Jim Curtin has said throughout his four years as Union manager that he wants to coach and develop young players. He has heard the “Play Your Kids” rallying cry across Major League Soccer, and he wants to do it.
As the Union begin their ninth season Saturday night, Curtin has his best opportunity yet to turn that dream into reality.
The Union’s starting lineup for their season opener against the New England Revolution (7 p.m., PHL17) is expected to have two products of the club’s youth academy: central defender Auston Trusty and attacking playmaker Anthony Fontana. Two more academy products, left back Matt Real and central midfielder Derrick Jones, are likely to be on the bench as potential substitutes.
“I’ve envisioned it since I was a little kid watching the Union play as a fan sitting in the stands,” Trusty said.
It will be a monumental step forward for the team when those names are read over the public-address system a few minutes before kickoff. The academy, based at YSC Sports in Wayne, has long been touted as a potential gold mine of talent. Fans have grown tired of the promises they’ve been given, not least because their team has lost a lot more than it has won over the years.
Now the future has become the present. This year, there will be tangible proof of the academy’s progress on the field at Talen Energy Stadium.
“It feels great,” Curtin said. “It’s a proud moment for the club. … With young players, you have to have trust, you have to have patience, and they’ve earned this opportunity and right.”
Curtin admitted to being a little “nervous,” in a way he called “maybe the dad-in-me type of feeling.” But he left no doubt that he’s ready to turn the players loose.
“You know that they’re going to do well, you know that they’re going to be set up for success as best you can, but you kind of have to let them do it,” he said. “That’s the only way they’re going to get better, and the only way they’re going to learn.”
There is symbolism in the fact that all of the aforementioned players have roots in the Philadelphia area. Trusty is from Media; Fontana is from Newark, Del.; Real is from Drexel Hill; and Jones was raised in Southwest Philadelphia after emigrating from Ghana at a young age. They and reserve defender Mark McKenzie, from Bear, Del., have grown up together on and off the field.
“We’ve all been together since we were really young,” Fontana said. “Seeing each other progress and helping each other progress, it’s an amazing feeling.”
More important, there is genuine talent. Jones and Trusty played for the U.S. national team at last year’s under-20 World Cup. Real and Fontana earned significant experience at Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s minor-league USL team, last year, and were scouted by the national team this year.
These players have shown behind the scenes that they’re ready. Now their time has come to show it on stage.
Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution
Saturday, 7 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium
TV/online streaming: PHL17, philadelphiaunion.com locally, MLSSoccer.com nationally. Both online streams will be free of charge.
Series history: Union 10 wins, Revolution 6 wins, 4 ties
At Talen Energy Stadium: Union 6 wins, Revolution 3 wins, 2 ties
New England players to watch
Midfielder Lee Nguyen
The 31-year-old is the best American creator in MLS, and has been underrated nationally for some time. But he didn’t help his own cause this winter by holding out of training camp in order to force a trade. He didn’t get it, and still wants out. Until then, Nguyen must mend fences with new manager Brad Friedel — a U.S. national team legend making his pro coaching debut.
Forward Juan Agudelo
Eight years, ago, he blazed onto the scene as a national team goal-scoring sensation. Yes, really: eight years ago. And he’s just 25. What’s next for him? Here’s one barometer: Agudelo has never scored 10 goals in a single MLS season. His eight last year marked his best total. If he can raise that, he’ll likely raise his profile again.
Goalkeeper Cody Cropper
As the U.S. national team starts a new era, there will be a major competition at goalkeeper for the first time in many years. Cropper, 25, has played with U.S. youth national teams and developed at English club Southampton. A good year with the Revs could put him in the national team conversation. But that could depend as much on players in front of him as his own skill.