The first move to Europe is not always a success, whether due to random chance or a simple failure to break into the squad. Some players choose to return stateside while others attempt to build their careers abroad, looking for the right situation. After experiencing bad luck in Philadelphia and a disappointing stint in Italy, Anthony Fontana appears to have found a good environment in the Netherlands. The 23-year-old midfielder recently earned promotion with PEC Zwolle and could be competing in the Eredivisie next season.
Born in Newark, Delaware, Fontana played with Kirkwood SC, West Chester, Penn Fusion, and Union Juniors before joining the vaunted Philadelphia Union Academy in 2014, standing out for his “amazing feet and desire to be on the ball” while “making incredible offensive plays.” He climbed the ladder and began competing with the reserves at 16 years old, playing in eight USL Championships matches during his first season. The next year, the midfielder made 11 appearances and featured for the first team in a friendly against Swansea City.
After considering a move to Europe, the Union signed him to a three-year Homegrown player contract for the 2018 season. Fontana started the first match of the MLS schedule and scored a goal in a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution and added another in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. He featured in six first-team fixtures and 16 with the reserves in the USL Championship, earning praise for his “ability to see the field, convert passes, and create.” The following year included nine appearances for the senior squad as the midfielder found the back of the net twice, struggling to break into a stacked midfield group.
Fontana experienced something of a breakout year in 2020, playing in 19 matches across all competitions during the COVID-shortened schedule. After working hard in training, he enjoyed a torrid run of form in September and October, scoring six goals in eight appearances as the Union claimed the Supporters’ Shield. MLSSoccer.com cited him as one of the competition’s best finishers, and the club exercised his contract option, keeping him stateside for another season.
Tabbed as the starter in the number-ten role, Fontana got off to a fast start the following year, contributing two goals and an assist in the CONCACAF Champions League. However, any upward trajectory was derailed by a concussion that required two months of recovery as his playing time dwindled throughout the year, playing a mere 27 minutes after June. Out of contract and rumored to be disappointed with his current situation, he looked to Europe for a new opportunity, despite receiving an offer to stay from the Union.
In February of 2022, Fontana signed with Ascoli Calcio of Italy’s Serie B on a two-and-a-half-year deal, having impressed management during a ten-day trial. After making the bench six times, his debut came in the final match of the schedule for I Picchi (The Woodpeckers), featuring for seven minutes in a 4-1 win over Ternana. However, the following season, he struggled to break into the rotation, playing a mere 11 minutes across two matches. While his bicycle kick forced an own goal that secured advancement in the first round of the Coppa Italia against Venezia, the midfielder was tethered to the bench before leaving the match-day squad entirely come December. Local media described him as l’oggetto misterioso (mysterious object), who was expected to head out on loan in the third division due to his different “mentality” and playing style.
Following a mutual termination of his contract with Ascoli, Fontana embarked on a three-week trial and signed for Dutch second-division side PEC Zwolle, inking a deal through the end of the season with a one-year club option. The move reunited him with former Union assistant Dick Schreuder. Since arriving in the Netherlands, he has appeared in all eight matches as a substitute, including a 60-minute appearance in the recent 4-0 victory over FC Dordrecht. With three fixtures remaining, Blauwvingers (Bluefingers) have already clinched promotion and look likely to claim the Eerste Divisie title.
At the international level, Fontana received his first call-up for the United States with the U-18 team. He appeared with the U-20 squad at the 2018 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, contributing four goals and one assist during the group stage. The decision was made to replace him for the knockout stage, and his name was left off the roster for the ensuing U-20 World Cup.
Primarily an attacking midfielder who can also line up at winger and striker, his heat map covers the width of the field as he buzzes around the attacking third. Fontana has been praised for his good timing, composure, and intelligent movement in the box, displaying dynamism and technical ability. When in-form, his goal-scoring prowess manifests in a variety of ways: from long shots and running behind the backline to acrobatic displays and audacious moments of daring ingenuity.
His style once drew cautious comparison to a certain USMNT notable. “[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,” opined Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin in 2020. “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. 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.”
Fontana could be in line for a great opportunity next season, potentially receiving the chance to compete in one of Europe’s best top-division leagues. He took a risk by leaving the friendlier confines of Philadelphia, and the move appears to be paying off. If able to break into the starting lineup and recapture his scoring form of 2020, perhaps a return to the national team program will also be in his future.