Homegrown signing, YSC Academy graduate and 20-year old Drexel Hill native Matt Real spoke with PSN Thursday afternoon about his progress in development, the intensity in training the past week, and the opportunity that could present itself to him tonight: a chance at the starting left back spot in Kai Wagner’s absence (suspension due to yellow card accumulation). The full transcript of the interview with Matt Real can be found here.
“I approached training this week with the mentality that if I get the opportunity to go in, I’ll be ready,” said Matt Real when asked about training this past week. “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.”
The biggest question mark heading into tonight’s away match against Montreal Impact remains unanswered as of now. Plenty was made of the battle for the open left back position immediately after Kai Wagner saw yellow in the 19th minute during a 2-0 win against Chicago Fire last weekend.
That question mark and open roster spot spurred some intense training sessions this week with increased competition being the focal point. “Yeah, I would say so for sure,” said Real when asked whether there was an uptick of sorts in this week’s training. “Especially because of the opportunity that’s presenting itself to me. It makes me more aware of what reality could be this weekend.”
That reality could involve Real earning his first start with the Union so far this season and what would be his fourth overall MLS start. But no news came at week’s end on whether a replacement for Wagner was decided upon.
Will Fabinho, the 34-year old on the verge of retirement simply awaiting a coaching role within the youth ranks, grab another spot start? The Brazilian earned his first and only start at Real Salt Lake July 13th in what turned out to be an embarrassing 4-0 defeat – a match that ultimately has been forgotten. It’s worth mentioning that Fabinho didn’t have the best performance and was routinely caught out of position.
Which brings up the next player to compete for the spot, the newly acquired outside back RJ Allen. Allen was signed back on July 2nd following the disappointing news surrounding promising right back Olivier Mbaizo’s partially torn meniscus and subsequent surgery.
Allen, on the brink of turning 30 years old, has three seasons of MLS play under his belt. He has the ability to play both sides of the pitch and brings with him a high soccer-IQ which could be very useful in a match like tonight where Philadelphia will need lock-down defending against Montreal’s talented wingers.
Saphir Taider leads Montreal with seven goals scored with three of them being game-winners. Ignacio Piatti and Orji Okwonkwo are the other two offensive play-makers who can be deadly in wide areas of the pitch. And frankly, a player like Fabinho – though well-loved off the pitch by the Philadelphia fanbase – cannot compete in these potential match-ups.
Realistically it comes down to Allen and Real as to who will appear at left-back.
“[Coaches] need to see that I’m ready to go out there and be able to make an impact and be able to perform defensively,” said Real. “I needed a strong week of training to show them that I am ready, more than ever this week than others because of the opportunity.”
What’s impressive about Real’s mentality with such a promising opportunity at hand is his mindset approaching it. At 20-years old, he routinely referred to the possibility of earning increased minutes this weekend as an opportunity presenting itself to him. Being a player who constantly trains with the first team only to earn minutes with USL affiliate Steel FC, Real has remained positive in his outlook.
“The coaches have been talking to me for the past month now and they told me that they’ve been extremely happy with the consistency that I’ve had in training in terms of my development and the strides I’ve been making as a player,” said Real. “I’ve been doing really well and I’ve been really sharp. And the coaches have told me that I have been consistent for the past month.”
Which makes it all the more likely that Real will be in the starting XI tonight. Because ultimately the question becomes: why not?
Both Real and Anthony Fontana mentioned to PSN this week that off-the-field coaching sessions in a one on one style have increased dramatically this year as opposed to years past. Ernst Tanner, Union Sporting Director, is the main catalyst behind the increased support system for the younger players throughout the organization. The increased coaching on a personal level has helped both players reach new heights in 2019.
“It’s just a learning and growing process,” said Real. “Ernst has definitely implemented more of a support system in terms of individual meetings and individual video with the young guys especially. This year there’s definitely been a lot more one on one type meetings. Which is better than a big group session because it’s personal and you get more information out of it than if you were doing a whole team analysis.”
Credit to Tanner and the rest of Philadelphia’s staff for realizing younger players thrive when face-to-face discussions are involved in the development plan. Young players need to know where they stand as opposed to constantly worrying about their standing in an organization.
“The coaches have helped me a lot this year,” Real said. “They’ve done a really good job communicating with me in terms of where I stand in the squad. That always helps as a player too, because you don’t want to be in the dark. You want to know where you stand and there’s definitely been a major change in terms of that.”
If Curtin wants to continue the Homegrown movement, slotting Real in at the starting left back spot would be the obvious decision. It would also send a message to the rest of the younger guys on the team that hard work and dedication through multiple years with the organization can and will lead to MLS minutes.
And it’s also important to stress Real’s consistency over the past few months. It’s not like the youngster dazzled coaches this past week in training. He’s been doing it for some time now, as evidenced by his substitution appearance back on July 7th where he tallied an assist to help create the game-tying goal from Kacper Przybylko.
“[The coaching staff] wouldn’t feel comfortable giving me the opportunity if I just had a sharp week of training this week. A lot of it now has to do with me being consistent the last month and credit to myself for being able to do that. It’s part of the job. You can’t really be inconsistent and expect to get minutes at this level.”
Kick-off is set for 8:00 PM tonight as Philadelphia is in Montreal looking to salvage a road result before heading to DC United next weekend in what will be a playoff preview match-up.
Points are needed now and Real has an opportunity to show not only the coaches but the fans and himself that he is more than capable of filling in for the suspended Wagner.
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Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports, Philadelphia Union and RJ Allen’s Twitter account.