MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

The next wave of Philadelphia Union Homegrown Players are ready to break through

Anthony Fontana -- Celebrates Goal -- PHIvNE

It's easy to completely write off a 4-0 preseason loss, particularly while being without as many as nine key members on the first team. It's even easier to disregard that result when it's against essentially Atlanta United's strongest XI as they prepare for the Concacaf Champions League, with an extra week of training under their belt. 

But Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin took a lot from his side's loss. The starting lineup featured four Homegrown Player signings, a few players the Union are particularly high on.

“Look, the only way young players learn is in games like this," Curtin told reporters on a conference call Thursday. "Cole Turner and Jack de Vries, I told them, they’ve never really experienced anything like that in speed of play. Until you go through it, you’ll never know what it’s like. That was their first time going through something like that and they’ll be better for it.”

Turner, 17, and de Vries, 18, signed Homegrown deals earlier this offseason. De Vries won the club's fitness competition at the start of preseason, part of the reason why he was given the start against Atlanta.  

“With Atlanta, it doesn’t get much harder," Curtin said. "Cole had to deal with a striker valued in the world at about $10 million in Josef Martinez. That’s a tough first test. He had some good plays, some tough plays, but it’s important for them to see speed of play. It’s important for Jack de Vries to know when you receive a ball, you won’t have time to pick you head up and make decisions.”

While Turner and de Vries are the new Homegrowns in camp, the club are bullish on the progress of another.

Anthony Fontana, a 20-year-old midfielder, has played 217 minutes over the last two seasons with the Union and made 33 appearances with the Union's USL affiliate. On the club's first-team radar for a while, Fontana is set for a big opportunity in 2020.

“Anthony is a guy that we’re going to lean on more for minutes. ... He’s a guy pushing to be in the starting lineup," Curtin said. "I say that not to put pressure on him, but because I believe in him. That’s the next step for Anthony: Grabbing a hold of minutes and putting in performances that make the coaching staff unable to take him off the field. Yes, he’s still young so he’s going to have highs and lows, but this is an important year for him.”

Fontana sits in a crowded midfield depth chart, one that fellow Homegrown Brenden Aaronson successfully broke into last year. The club made Jamiro Monteiro a Designated Player after strong season on loan last year, while club captain Alejandro Bedoya remains a fixture. Philly added Matej Oravec and Jose Andres Martinez this offseason as well. 

Aaronson made 25 starts in the crowded midfield last year and, while the comparisons between Fontana and Aaronson are natural, Curtis sees Fontana more closely resembling Bedoya. 

“Comparing players is always tricky so I don’t want to get too over the top, but I think if we’re doing our job developing Anthony, I’d say he skews more towards Alejandro Bedoya’s type of game," Curtin said. "Because of his work-rate and ability to run, he’s a two-way player. Brenden has that also in his game because he works his tail off, but Brenden is more accustomed to playing that final ball and turning in tight spaces. We’re working with Anthony to always angle his body to move forward, he’s still growing. Maybe that’s why I see him more as a box-to-box midfielder that can get you goals, like Alejandro Bedoya."

The battle for places and minutes will be fierce as ever with the Union, and a strong preseason can go a long way toward securing a place in Curtin's starting XI for the regular season-opener at FC Dallas.

"Look, things can change quickly," Curtin said. "Opportunities will present themselves for both of those guys. Competition and performances in preseason will dictate who starts against Dallas.”