Meet the 16-year-old from Cherry Hill who made U.S. soccer history this summer

Whenever rumors start flying about the potential for Union goalkeeper Andre Blake to be sold to a European team, questions inevitably follow about who else is in the team’s pipeline.

A player who joined that list this summer hasn’t even graduated high school yet.

Cherry Hill native Tomas Romero has shot up the ranks of Union prospects at just 16 years old. Though it might be a while before he reaches MLS, he has already seen action for the Union’s minor-league USL team, Bethlehem Steel, and trains regularly with the senior squad.

“He’s a guy that is in the discussion to take that next step with our club,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “A kid with a really bright future. He has done an excellent job, and really impressed the coaching staff.”

In April, Romero became the youngest goalkeeper in USL history to start a game. In August, he became the youngest goalkeeper in USL history to win a game. He has made seven appearances for the team overall.

“That’s a really difficult, critical position to play in the pro game, and he’s been able to do it at a young age,” Steel manager Brendan Burke said. “He has given himself every opportunity to be way ahead of the curve.”

Romero first got on the Union’s radar when he joined the Union Juniors youth program in middle school. Back then, he played for South Jersey youth soccer club Real Jersey FC. He was teammates with Medford-born midfielder Brendan Aaronson, who’s now another promising Union prospect — and who also made his Steel debut this year. Aaronson’s father connected Romero with the Union.

When Romero was offered acceptance to the Union’s full-time soccer high school in Wayne, the family faced a big decision. His mother had her eye on academics. His father, who emigrated from El Salvador to New Jersey as a teenager, was thrilled that his son had a chance at a soccer career.

Tomas would have to forsake the traditional high school experience. And someone would have to drive from Cherry Hill to Wayne and back twice a day.

In the end, the choice wasn’t difficult.

“You lose a little bit of your social life with the fact that everything you’re living is soccer,” he said. “It is a big decision, but when you love the game as much as you should when you go to the school, it outweighs the faults of it.”

Romero has progressed quickly since then, under the tutelage of Union goalkeeper coach Oka Nikolov. Though the former Union backup didn’t play much here, he brought over 20 years of experience in Germany’s Bundesliga when he signed. That has served him well as a coach.

Romero praised Nikolov for making “my technique better each day, as well as pushing me to become more of a man in goal — my work ethic, my body and size, everything.”

Burke invited Romero to join Steel’s bench at the end of last year. This year, Romero signed an amateur contract with Steel that allows him to keep his college eligibility.

He ended up making his debut in Steel’s season opener.

“I don’t think we thought he was quite ready for a game at that point, but circumstances dictated that it was time,” Burke said. “Everyone was confident in him, so we threw him in there.”

Romero has since landed not just on the Union’s radar, but on the El Salvador national team’s radar too. He joined that country’s under-17 team last year, and was on the roster for this year’s CONCACAF Under-17 World Cup qualifying tournament.

What if the U.S. national team comes calling some day? He’ll be able to switch allegiances as long as El Salvador’s senior team doesn’t play him in a game of consequence.

Romero demurred, understandably.

“It’s a hard decision, because I don’t want to be disrespectful to the country or anything,” he said. “But obviously, I want to play at the highest level and if that’s the U.S. in however many years, then that could be the decision.”

He has plenty of time to make the choice. But the fact that he has already thought about is another sign of his potential.