By Matt Ralph/NPSL.com
When AJ Marcucci suited up recently for New York Red Bulls II in an MLS Next Pro match at Subaru Park in Chester, PA it was a chance not only to play in front of family and friends in his hometown stadium, but also to compete against players he’s known along the way in his journey to MLS.
The West Chester, PA native signed an MLS contract with the New York Red Bulls in June but has continued to earn minutes for the reserve team. He’s posted six clean sheets this season in 16 starts.
Philadelphia Union II spoiled Marcucci’s return home with a 2-1 win in that game – played on July 16 – but it was still a special day for the 23-year-old to reconnect with old friends.
Kyle Tucker, who he played with as a kid at Penn Fusion (the academy for West Chester United’s affiliated youth club) happened to be making his home debut for Union II after signing an MLS Next Pro contract. West Chester United alum Chris Donovan, who signed a first team contract in June after impressing with their reserve team, was also on the field for the hosts.
“It was amazing seeing Kyle and everybody and being part of that game even though we lost,” Marcucci said. “It was also nice to play at home and see all my family and friends come out to support me.”
Marcucci and Tucker later exchanged jerseys, a fitting exercise for two players who started playing travel soccer together and who have both taken their own unique and unexpected paths to professional soccer.
“The academy is a great thing,” said West Chester United head coach Blaise Santangelo. “But it’s not always the only way to get to where you need to go and West Chester continues to prove that there are opportunities to prove yourself here and move on to the next level.”
Atlanta United’s Aiden McFadden is another player who came through the Penn Fusion to college and West Chester United pipeline to the pros.
“It’s not just Penn Fusion guys, but people from the area and kids who are coming in from local colleges,” Santangelo said. “We pride ourselves in giving these guys opportunities, and we want to be the place for teams to come to look for players.”
Marcucci split time at West Chester United with another goalkeeper who has joined the professional ranks in Dane Jacomen, who played locally at Penn and has been on USL Championship side Loudoun United for the past year.
The opportunity to train at a high level and to push himself with another high-level keeper was something Marcucci says was critical to getting him to where he is now.
“It’s honestly credit to what Blaise Santangelo does in the summer, winter, everything when college guys come back and even players out of college trying to make a name for themselves,” Marcucci said. “My time there was amazing.”
The program has only grown since Marcucci was there and is looking to add to its trophy case with its first-ever run to the NPSL National Semifinals. They won the Hank Steinbrecher Cup in June in Arizona and last August won the Werner Fricker Cup in Tennessee.
The national titles, like his own alma mater’s national title in 2021, came after Marcucci moved on from the program.
“It’s bittersweet,” Marcucci said of Connecticut College’s 2021 NCAA Division III national championships and West Chester’s two national titles. “But it’s great to see your buddies win and I’m on to my next steps with it. I wouldn’t have been where I’m at without the guys that won a national championship in college or for West Chester after I left.”
Marcucci was a two-time First-Team All-American at Connecticut College and led the Camels to their first Elite 8 in 2019. Interestingly enough, the setting of that Round of 16 win (in overtime) was Swarthmore College, where Saturday’s NPSL semifinal will be staged.
The semifinal is new territory for West Chester United, which joined the league in 2017 but Santangelo said it’s a testament to all the players who have come before that the team is finding success on the field and developing players for the pros.
“The team that’s playing this weekend, they’re a part of something special because of the guys that came before them,” Santangelo said. “Guys like AJ and Aiden (McFadden), Kyle Tucker, and Dono (Chris Donovan) but also the guys who didn’t go pro and elected to become professional in the field they studied in college.”
Photo Credit: Matt Ralph