On a day when Major League Soccer welcomed prospects from across the world to its draft, the Union were thrilled to welcome prospects from their own backyard.
And those prospects were just as happy to join their hometown team.
Matthew Real and Mark McKenzie aren’t just top prospects from the Union academy. They also grew up in the Philadelphia area. Real is from Drexel Hill, and McKenzie is from Bear, Del.
“It’s a big moment for me — these last couple weeks for me have been surreal,” Real said Friday. “This still feels like a dream of mine, and finally I feel like I’ve accomplished it. But to this point, nothing for me is done. I still need to work hard to accomplish more and more.”
The draft gets a lot of hype, with fans in the ballroom and cameras swarming players. A few top college prospects become good pros. Perhaps Akron defender Joao Moutinho, who went No. 1 to Los Angeles FC, or Stanford defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce, who went No. 2 to the crosstown Galaxy, will do that.
But club academies are producing better players, and the Union know it.
“We had our draft [early] with Matthew Real and Mark McKenzie signing for us,” sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “We look at those kids that we have in the academy, and when I’m at a draft, that’s what I look for. You have players who are 21, 22 years old [at a draft], and we have kids who are 18, 19 coming through. You make that comparison and make choices based off of that.”
Real signed his first pro contract as a teenager, joining the Union’s minor-league USL team Bethlehem Steel. He said it gave him better experience than college soccer would have. That experience could make him the Union’s starting left back on opening day.
“I’ve been playing with guys who had major experience in MLS and overseas in Europe,” Real said. “I’m not saying the jump to MLS is going to be easy — it’s going to be hard — but I don’t think it’s going to be as difficult as it would be as a player coming from college.”
McKenzie spent one season at Wake Forest, then left to turn pro. He wanted to get a degree, and Wake is one of many top college programs that allow scholarship athletes to play for a year, then finish their academic work in the future.
“I felt, in order to achieve my dreams and to push myself to the next level, … I had to come back home,” he said. “After having conversations with my family, sitting down with myself and just thinking, and then eventually calling Earnie and seeing where they stood with me, I felt it was time to come back.”