VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Philadelphia Union are embracing youth.
Head coach Jim Curtin has assembled a squad packed full of young talent for the season ahead, with 14 players on their roster aged 24 or under. Four of those players got a start in Sunday's 0-0 road draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It was something of a lackluster performance from both teams at times, but Curtin was delighted by his young squad’s promising start to this year's campaign.
"Chances were few and far between," Curtin said after the match. "I’m happy for my group to come to a very difficult place and get a point. We conceded one shot on goal, which is something to be proud of for the group, something to build on as we move towards our home opener against Toronto on Saturday."
Curtin handed a MLS debut to Derrick Jones, Philadelphia's 20-year-old Homegrown product, and the midfielder put in a calm and composed performance throughout.
Jones is the first Homegrown player to come through the ranks of the Union academy to USL side Bethlehem Steel and now the MLS team. Curtin was impressed by what he saw from the midfielder in his first minutes in the league.
"I thought he was the best player on the field, for both teams," Curtin said of Jones' performance. "I’m very happy with Derrick. I thought he was excellent. He broke up a ton of plays defensively. Of course, as a coach who’s been around Derrick for a long time, I was nervous for him on his debut.
"The first player in our club’s history to go through academy to Bethlehem Steel to the first team – from that standpoint, a proud moment for our club. I give him a ton of credit; he’s worked hard in the preseason. He’s earned this opportunity and he didn’t just blend in there tonight, he left a real mark on the game and I’m really happy for him.”
If expectation was weighing on Jones' shoulders, he didn't show it, and both he and Curtin praised veteran Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin for the part he played in keeping the rookie calm and focused.
"It felt great," Jones said of his MLS debut. "I had a lot of fun out there. The atmosphere was nice. [Medunjanin] just told me to go out there and have fun. He teaches me a lot at training. He talks to me all the time. I listen to him because he’s played a lot. I just follow his footsteps."
A focus on youth is a big part of Philadelphia's modus operandi this season and beyond, and Curtin was quick to praise his Vancouver counterpart Carl Robinson's "guts" for leading the way in MLS by putting so many young players on the pitch.
But he also aired a cautionary tone when it came to heaping praise on players like Jones and the Whitecaps' teenage prodigy Alphonso Davies.
"You don’t want to put too much pressure on young players," Curtin said. "Derrick did a great job but you do have to be careful. It’s only one game and you can’t get carried away. If you put too much pressure on these kids, it’s not fair. They’re important, and they’re getting better each and every week.
"But I’ve said before, in soccer, there’s not too young or too old, there’s only good and bad, and they’re good players that deserve to be on the field. They’re dominating games, so it was good to see tonight."