CHESTER, Pa. – It wasn’t until a couple of minutes before warmups began that Leo Fernandes found out he'd be an unexpected starter for the Philadelphia Union’s home opener against the New England Revolution on Saturday.
“I didn’t even tell my family,” Fernandes said. “I wanted them to be surprised.”
After the under-the-radar midfielder recorded the game’s only assist and played a full 90 minutes for the first time in his MLS career to lead the Union to a 1-0 victory, he probably surprised more than just his family members.
“It’s a great day,” Fernandes said. “One of the best days of my life.”
The Brazilian-born midfielder only played a total of 281 minutes in his rookie season last year and figured to have tough time earning more playing time this season with so many new midfield additions.
But when Union captain Brian Carroll came down with flu-like symptoms and had to be scratched from the starting lineup, Fernandes got the nod to start as an attacking midfielder with Maurice Edu dropping back into Carroll’s holding midfield role.
“He literally found out three minutes before we walked out for warmups that he was going in,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “You never know when your opportunity is going to come.”
Hackworth said he told Fernandes that he “didn’t have to be the best player on the field” – but the 22-year-old Brazilian tried his hardest to disregard that advice.
Just a few minutes after Jack McInerney nearly redirected his blast into the net, Fernandes helped get the Union on the board in the 30th minute when he made a clever turn around Andrew Farrell and played in a cross that Sebastien Le Toux finished.
Throughout the game, he also linked up well with high-profile midfield acquisitions Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira – although for Fernandes, it was simply a thrill just to be on the same field as them.
“Those guys are world-class players,” Fernandes said. “I was just so happy to be able to play soccer with them on the same field. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
Perhaps the best part for the Union is that Fernandes, a late-round draft pick out of Stony Brook University in 2013, seemed to fit right with in with those “world-class players.”
But that’s not something that surprised his teammates.
“To be honest, I think he was actually one of our best players, if not our best player, during the preseason,” center back and stand-in captain Amobi Okugo said. “And we’re just proud for him to step in under these circumstances and do a good job.”
Added Edu: “It’s going to be a good season for him.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.