CHESTER, Pa. — When Derrick Jones emigrated from Ghana to a rough neighborhood in South Philadelphia just four years ago, he didn’t know anything about the Union, or how it would even be possible to play soccer for a living.
But after hooking on with Junior Lone Star FC, a club founded by West African immigrants living in Southwest Philadelphia, he was discovered by YSC Academy, the Philadelphia Union-run high school. And after graduating from there last year, he signed with the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC, before then inking a Homegrown deal with the Union on Tuesday — not only becoming the first player to showcase the club’s growing pipeline from the youth ranks to MLS, but also marking the culmination of a rather unique and tumultuous personal journey.
“You think of soccer in this country and, I won’t pull any punches, it’s a privileged sport,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Derrick represents an urban part of the city that’s tough. Derrick grew up tough, there’s no two ways about it. … He earned everything he’s got. I think, in that way, he plays ot the city of Philadelphia. He’s an underdog story. He’s a fighter.”
The 19-year-old Jones certainly recognizes how fortunate he is to get to MLS, saying after his first official practice Wednesday that he “never thought this was going to happen” when he first arrived in Philly with his family in 2012. But his confidence — and his game — grew when he was exposed to what Curtin called the “special environment” that YSC Academy provides. And his skills as a central midfielder were so noticeable that he was called into train with the Union as early as the 2015 preseason, giving him hope that a first-team contract could be on the horizon.
Becoming the first-ever player to sign with the expansion Steel — and getting the chance to play alongside seasoned professionals that Jones said he “learned a lot from” this season — certainly aided in his development as well.
“I knew if I worked hard that maybe it was going to happen,” Jones told MLSsoccer.com Wednesday. “So that’s what I kept doing — working hard.”
When Jones signed his deal Tuesday, he was joined by several members of his family, including his parents. He expects them all to be in attendance on Sunday, too, when the Union host Real Salt Lake at Talen Energy Stadium (7 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
Whether or not he plays, of course, remains to be seen. But Curtin sounded an optimistic note, saying said that Jones proved himself at the USL level, where he led Steel in goals (four) and assists (3) through 20 games, and performed admirably when called up to the Union to play in an international friendly against Crystal Palace on July 13.
“To give a comparison, Tony Tchani in our league is a guy who he has a similar build and frame to, and a similar skillset,” Curtin said. “[Derrick] has a little more speed and can cover some ground. I think that is a good comparison.
“Obviously he’s a young player and has a ton of room to grow. He had some great plays today in training and he also had some ones where we had to teach lessons. He’s 19 years old, a baby still — but a kid that has potential.”
Whether or not he gets much playing time time this season, the signing still represents a milestone for the organization since Jones is the first player to come from YSC Academy, which recently wrapped up its third year. He’s also the first Homegrown player signed since 2012 and the only one currently on the roster (the other only three in club history were Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez).
“All the players had a big smile on their faces when we introduced him today as a first-team player,” Curtin said. “It was a special moment, one that’s proud for me. I want to be known as a coach that plays young players and gives them the opportunity to show what they can do. At some point, my dream is to have six or seven of them out there with the right mix of international players sprinkled in and a competitive team that this city can embrace.”