Fontana enjoying a bigger role as Philadelphia chases title
October 29, 2020
THE PHILADELPHIA UNION are a win away from lifting the 2020 Supporters Shield and have earned the right to be considered the favorite to win MLS Cup. The reasons’ for the team’s success are obvious – Jim Curtin has a well-organized system that fits the players, there is good veteran leadership, good goalkeeping, and the team is receiving positive contributions from an extremely talented group of young homegrown players.
These homegrowns have received a lot of attention as well. Brenden Aaronson has agreed to a transfer to Red Bull Salzburg after the season and has already earned a cap for the U.S. national team. Mark McKenzie could be a strong contender for the league Defender of the Year, is the subject of a lot of European interest, and has also been capped by the U.S. team.
The homegrown list is deeper and Anthony Fontana, 21, is also another local academy product that has helped this team win and is part of the team’s future. Through 14 games and just 510 worth of minutes, the attacking midfielder has scored six goals.
It is not just the number of goals Fontana has scored – it’s also the quality and the timing of his goals that has earned him headlines.
“I would say it's definitely been the best form I've been in of my career,” Fontana said. “I'd be lying if I said I'm surprised because I've been playing well in the past years, I just haven't had the opportunity to really show what I can do. This year I'm getting more time and with the time I'm showing what I can do.”
Fontana first began playing for the Union’s academy when he was 10 years old. During his time developing as a player, Fontana grew up playing a variety of positions but was typically the No. 8 in a 4-3-3 formation.
Part of the Union’s success this season, however, has come with the team playing in a 4-4-2 formation with a narrow diamond in the midfield. Fontana has shifted up to the No. 10 position at the tip of the diamond where he has a lot of freedom to use his skills to create and score.
“Coming up through the academy, I was always a No. 8 and we played more of a 4-3-3. I was more of a box to box midfielder, but I feel like this year, I've taken the No. 10 as more of my natural position. I can definitely play the No. 8, the No. 10. and even the No. 6. I feel most comfortable up at the No. 10.”
“I know that I have a skill set, that when I'm in front of goal or around the box, I can create or I can score goals. I don't think I have an assist this year, which is kind of annoying. But anytime you can impact the game, especially with a goal, that that's the most important thing for me… I have to work on everything. One thing that I would say right now especially is just kind of getting on the ball a little more. When I'm on the ball, I feel like I can definitely create for other players more. I do it all the time in training. I feel that final pass is something that I can easily improve.”
Curtin has Fontana playing this role because he likes his movement in the box – which is very tough to defend.
"[H]is ability to arrive in the box at the right time and make plays reminds me of a guy who used to play here in Clint Dempsey, where he just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, those deep runs that are hard to track for center backs," Curtin said. "I’m not saying that’s what Anthony is or he’s that talented, but the similarities in their movement in the box is something that I think is a real comparison, and it’s a special one, to do it from a deep spot."
The homegrown success in Philadelphia is certainly one of the bigger stories in the league right now, and for good reason. Recent teams that have dominated the league in the regular season have all been huge spenders. Last season Los Angeles FC did so with Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Before that, Atlanta’s budget in 2018 with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron made that team one of the best in league history. Even other recent MLS Cup winners and finalists in Toronto and Seattle were big spenders.
If Philadelphia can win one of its last two games, it will win the Supporters Shield with the least reliance on designated players in recent league history (its only designated player is Jamiro Monteiro). For Fontana, this is a source of pride within the team.
“I feel that in Philly, we produce some of the best homegrowns in the league,” Fontana said. “This year, especially, a lot of the homegrowns have stepped up. And I think going forward, it is going to show teams that if you really care for your homegrowns and you push them and you give them the right opportunity, they can win you games. They can win trophies. We're not spending getting the biggest players in the league, but our style of play and the just how we approach everything. I think that's a big factor on why we're performing.”
Over the next six weeks, Philadelphia is entering into unchartered territory in its history as it will attempt to win silverware. This season might be its best chance for at least a few years as the current homegrown core is set to partially breakup with the loss of Aaronson and possibly McKenzie. The club’s next group is promising but also young.
When talking about his own ambitions to eventually make the move to Europe, Fontana is frank that is something he wants to do (“my goals in this game are to compete with the best in the world”) but understands it is a process and not something that happens overnight. He is going to have to first be a consistent starter and consistent offensive producer over thousands of minutes first. His Italian passport should eventually help him with that.
Fontana is emotional when realizing that the group could be going their separate ways – even if this probably will open the door for more responsibilities for him with the Union in 2021.
“We've seen each other grow from a young age and we've seen each other's ups and downs,” Fontana said. “The most important thing out of it all is that we're there for each other. My past two years, I haven't gotten the most amount of time. It's been tough at times, but every day after training, I have Mark, Matt, and Brendan saying to keep going - and we celebrate each other's successes and we try to build from it.”
Fontana has certainly made himself a player to follow during this stretch run and into 2021 when he could factor into the U.S. U-23 team that will attempt to qualify for its first Olympics in 13 years. Fontana played for the U.S. U-20 team during qualifying for the 2019 U-20 World Cup but is eager to get back into the fold.
“Any time you can get a nod into any national team it's a big honor,” Fontana said. “Now I've had more time to prove what I can do and prove why I should be there. I feel like I've been looked over by the national team many times before. If I am selected to go and play with the U-23s, great. If not, I’ll put my head down and keep working.”