things that I have always seen, and I know that our coaching staff has always seen that in Anthony as well. Just from those experiences, you can see that he can do it every single time, no matter what the situation is in front of him, and with which group it is.

While Saturday’s game was the first time Union fans got a chance to see Fontana play in person, the decision to offer him a contract had already been made. Stewart also dropped a hint that there might already be interest from foreign clubs in acquiring Fontana’s services someday.

“When you have good players, you need to lock them down, because unfortunately, we live in a country where academy players can still leave for zero dollars to other clubs,” Stewart said. “It would be kind of stupid of myself to expose very good players to a situation where they’d be able to leave the club and we would not [benefit] from the great work that has been done with the academy, and Bethlehem Steel, and training with the first team. … If you have a talent like this in amongst you, it would be a shame if they would leave for zero dollars.”

That is a backhanded reference to the fact that Major League Soccer teams don’t participate in the global system of “solidarity payments,” money sent down the line to a player’s past teams whenever he’s sold to the next one. It is especially crucial for youth clubs that reinvest that money in facilities and scouting.

Stewart can take some consolation in the fact that Fontana can’t leave until he’s 18 anyway, because FIFA bars the international transfer of minors. But it’s worth noting that when the Union signed their last homegrown player, defender Auston Trusty, Curtin explicitly noted that one of the reasons for doing the deal at the time was that “there was a lot of international interest” in the Media native. There have also been rumors of interest in Derrick Jones, and not just because of his stellar performances at this year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

The ultimate measuring stick, of course, is whether these players can lead the Union to a trophy. But when a team’s prospects are getting serious attention from potential foreign buyers, it’s a big sign that the academy is doing its job right.