Last season, Rochester defender Joe Farrell told media that he felt something extra in games against Bethlehem Steel, the USL reserve side for Philadelphia Union. Farrell is from the greater Philadelphia area and had a history with the Union organization. The center back scored both of Rochester’s goals in the 2016 home match against Bethlehem and many more Rhinos could have similar motivations when the teams meet to open the 2017 season.
Seven current Rochester Rhinos players, by my count, have a connection to the Philadelphia Union. One recent signing was drafted by the Union in 2015, a couple guys played for PDL affiliate Reading United, and a handful of players participated in the Union’s academy system.
The Philadelphia Union drafted Ray Lee out of college in 2015 but did not exactly utilize him. The full back made one only first team appearance and played just 14 minutes across two cameo appearances for then-USL affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders. After a disappointing 2015 campaign, Lee joined Bethlehem Steel FC for its inaugural campaign but the team announced the two parties had mutually agreed to part ways. Lee played regularly for Tulsa Roughnecks FC in the 2016 USL season.
With probably the weakest link to the Union, rookie midfielder/forward Rayane Boukemia played the 2016 PDL season with Reading United AC. Alex Dixon and Levi Houpeau have both played for Rochester after suiting up for Reading but the spotlight falls on John McCarthy. The goalkeeper hopped around preseason camps in 2014 before settling in Rochester and earning USL Goalkeeper of the Year. The Union had monitored McCarthy, an alumnus of LaSalle, during his collegiate and PDL career and bought him out of his contract after a stellar season with the Rhinos proved that he could perform at the professional level.
Exuberant forward Darius Madison also played for Reading United in 2013 and 2014, including a U.S. Open Cup match against Rochester. Madison was one of the more highly rated players in Philadelphia Union’s academy structure and seemed to score goals for fun at the academy level. The Union had not yet formally joined the U.S. Soccer Development Academy but Madison also scored in the old MLS Reserve League, as well.
Christiano Francois also had a brief period within the Union academy umbrella through USSDA side PDA. The Haitian winger impressed in limited appearances but combined well with forward Cristhian Hernandez. The Union signed Hernandez as the club’s third Homegrown Player signing in 2012 and some fans thought Francois might go the same route when he left college early to join MLS.
“There is chatter on Twitter from some Philadelphia Union fans, who claim that Francois should be their player, eligible on a Homegrown player deal. From what I can find, it looks like Francois only played five games for the Union's Development Academy, and MLS must have decided that that was not enough to get him covered by a Homegrown claim (much in the same way that Real Salt Lake tried to put a Homegrown claim on Nick DeLeon).”
Farrell, Todd Pratzner, and Kyle Morton were often teammates on various teams in the Union academy system. Kyle Morton played in the Union system before going to college and was one of 21 academy players whose college commitments the Union announced in 2012.
Joe Farrell grew up in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes north of Philadelphia and played four years of soccer at LaSalle University. Rhinos’ fans will hope that whatever inspired Farrell’s brace against Bethlehem last year spreads to the other players with links to that club.
Pratzner captained the PA Classics team in the Development Academy and integrated into the Union’s odd development arrangements at the time. Before heading off the college, Pratzner regularly trained with Philadelphia’s squad in the old MLS Reserve League as a 17-year old. Pratzner also captained the Philadelphia Union U18 academy team in 2011.
Whether these players feel the fire to perform against the organization that overlooked their talents or they just want to put on a show for any family or friends from the area, Rochester benefits from having this contingent. Teams need ways to build camaraderie early in the season and this shared experience may well bind together nearly a third of the Rhinos’ locker room (7 out of 22).
Rochester opens the 2017 USL season on the road at Bethlehem Steel FC. The match is available on YouTube and kickoff is at 4:00PM.