Anthony Fontana is a confident young man, but even he isn't immune to the occasional nervousness.
Fontana felt those nerves for a moment as he sauntered toward the midfield stripe, ready to enter the pitch during the Philadelphia Union's match against the New England Revolution last week, trusted by head coach Jim Curtin to provide the attacking spark in a 0-0 game.
"I was prepared and ready for whenever I was called upon," Fontana told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. "I knew at some point I would be. When I got called over, all the little butterflies show up in your stomach but they go away when you step on the field. I’ve been doing this my whole life, why am I even a little nervous?”
In watching his 25-minute cameo unfold, it was clear to see that any nerves had disappeared.
Fontana scored a confident close-range chip over Revs goalkeeper Matt Turner, the kind of attempt you come to expect from the league's leading forwards, not a Homegrown midfielder with one career MLS start. The Revs pegged back the Union and it looked as though Philly were going to leave two points on the table, as the 1-1 score held deep into stoppage time.
Then in the 95th minute, a poor clearance following a corner went right to Fontana 20-yards out. He long made up his mind he was going to shoot and fired an absolute arrow into the top corner, winning the game for the Union.
"I knew it was in the moment it left my foot," he admitted.
Fontana was delighted to impact the win, but the insatiable mentality that has helped him navigate the choppy waters that capsize many-a-talented youngster en route to turning professional left him wanting more.
“I had a third opportunity at the end," Fontana pointed out when asked about scoring his game-winning goal in the 95th minute. "That’s what’s bugging me. Scoring two was awesome, but that third would have been even better."
Fontana scored his first goal in his first MLS start on opening day in 2018, filling in unexpectedly when the Union had a number of injuries. Many expected that to be his breakout, but he's still waiting for his second MLS start. Was Saturday's match-winning performances truly his breakout or another false start?
Fontana initially signed his Homegrown deal with the Union in 2017, effective for 2018. He's been a talent both media and fans have known about for a few years as Philadelphia put an added emphasis on their academy.
That academy has produced the likes of first-team MLSers Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones in recent years, but first-team minutes for Fontana have been hard to come by. He has just one start over 20 appearances since making his debut in 2018.
That's no knock on Fontana, of course. He's still only 20 years old and Philadelphia have had one of the top midfield groups in MLS over the past two years. Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro are written-in-pen starters when available. An injury to Marco Fabian is what gave Aaronson his chance to shine last year, while in 2018 MLS assist leader Borek Dockal played Fontana's natural position.
“Like so many young players in the US, his development hasn’t been linear," Curtin said. "There’s been some high highs and some— I wouldn’t even call these dips, but we have a strong midfield. It’s tough, he’s had to be patient and wait his turn. Sometimes with young players, you have better players in front of you. To Anthony’s credit, he’s worked so hard."
Curtin went on to explain Fontana is routinely winning the club's fitness tests every year and always on the field doing extra work after training. He's been putting more emphasis on weight room sessions as well as watching film. He's gotten the majority of his professional minutes with the Union's USL Championship affiliate over the years.
"He’s reached a point in his development where we’re not loaning him down to Union II ever again," Curtin said. "He’s with us, it’s sink or swim.”
Fontana admitted it hasn't been easy not getting more chances.
“I mean, everyone wants to be a starter and play until the final whistle," Fontana said. "But I understand [the lack of minutes]. Sure, I feel there are times I deserved more minutes, but as Anthony Fontana, my mentality is to keep working to get minutes. When I do, I’m always ready for it. I feel every time I’ve been called upon I’ve done well. All that hard work and focus and motivation has shown. I’ve used the lack of minutes as more motivation to push even harder.”
Fontana is an interesting prospect.
He's an attack-minded midfielder with an eye for goal, a valuable commodity in a team. He also has an indefatigable work rate, but he's still figuring out how to convert that pure effort into more ball recoveries and fewer fouls.
Curtin likens his potential to club captain Bedoya.
“When you talk about pure technique, turning and being smooth on the ball, he’s already towards the top of our group," Curtin said. "He has the tools to be Ale Bedoya. He has that engine, he has the tools Ale has. The consistency Ale has is still something he’s searching for, but that’s normal because he’s 20.”
“I see a lot of qualities Bedoya has in myself," Fontana added. "He does so well to help all the young guys, he’s a great captain.”
It's all about reaching that potential.
“I just have to keep doing all the extra work," Fontana said. "I started taking recovery a lot more seriously, I started eating a lot more vegetables. It sucked at first, but it’s fine. Since I started taking that more seriously, my body has felt amazing. I’ve been able to work even harder. I just need to continue to do all that stuff on and off the field that’s gotten me to this point.”