Over the past few years, there has been real defensive quality to be found in the MLS SuperDraft’s second round. In 2013, D.C. United selected Kofi Opare. The 2014 draft produced former Red Bull Chris Duvall. In 2015’s edition, Seattle ended up with spark plug Oniel Fisher. Aaron Jones hopes to join this litany after his selection by Philadelphia in last Friday’s Draft.
The short form of Jones’ path to Philadelphia is a common narrative. The full back was a major player in Clemson’s Elite Eight trips in 2015 and 2016. He then turned in an eye-opening MLS Combine performance, exhibiting sharp tackling and positioning. He shot up draft boards and ended up being chosen 33rd overall, largely due to this performance.
Looking under the microscope, however, reveals a much more complicated story. It starts with a player developing in a English Championship mainstay’s academy.
Jones was born and raised in Great Yarmouth, England, a town roughly 20 miles east of Norwich which also produced action film star Jason Statham. Jones joined Ipswich Town’s academy in 2002, having to make a decision between soccer or rugby. He spent the next decade with Ipswich, coming up the ranks and eventually settling into a role as a right back.
The most prominent player to rise through Ipswich’s academy to date is Kieron Dyer, who was a regular with Newcastle in the early 2000s and represented England in the 2002 World Cup. Currently, the club runs a Category Two program, meaning they can continue development through a U-21 age group.
However, between 2011 and 2014, Ipswich did not have a U-21 program. Jones turned 18 in this window without that next step, and the club elected not to offer him a senior contract. This gave Jones a very unique opportunity.
“Instead of signing in the lower leagues of England, I decided to continue my education,” Jones reflected after his selection on January 13th. “I earned a scholarship at Georgia State University, and then transferred to Clemson. The opportunity to study and be able to play the sport you love at the same time is one I couldn’t pass up on. I saw the progression from college to MLS as something that I could achieve.”
Before landing his scholarship, Jones was the first player to sign with the Vertex Soccer program. According to Vertex’s website, they “recruit and assist the very best youth team scholars from the UK and Ireland to the most elite university soccer programs in the United States.” English clubs that have produced Vertex players include defending Premier League champions Leicester City, Hull City, and West Bromwich Albion. Signing with Vertex was obviously something of a leap of faith for Jones.
After two years with Georgia State, Jones transferred to Athletic Coast Conference powerhouse Clemson. He saw the move as a chance to improve his stock as he continued toward his goal of playing in MLS. There, he earned starting time with a nationally recognized program.
Along with the ACC team’s tournament success, Jones came into his own for the Tigers. Jones became the club’s set-piece specialist, with one match-winning free kick earning a spot in SportsCenter’s Top 10. Coming from the program which produced Oguchi Onyewu, Stuart Holden, and Tommy McNamara, Jones shifted his focus toward the MLS SuperDraft.
Fresh off of the end of the college season, Jones was in strong fitness. In December, he was accepted to participate in the MLS Combine. For a player who signed his first academy contract at age 8, the idea of a player combine was a foreign as the term soccer.
“The combine is very interesting,” Jones admitted. “It’s almost like a bit of a meat-market. That said, it’s helped me be seen. Earnie [Stewart] and Jim [Curtin] were able to see me play three games, and testing results. They obviously liked what they saw. The combine is what you make of it. It’s yours to have a good one or a bad one”
When asked by CSN Philly about Jones, head coach Curtin was very complimentary. “He really impressed us. He’s a kid who will compete from day one. He wins one-on-one battles defensively… he’s a guy who wants to get better every day. He has a Union mentality and will be a guy our fans will be high on.”
And there it is.
The first player we ever sent to the USA, drafted to the @MLS
— Vertex Soccer (@VertexSoccer) January 13, 2017
In Philadelphia, Jones will be joining what is likely Major League Soccer’s deepest pool of right backs. Last year’s first-round pick Keegan Rosenberry was the runner-up for MLS Rookie of the Year. Recently, he earned his first USMNT callup. This came after Rosenberry displaced incumbent Raymon Gaddis, the regular starter from 2012-2015. Both are still on the roster for 2017.
Jones is certainly ready for the challenge.
“Rosenberry is a prime example of how things can change in football — soccer, sorry,” Jones observed. “He was playing college soccer just over a year ago. For myself, it’s something that I want to do. I don’t want to be sitting on the bench for anybody. I want to be starting games next year.
“I’m going to go into preseason — I’m really fit right now — I’m excited, I hope to make a good impression to the manager. We’ll see what happens. I know I’ve got some stiff competition, but what more could you want than that?”
Despite the competition, Jones hopes to crack the Union’s roster in his natural position. “Right back’s my position. It’s where I see myself playing the game. Whatever opportunities are afforded to me, I’m going to take them with both hands and run.”
“I’m standing here today absolutely delighted to be joining the Philadelphia Union. I’m excited about the direction which the franchise is going in, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.”
Whether his starting time comes in Philadelphia or with USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jones seems poised to make his mark on the field. Now, Jones finds himself as one example in a few arguments. An English expatriate in MLS. A college prospect. Someone whose stock rose due to the MLS Combine.
After the road he’s taken to get this far, he wouldn’t want it any other way