CHESTER, Pa.—Every school day for three years, Anthony Fontana woke up at 5:45 a.m. and returned to his Delaware home around 8 p.m.
Yes, traveling an hour-and-a-half each way just to get to high school presented plenty of challenges, particularly for his parents before he got his driver’s license. But for Fontana, going to YSC Academy — the Philadelphia Union-affiliated private high school for the club’s youth academy players — was something he knew he had to do.
“They were long days,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “Thankfully it was all worth it.”
That much was certainly made clear Saturday when Fontana, signed to a Homegrown Player contract after his junior year at YSC, scored a goal in his MLS debut, helping the Union to a 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution in front of 16,452 fans.
More than 100 of those fans, by his estimation, were friends or family members, including several of his former classmates from the Wayne, Pennsylvania school.
“They were real happy for me, all of them,” Fontana said. “Their reaction was pretty much the same as my other friends and family. They congratulated me, then said, ‘Come on, focus, let’s try to do it again.’”
Fontana has known some of the players and coaches in the academy for almost a decade now, first signing up to play for Union Juniors when he was 9 and the Union had yet to play an MLS game. One of his first coaches was Union head coach Jim Curtin, who joined the academy ranks during the club’s 2010 expansion season after ending his own nine-year MLS playing career.
Curtin said he could tell right away that Fontana was “special,” and Fontana appreciated the support he got the 2-to-3 days a week he came up from Delaware — even though the club’s youth program was still a few years away from actually being a full-blown academy.
“I always liked him — thankfully,” Fontana said of Curtin, who moved from the youth ranks to a first-team assistant coaching role in 2012 to the head coaching job in 2014. “He was always a great coach, always helped me, real hands on. Now that he’s my coach still, it makes it even better.”
When YSC Academy — which is located next to the academy training complex in Wayne — opened its doors in 2013, Fontana jumped at the opportunity to spend even more time in the area, far from his Newark, Delaware home, enrolling as a freshman a year later. And after continuing to show his promise in academy games and with USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, he also never had any doubts about signing a professional contract the summer after his junior year.
“I knew my whole life I wanted to be a pro,” said Fontana, who’s currently taking online classes and hopes to graduate from high school in June. “The sooner it could happen, I wanted it to happen. It came then, so there was no second thought in my mind.”
Getting the chance to start — and score — in his first MLS game was probably more than many people expected from the 18-year-old. And with attacking midfielder Borek Dockal in tow, the teenager will likely come off the bench for most of his rookie season.
But since Dockal has only been with the club for a couple of weeks, Curtin indicated that Fontana may still play a big role when the Union next take the field vs. Columbus Crew SC on March 17.
“Borek’s been brought into start, there’s no question about that,” the Union coach said. “But at the same time, he’s gaining fitness every day. Anthony showed he can do a good job. I don’t think Borek is going to be ready for 90 minutes right off the bat, so if he starts, at some point someone’s gonna have to come in for him. And if he doesn’t start and comes off the bench, someone is gonna have to start. It becomes a role that needs to be shared, at least initially.”
Fontana certainly showed he’s capable of doing good things at the No. 10 spot, but Curtin said his favorite position is the No. 8 — one reason why he at times dropped deeper on the field than the coaches may have liked last Saturday.
But having the flexibility to play him in both spots — while Fontana learns from the team’s current No. 8, captain Alejandro Bedoya, as well as Dockal, their prized Designated Player signing — could be invaluable for both the club and the teenager.
“Everyone obviously wants a spot,” Fontana said. “But I know [Dockal] has so much experience and I can learn a lot from him. And I’m planning on doing that in the future.”