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Golazos, strikes and a long-awaited debut: Jeremy Rafanello enjoying return to Chester



Photo by Jack Verdeur

A familiar face was in the stands in Cinnaminson on Monday rooting on Delran High School to victory in the latest meeting of the two South Jersey boys soccer rivals: Philadelphia Union attacker Jeremy Rafanello.

Rafanello, who played in the rivalry as a sophomore in 2015, was fresh off making his long awaited MLS debut against the New York Red Bulls organization he played for before returning home to sign a homegrown deal last August.

The 23-year-old has been enjoying his most productive season as a professional yet with 8 goals and 5 assists in 16 appearances for Philadelphia Union II. He made his first team debut in the U.S. Open Cup match in Minnesota in May and a 12-minute cameo off the bench on September 3.

Rafanello against New York Red Bulls. Photo by Carl Gulbish.

“You just stay patient and when your name is called on, do exactly what you need to do,” Rafanello said earlier this week. “The game was definitely a weird one with the red card, and we’re already we’re up but I thought it was good, you know, getting the first minutes in front of the home fans against a former team.”

Returning to the club last year was a full circle moment for the 2018 YSC Academy grad who featured on the reserve squad when it was still known as the Bethlehem Steel FC before playing a season at Penn State and going abroad for a brief stint to start his pro career.

His familiarity with the system and some of his new teammates was a big boost on and off the field. This season he’s continued that trajectory with highlight reel goals, man of the match performances and off the field bowling strikes at a local bowling alley he frequents with teammates. A small lightning bolt tattoo behind his ear is a more recent addition.

“I’ve always loved this organization ever since the club was made and coming here all the time with my mom and dad bringing me and my two brothers,” he said. “So being even closer to home has been a big confidence booster. You got your family around, extended family there and everything, too. And the year has been great. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for any better with, you know, especially scoring some goals and stuff like that.”

With each goal the calls from fans for him to play for the first team have grown louder and while it takes more than a nice goal to crack the first team lineup, Rafanello said it’s an important part of his game that he’s been able to hone. He doesn’t always have a green light to shoot, but his threat from distance has forced opponents to adapt accordingly.

“I’m out on my own whenever I can shooting as many balls as I can,” Rafanello said. “I wouldn’t even say it’s something that’s just out of the blue. I mean, the Toronto one, for sure but all the other ones, though, it’s stuff I’ve been working on.”

Rafanello is one of just two players who played for Bethlehem Steel still around. Olivier Mbaizo is the other. So much has changed since then one of their Steel FC teammates is now kicking in the NFL.

But many of the ingredients that made Rafanello’s arrival at the academy from FC Delco so special still exist. The comraderie with the other locally developed players is also strong. He’s also finally become a teammate of Chris Donovan, who he first met on an official visit to Drexel and was initially going to join in college before switching his commitment to Penn State.

“We’ve developed a great friendship on and off the field,” Rafanello said. “We go bowling a lot and spend a lot of time together.”

Donovan is third on the team in goals with 6 this season. Stefan Stojanovic leads the team with 9 goals. When they play together all three players – the most season in the squad – provide a big lift for a team that needs points in their final two contests to try and secure a post-season berth.

Results at the MLS Next Pro level are secondary but making them means additional meaningful minutes.

“It’s definitely a position we don’t want to be in, but at the same time it’s something you want to thrive in with the pressure and everything that comes with it,” Rafanello said. “When we’re down with the second team and everything it’s about getting those young guys riled up and playing as a group.”

When Rafanello made his second team debut in 2018, he was one of the youngest guys in a squad led by veteran captain James Chambers. Now he’s one of only a few players old enough to legally drink in the squad.

“I have a huge responsibility to help those guys grow and gel into the system,” he said.

Philadelphia Union II hosts Huntsville City FC, Nashville SC’s Next Pro affiliate, Sunday at 4 p.m. at Subaru Park.



Matthew Ralph is the managing editor of Philadelphia Soccer Now / Brotherly Game. He's covered soccer at all levels for many years in the Philadelphia region and has also written for, NPSL, PrepSoccer and other publications. He lives with his wife and two young children in Broomall, Pa., but grew up in South Jersey and is originally from Kansas.

Copyright © 2024 Philadelphia Soccer Now and Brotherly Game

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