Featured image: Paul Rudderow
On a map, Reading and Philadelphia are separated by 60 miles. On the soccer field, the two cities are much closer. Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union partnered with Reading United A.C. of the Premier Development League in 2009. The two player development partners now share a close bond on and off the field, with each side growing stronger because of the partnership. The unique relationship shared by the clubs will be on full display Friday evening as the Union travel to Reading for their annual summer friendly.
As one of the top clubs in the Premier Development League, Reading United has had tremendous success in developing professional soccer players. Currently, United have twenty-five former players playing the beautiful game in leagues throughout the United States and Europe. Three of those alums, Ray Gaddis, Leo Fernandes, and Aaron Wheeler, play just down the road at PPL Park, proudly pulling on a Philadelphia Union jersey during the MLS season. For these pros, Friday represents a homecoming.
Aaron Wheeler played for Reading while the club was still known as the Rage. Wheeler’s breakthrough 2009 season earned him Most Valuable Player honors and catapulted Reading to the 2009 Regular Season Championship. The 6’4” forward signed with the Union on January 19 and made his MLS debut on Wednesday night against Columbus.
Ray Gaddis spent two summers playing on United’s suffocating backline. He caught the eye of the Philadelphia technical staff at the first United-Union friendly in 2010 and was selected by the Union in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. Gaddis is now a fixture in the Union’s starting line-up, having started every match for the Union in 2013.
On May 18, Leo Fernandes made his MLS debut at PPL Park in a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire. A summer ago, Fernandes suited up for Reading United against Philadelphia. Asked about last year’s match, Fernandes said, “It was a great experience. That was the number one thing I was looking forward to the whole summer was the chance to play against professional soccer players.” At this year’s friendly, he’ll trade in the white jersey of Reading United for a blue and gold Union kit.
The three Reading alums on Philadelphia’s roster aren’t the only ones representing both cities. United Head Coach Brendan Burke also got the call from PPL Park, joining the Union coaching staff ahead of the 2011 MLS season. “The friendly is kind of a celebration,” Coach Burke shared during in interview shortly after the 2013 friendly was announced.
The Philadelphia Union make their annual trek to Don Thomas Stadium coming off their best all-around performance of the 2013 season. A three goal outburst in the first half and a solid defensive performance powered the Union past the Columbus Crew by a 3-0 score line. The win lifted Philadelphia back into an Eastern Conference playoff spot as the midpoint of the season approaches.
As for the home side, Reading dropped their first points of the season on Wednesday night. United heaped pressure on the Long Island Rough Riders, but were unable to find the back of the net. Reading’s back line did have to scramble to clear a ball off the goal line, but beyond that Long Island threat, the group was rarely tested. The match finished 0-0, keeping United unbeaten in league play while extending their shut out streak to 360 minutes. Over seven matches in all competitions, only the New York Red Bulls have scored on Reading this season.
Players to watch
So which Reading United players will Union fans want to keep an eye on in tonight’s friendly?
The quintet of Union Academy products certainly demand attention. Darius Madison is a dynamic forward capable of deploying any number of ball tricks to get by a defender. Keegan Rosenberry has been a stabilizing presence in United’s midfield. Sitting in front of United’s back line, Rosenberry does well to help clear danger and begin United’s transition up field. Melvin Snoh, Shane Campbell and Bill McConnell have all contributed to United’s success in spot starts and off the bench.
Bucks County native Steve Neumann captains United’s talented side and runs much of Reading’s attack from the midfield. The 2012 College Cup hat-trick hero is already on many watch lists ahead of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
Union defenders will need to be mindful of United’s leading scorer, Mario Pinto. The young Brazilian forward has an engine that does not stop, running at defenders throughout the full 90 minutes. Pinto has a flair for the dramatic and is not afraid to try an audacious shot like the looping volley that beat Harrisburg goalkeeper Nick Noble and knocked the City Islanders out of the U.S. Open Cup.
Two other Reading players that Union fans will want to watch very closely are left back Ben Sweat and center back Damion Lowe.
Sweat was brought in by Brendan Burke as a direct replacement for Greg Cochrane (sigh). Sweat defends well and frequently joins United’s attack with bombing runs down the left flank. The University of South Florida defender is rated as one of the top defenders in the upcoming draft.
Much of the credit for Reading’s impressive defensive record goes to Damion Lowe. A big, physical and extremely athletic center back, Lowe anchors Reading’s back four and has frustrated many opponents with his gritty defending. The Hartford University defender recently represented his native Jamaica in the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships hosted by Mexico in February.
The young United players look forward to testing their skills against professionals. Having stood toe-to-toe with the Red Bulls, United can have confidence in their ability to play well against their Union counterparts. Look for an open game with lots of scoring chances. The Union lead the series with two wins and one draw, but this United side is certainly capable of stealing a win.