Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union
Editor’s note: To read each post in the Player to Watch series, click here.
Derrick Jones is a player to watch for the Philadelphia Union for several reasons:
- He may start in the season opener at Vancouver on Sunday.
- His progress will serve as a reflection of how effective the organization’s youth development program has been.
- He would start out early as a place-holding understudy to Maurice Edu.
- He is the first homegrown signing developed by Bethlehem Steel head coach Brendan Burke’s capable technical staff and considered to be ready for the first team by Sporting Director Earnie Stewart.
- He has shown himself to be a quick learner on the pitch.
But he will not significantly impact the 2017 Union’s drive towards the top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference because he has not yet become a game-changing creative force. His preseason performances do strongly suggest that right now, he is good in a supporting role.
However, he currently fills in capably on an MLS pitch, and there is no sign that role is the limit to his ceiling.
Role with the Union
The role of capable, fill-in placeholder will be Jones’ secondary role with the club in 2017, not his primary one.
It may be hard for fans to see his primary role because it will occur in practice, once Edu returns. In fact, his 2017 role with the Union will be quite mental: committing the roles and responsibilities of the box-to-box central midfielder position into instantaneous reaction, no-thought, instinctive memory.
There are physical skills he must improve as well. They all must match the pace and endurance of MLS and be mistake-free. This preseason, it looks like he’s been working on all that.
Basically, Derrick Jones’s 2017 role is to grow.
Why to watch him
When we get our chances to see him, particularly starting, either filling in for Edu, at an open practice, or in games not affecting the MLS table, we must look for these two categories of growth:
- High soccer IQ
- Elimination of major mistakes
This spring — and indeed last summer — there were definite signs of him improving within matches.
In the reserves portion of the scrimmage against Chicago, he was clearly learning former teammate Bolu Akinyode’s role with the 2016 Bethlehem Steel. On the very first offensive foray, he over-penetrated into deep into the offensive third, finding himself as deep as Anthony Fontana and Adam Najem, the Nos. 10 and 8. But he realized it and began to correct himself quickly.
Against Tampa, playing in front of Haris Medunjanin’s No. 6 as a No. 8, he initially played the role of lead dog, expecting the No. 6 to read him and play accordingly, as Akinyode had last year.
But Bosnia’s international captain was taking no cheekiness from a 19-year-old kid. Jones inferred/got the message from Medunjanin, and he quickly learned how an 8 reads and reacts to support the play of a 6. After half an hour, he was playing well as a 6.
In the first half against Montreal, the youth and the veteran partnered as attacking 6 and covering 8 more smoothly. Nothing fancy came from Jones, but there was a decent sense of coordination between the two.
That coordination continued when Jones came on in the last half hour against DC. Jones’s energy allowed Medunjanin to conserve his own, and Bedoya’s dynamism made the Union attack seem brighter, although the absence of Luciano Acosta for D. C. helped, too.
Once the regular seasons starts for the Steel and Edu has returned to full fitness, the organization will have to judge whether Jones has picked up bad habits or kicked them to the curb.
Although Edu will not yet be ready April 1, Bethlehem’s season opener against the Rochester Rhinos at Goodman Stadium will answer some questions.
Rochester is well-coached and made up of wily USL veterans. They could challenge Jones and stretch him out of his comfort zone. So the youngster has the chance to prove he has the ability to become a game-changing creative force against opponents who aren’t pushovers physically or mentally.
Furthermore, Jones will be unlikely to play against the center midfield youths of, say, player development project Toronto FC II, whose strengths last season were on the flanks and up top.
Another time fans may get to see Jones is in the middle rounds of the Lamar Hunt U. S. Open Cup, which will feature MLS sides after June 15.
The organization will choose between taking the Open Cup seriously again — as they always have under Jim Curtin — or getting all their younger deep bench players a few more game opportunities. Either way, Jones is likely to start those the initial mid-tournament matches.
On March 1, all crystal balls are rose-colored.
The Union will suffer no catastrophic injuries in the midfield’s central spine.
Medunjanin and his family will love life in Philly and feast on hoagies and cheesesteaks, and the player will learn MLS defenses. Maurice Edu will swiftly come back with all of his superpowers. And the competitive force of Jay Simpson will spur C. J. Sapong to shoot more.
Derrick Jones will outgrow Bethlehem Steel FC and the United Soccer league, à la Fabian Herbers in 2016.
He will join the national team U-20s for their World Cup in South Korea in May, starting as the No. 8 for Tab Ramos.
He will come back with that trophy to lead the Union’s midfield through the fourth and fifth rounds of the Open Cup, handing off to the Bosnian, the captain, and Bedoya for rounds six, seven and eight, and he will lift that trophy as well.
And because the team looked better against D.C. United with him on the pitch between Bedoya and the Bosnian, he will start against Vancouver as a competent, complementary placeholder for the rehabilitating captain.