CHESTER, Pa. — What happened to Derrick Jones?
Early in the season, the Philadelphia Union’s 20-year-old Homegrown was perhaps the club’s biggest bright spot, playing a pivotal role in the Philly midfield before starting for the United States at the Under-20 World Cup.
But heading into Sunday’s game vs. the Seattle Sounders at Talen Energy Stadium (1 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TVAS, MLS LIVE in Canada), Jones hasn’t played a single minute in the club’s last 13 contests, one of the more frustrating aspects of a frustrating Union season.
How has the young midfielder dealt with going from being one of the team’s “best players” in the first couple of months, according to head coach Jim Curtin, to moving out the rotation entirely?
“You never know what will happen,” the soft-spoken Jones told MLSsoccer.com from training Friday. “You know, it’s been hard. But I haven’t given up. I’m still working as hard as I can just to get back on the team.”
Curtin has been asked about Jones often in recent weeks, especially as the team has slipped out of playoff contention. And he’s maintained that Jones — and other youngsters like Adam Najem — won’t simply be given playing time because the team is eliminated.
Instead, he wants them to earn it through training and appearances with USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC. And in that regard, he’s been pleased with how Jones has progressed, particularly in the Steel’s 2-2 draw with the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday.
“Like a lot of young players, toward the longer parts of the year, we saw a little bit of a dip in form,” Curtin said. “But he’s had a good response. What we’re asking him to do now is to dominate training every day with the first team and then also in the USL games to leave a mark in every game. He’s had some poor games there but in recent weeks he’s stepped that up. I thought his last game against Tampa was the Derrick we all saw in the beginning of the year.”
Curtin didn’t pinpoint one reason for Jones’ decline but did admit he was a “casualty” of the team going with veterans Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya (who began the season in an attacking role) as defensive midfielders. And he said the grind of a 34-game campaign can be mentally exhausting for a player like Jones who’s in his first full professional season, even when it comes to dealing with things like what to eat, how to treat your body, and how to get the appropriate rest and recovery.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” Curtin said. “There’s the technical part, the tactical part, the psychological part of what it means to be a pro. … I think he’s learned a lot, I think he’s grown as a player. But we still see more from him and we want to pull more out of him.”
Curtin added that Jones is “still a guy we strongly believe in,” and said he’ll certainly be in the discussions to make the 18 on Sunday as midfielder Warren Creavalle deals with a hamstring injury.
Jones would naturally love the opportunity to get time at any point during the Union’s last three games, before applying the lessons learned from an up-and-down 2017 campaign going into next year’s preseason.
“I’ve been working hard this whole time just trying to get back and play,” he said. “Hopefully I can get on the field and finish the season strong and look forward to next season.”