CHESTER, Pa. – Sitting in a PPL Park suite during the College Cup, Philadelphia Union technical director Rob Vartughian smiled when Maryland freshman goalkeeper Zack Steffen made a diving save in the final minutes of Friday’s semifinal win over Virginia to lead the Terrapins into the national championship game.
It was a knowing smile because Vartughian had watched Steffen (above) do the same thing before, only in front of fewer people and with less at stake.
“I’ve seen him do that in training a number of times,” Vartughian told MLSsoccer.com. “He has that capability to make a special play.”
Steffen, a prized member of the Union Academy, ended up being named the College Cup’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player. And fellow Union Academy product Darius Madison, a sophomore forward at Virginia, joined Steffen on the College Cup all-tournament team.
But despite how well those two players performed at the College Cup – and how much they impressed the coaches who have been watching them play since the Union Academy’s inception – Vartughian said it is not a foregone conclusion that both will sign Homegrown contracts with Philly.
“I would say it’s up to them to continue developing and get better,” said Vartughian, who used to coach at Maryland. “Based on how it’s gone for them, they both have that potential. They obviously have to keep growing. If they continue to do that, like we expect them to, then for sure that’s something that’s in their future. We’re really happy with the strides they’ve taken.”
While the Union’s three previous Homegrown signings – Zach Pfeffer, Cristhian Hernandez and Jimmy McLaughlin – were inked to deals straight out of high school or, in McLaughlin’s case, after one year of college, Vartughian said “there’s no rush” to offer contracts to Madison or Steffen.
One reason for that is that both Homegrown players are currently honing their skills at two of the country’s premier college programs under the tutelage of well-respected coaches. If they come out of college early, they’d likely get most of their playing time in reserve games or with the Union’s USL PRO affiliate, the Harrisburg City Islanders.
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There’s especially little reason to rush along Steffen, Vartughian noted.
“It’s always easier to wait for a goalkeeper, because goalkeepers mature a lot later,” the technical director said. “Ultimately, he’s going to get games that we can’t provide him.”
While the days of seeing Steffen and Madison suit up for the Union at PPL Park might be a couple of years away, it was still a thrill for the Philadelphia coaches to see them play so well inside the stadium they may one day call home.
“For us, it gets us excited about our future,” Vartughian said. “As a first team, we’re closely intertwined with our academy. We’re all on the field with them, so we know these kids intimately. So for us to have them here at PPL, playing on college soccer’s biggest stage, and competing against each other, was pretty cool.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.