Philadelphia Union homegrown players Jack De Vries and Cole Turner did not have to wait long to get their first test of top-tier Major League Soccer action in the preseason.
Due to injuries, international absences and players finalizing green cards and visas, the pair of teenagers started the club’s first preseason friendly Wednesday against Atlanta United.
“It was a great experience for some of our younger players. I think they learned a lot from it,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said in call with reporters Thursday.
With Mark McKenzie away with the United States men’s national team and Jack Elliott obtaining his green card, Turner was slotted into a start on the back line next to Aurelien Collin.
With that came a matchup versus Josef Martinez and an Atlanta attack with an extra week of preseason under their legs as the Five Stripes prepare for the Concacaf Champions League.
“Atlanta, it doesn’t get much harder,” Curtin said. “Cole had to deal with a striker than is valued in the world at about $10 million in Josef Martinez. That’s a tough first test, and again, he had some good plays, some tough plays. It’s important for them to see the speed of play.”
De Vries started on the left edge of the 4-4-2 midfield diamond, a role he earned through his fitness and work rate in the first week-and-a-half of camp.
“Every camp has guys that come in fit,” Curtin said. “I think the majority of our camp showed that. For what it’s worth, Jack De Vries won our fitness competition. He’s shown that he’s taken this offseason very serious. We rewarded him with a start yesterday. He’s been strong in camp so far.”
Both players signed pre-contracts in 2019 for the 2020 season and have relied on advice from the other homegrowns on the roster to help with the adjustment to the full first team.
“All the homegrowns talk to each other,” De Vries said during the club’s opening week of training. “We all do it no matter which position. We don’t really talk about specific position stuff. We talk about broader things like what it’s like being a young person on the team and stuff like that. Sometimes I talk to (Anthony) Fontana and get (positional) advice, but other than that, it’s not much different.”
“They’ve said you’re here for a reason,” Turner said. “Don’t let anyone get in your head, everyone makes mistakes and you’re here for a reason, take it and run with it.”
De Vries and Turner have trained with the first team in the past, but now there’s additional pressure.
“For me, I was training with them a little bit last season,” De Vries said. “It’s a different feel now that I’m officially part of the team because you’re fighting for your spot now and you really need to grasp what you have because there’s not many kids that have the opportunities that we have right now. You have to take it and go with it head on. It’s just a great opportunity to play with people I’ve been watching for a long time. Now that I’m part of it is a big experience.”
Based on the club’s depth chart, De Vries may have an easier path to minutes in his first MLS season as a versatile option in midfield. Before the club transitioned to a 4-4-2 base formation, he played on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 at the academy level when former sporting director Earnie Stewart was in charge.
The left side of the diamond could be the best spot for De Vries to find playing time, after adapting to the defensive requirements of that position in the new system current sporting director Ernst Tanner has implemented.
“We’ve been doing this formation for two years now,” De Vries said. “Even with the academy, we were switching formations and it was pretty flexible, so I think we all have a good idea of what is needed in the formation. We’re ready for adaptation.”
“On those wide areas, there’s still going to be times that I’m able to use my strengths, which is one-on-one and dribbling. It’s more of a midfielder role I would say rather than an attacker,” De Vries said.
Turner projects more as a holding midfielder, but could also be used as a center back if the Union are low on depth at the position.
“The whole system, even the academy, has been playing the same way all the way up to the first team,” Turner said. “It should be a pretty similar transition since everyone plays the same formation.”
De Vries and Turner still have a ways to go to become consistent members of the first-team rotation, but watching fellow homegrowns McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson, Matthew Real and Fontana receive opportunities fuels their desire to get better in each training session.
“For me, that was one of the big reasons I signed with the Union,” De Vries said. “I saw Jim has trust in his younger players. Not only Brenden, but Fontana was getting a good amount of minutes last year and scoring goals. Cole and I have been talking a lot about it. It’s not just a thing that we’re the young guys, we’re really part of the team now and we really have a shot, if we perform, to make the team.”