CHESTER, Pa. --- Anthony Fontana’s path to earning the No. 10 role in the Philadelphia Union lineup is one full of determination and patience.
Fontana scored a goal in his Major League Soccer debut on March 3, 2018, but then had to patiently wait his turn to earn playing time, and sometimes even a spot in the matchday squad.
The 21-year-old midfielder played 217 MLS minutes over 13 games in 2018 and 2019 as the club relied on veteran international players Borek Dockal and Marco Fabian to take the reigns of the No. 10.
Fontana was second in line in 2020 behind fellow Homegrown Brenden Aaronson, who was sold to Red Bull Salzburg this offseason. He received more playing time than he did in the previous two seasons combined and he found the back of the net on six occasions.
Weeks after he was declared the starting No. 10 for 2021, Fontana had a conversation with manager Jim Curtin about shifting up top, where he played both legs of the Concacaf Champions League round of 16 against Saprissa and in the MLS opener versus the Columbus Crew.
“Jim had a conversation with me and told me they were going to put me up there,” Fontana said. “It’s obviously not my position, but he told me to do what you can. There are still high expectations even though I’m not a striker. It is different, but there was a little bit of preparation.”
Fontana scored and earned a penalty in the second leg against Saprissa, but he was shutout of many touches against the Crew.
“All of our players have sacrificed. Anthony would fall into that bucket as well where we asked him to play out of position and do a job that was new for him," Curtin said. "I thought he did a good job for us at striker. Obviously, he scored some goals in preseason and scored some goals in Champions League for us. Specific to the Columbus game, maybe we don’t get him on the ball as much and he didn’t have as many touches as we would like."
"Trying to find that balance of the instincts of a striker with the goal-scoring ability that he brings and his ability to play the No. 10 spot. It’s been a little disjointed and a little unfair for Anthony, but at a certain spot during this 90 minutes (on Saturday), he’ll get his opportunity to show at the 10 or striker. He’s another example of doing whatever the team needs and being ready when you’re called upon. He’s been great so far and is a really talented player, " Curtin said.
With Sergio Santos returning to full fitness and Cory Burke back in training, Fontana is expected to move back to the role he has been preparing for since the 2020 campaign ended in November.
“I’ve been here for 4-5 years and I’ve seen it from even before then when I was training with the first team at times. I feel like, especially this offseason, it wasn’t like Jim straight up told me this is your spot. I had a feeling and it ultimately just comes down to putting in the work to be ready,” Fontana said.
“I have been ready. (Wednesday) was one of the first sessions where I finally dropped back in midfield and even then it felt a little different because I’ve been so used to using my body a lot to lay it off and make a different movement. Today, I was able to turn on the ball and run with it a little. I feel like getting that even sharper in the coming days and weeks is going to feel awesome again,” Fontana said.
During his years in waiting, Fontana was able to learn under a Czech Republic international, Mexican international and a burgeoning United States men’s national team star.
Even with all the lessons learned beneath Dockal, Fabian and Aaronson, Fontana believes he brings something different to the position, as the others before him did.
“I try to learn from everyone’s game,” Fontana said. “From my teammates and from the world’s best players. In person, it’s a lot easier to pick up little tendencies. Those three players, if you can imagine, they are all three very different players. They all have certain things they do really well and they have other things that aren’t their strongest points. They have a lot of skill and a lot of things I have picked up on. Going forward, I feel like I’m a completely different player than those three guys as well. I feel like I can add something different than what they brought to the table. I’m out there playing the 10 and I just have to do my job and provide goals and score them.”
At 21, Fontana is one of the elder statesmen of the Homegrown Player crop. His experience in different roles over the last three seasons has handed him plenty of advice to give to the five new Homegrowns on the 2021 roster.
“I try to give them as much advice as possible,” Fontana said. “When you make that step, it’s different and for some players, it takes longer to adapt. For me, I went from my first game in the league starting and scoring and doing well to then not really being in the team for a while, or not playing a significant role. I tell them everyone’s path is going to be different.'
"One of you guys might come in and there could be an injury, you start, you do really well and you could be off to Europe by next year. For other guys, it may take three or four years to get a spot on the bench or even a starting spot. I tell them to stay positive and if you put in the work for whatever happens, you’ll be able to sleep well at night knowing that any opportunity you get, you know you’re ready to take it," Fontana said.
While Fontana is focused on the 2021 Union campaign, the specter of European soccer can’t be ignored if a strong season comes to fruition. Fontana has firsthand experience of how quickly someone’s fortunes can change, and what the future may hold if he thrives in MLS this season.
“From the time I came in the league back in 2018 to now it feels like there’s so many more eyes on this league," Fontana said. "It shows the growth in the league and also from players going over there. Some of these European guys are realizing these guys can play and MLS isn’t what it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, the league was decent, but it was still growing and it wasn’t nearly as good as it is now.."
“With all the eyes on you, all you really have to do is.. I mean look at some of these guys like Bryan Reynolds, I can’t tell you off the top of my head how many games he played (for FC Dallas), but it wasn’t too many and he’s getting looked at by huge clubs and gets a transfer to one of the biggest clubs in Italy. That’s incredible. That’s awesome for him. Obviously, we have Brenden (Aaronson) and Mark (McKenzie) who came through our system and their transfers were pretty big as well. It’s just a good sign for the Homegrowns going forward and it’s exciting for myself as well."
Fox Sports The Gambler is the official radio home of the Philadelphia Union. The Union Pregame Show presented by DraftKings Sportsbook begins at 7:30 on Saturday with Sean Brace and Joe Tansey.