Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – After a positive first professional season with Bethlehem Steel FC, young Philadelphia Union midfielder Derrick Jones entered his second preseason ready for the opportunity to earn regular minutes in MLS.
On Saturday night, Union Head Coach Jim Curtin gave him the first opportunity to show his progression as the 19-year-old started the club’s first official preseason contest against the USL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies at the Suncoast Invitational.
It proved an up-and-down performance for Jones, who scored the only goal of the game and put himself in good positions at times, but also made some errant passes that could have proved costly on another occasion. For Curtin, the game was one that would help Jones as he pushes forward to the new season.
“It’s the first time we’ve put him out with Alejandro Bedoya, with Haris Medunjanin, so it’s a little more pressure. We wanted to give him an opportunity,” Curtin said following the game. “I’m a big believer in if you don’t put the young guys on the field, you’ll never know, so it was a good opportunity for him. He was a little nervous at the start. I think he didn’t complete a few passes that he normally does, so that was tough, but I think he’s going to learn from it, and to get the goal is always rewarding and I think good for his confidence.”
Jones and U.S. U20 defender Auston Trusty became the first two players from Steel FC to sign with the Union last season, and underlined the belief the Union and Curtin have in the need for young talent to rise from within the club’s organization. Jones’ potential was clear a season ago as he was named No. 10 in the 2016 USL 20 Under 20, and but for a paperwork issue could have been in Costa Rica currently with Trusty with the U.S. U20s at the CONCACAF U20 Championship.
As it is, Jones is enjoying the new comfort level that he’s experiencing in his second preseason with the Union.
“It’s very good, the guys are pushing, everybody’s pushing every day,” Jones said. “I just go in every day and work hard, trying to get better each day.”
With the likes of Bedoya and Bosnia and Herzegovina international Medunjanin now alongside him, the pressure for Jones to raise his game is in effect day-in and day-out with the Union. It’s also there for the likes of Anthony Fontana, who saw action with Steel FC as an Academy signing last season and is currently with the Union in preseason. The U.S. U18 international came on as a substitute against the Rowdies and has impressed Curtin with his performances so far elsewhere.
“He’s done well in all of our preseason games,” said Curtin. “He’s out there against Dax McCarty and Juninho the other day against Chicago and not missing a beat, so I think that’s the way young kids grow.”
Giving youth its chance is why the likes of Jones and Trusty, and others such as Fontana and recent Steel FC signing Matthew Real, could get the opportunity to prove themselves sooner rather than later.
“We have to believe in the American player,” said Curtin. “I think there’s some clubs in the league right now that have shifted away from the importance of that American player. You look at all the players that came in this year, 54 new projected starters coming into the league and only six of them are American, and I have a tough time with that.
“I believe in the young American player. We’re going to have to put them on the field and surround them with the right guys, the Alejandro Bedoyas, the Haris [Medunjanins], the guys that can give them confidence and let them play.”
For Jones in particular, the step to regular minutes for the Union this season is certainly there for the taking.
“He’s made big strides and I think part of it is that comfort level having been with the first team for a little while,” said Curtin. “He’s a guy that I want to not just be in our 18, but to give him a chance to be in our starting 11. He’s starting to move in that direction, which is good.”