UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, FC Delco as we knew it for many years doesn't exist anymore. I've changed the wording below accordingly.
The Union took a major step towards improving the quality of their youth player development structure on Friday by joining the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
The USSDA is widely recognized as the top level of youth player development in the United States. It includes 18 MLS youth academy teams and other top youth clubs from across the country.
Players who become part of the Union’s academy structure will not have to pay anything to participate. This is a big deal, for fairly obvious reasons – and no, it wasn’t always the case.
As part of the expansion of the Union’s academy structure, the team has made a few hires:
- Tommy Wilson is the Union’s new academy director. He comes from Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers, where he was the club’s reserve team coach and youth academy technical director.
- Chris Brewer will be on the academy coaching staff. He previously served as an assistant coach with the U.S. Under-18 boys national team.
Brewer also served as a U.S. Soccer Federation technical advisor overseeing the Atlantic and Southeast divisions of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. That includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
- Jeff Cook will be on the academy coaching staff. He previously served as the head coach at Dartmouth College, and holds top-level coaching licenses from the U.S. Soccer Federation and UEFA.
- Peter Fuller will be on the academy coaching staff. He previously served as the New England Revolution’s reserve team coach.
Before moving to New England in 2011, Fuller spent 16 years as the head coach at the NAIA-level University of Mobile. He crossed paths with 2013 Union SuperDraft pick Stephen Okai, who played at Mobile from 2010 to 2013.
In the past, the Union’s youth player development structure was built mainly through a partnership with Wayne, Pa.-based YSC Sports. YSC ran Union-branded teams for players in the 8-to-12-year-old and 13-to-14-year-old age groups.
For players of high school age, the Union formed partnerships with a number of prominent local youth soccer programs: FC Delco (in its previous incarnation), PA Classics, Lehigh Valley United, Penn Fusion, Yardley-Makefield Soccer and the Players Development Academy.
The Union-PDA partnership has been a bit contentious, as PDA is based in Somerset, N.J., near New Brunswick. That's the New York Red Bulls' backyard. The territorial rights rules for MLS academy catchment areas allow MLS teams to recruit from clubs within a 75-mile radius of their stadiums. PDA is just barely within that radius for the Union.
That the overlap exists isn't all that surprising. and it's not a problem for most other MLS clubs. Obviously, the territorial rights for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA overlap. But it's not the case for Chicago and Kansas City, for example, or Seattle and Portland. It's not even the case for the Union and D.C. United.
Anyway, that's getting a bit stuck in the weeds. The point is that MLS clubs' affiliations with academies allow teams team to sign players from those programs as Homegrown Players. That’s how the Union brought Zach Pfeffer (FC Delco and YMS), Jimmy McLaughlin (FC Delco) and Cristhian Hernández (PDA) into the team.
As you know, Homegrown Players enjoy a special status within MLS' salary cap rules. So there's a considerable incentive for clubs to sign them.
So now that the Union are creating more of an actual academy structure, what happens with those partnerships now?
Here's one reason for that lack of clarity. FC Delco - perhaps the most famous youth soccer organization in the state, and certainly in the region - doesn't exist under that name anymore. Last month, Delco joined forces with Spirit United, another well-known local organziation that was based at the United Sports Training Center in Downingtown.
The new organization is called Continental FC, and it competes in the USSDA. So does PDA. Teams from the three organizations will, as far as I can tell, be competing against each other.
So which program gets the top talent? Will the Union be able to essentially poach from Continental, PDA and others? You'd think that the Union will have the top academy team in the region, not just in terms of talent on the field but name recognition as well.
It sounds like that will be the case. I've been told that the Union will still be able to sign homegrown players from their affiliate programs.
At the same time, the Union’s announcement that they’ve joined the USSDA states that the team is still using partner organizations to develop high school-age talent. It also says that “For selected players U14 and older, the Philadelphia Union Academy will provide a full-time program (i.e., 5x week training + games) similar to professional youth academies in Europe and South America.”
It sounds like the Union will try to have it both ways.
Some teams in MLS that have brought their entire youth development structure in-house. The Union don’t appear to have done that yet.
Now, when you consider the history of the big youth soccer programs in this region, it's not necessarily a bad thing to establish those partnerships.
But the phrase "have it both ways" that phrase doesn't always have a positive connotation.
Some people out there who know the American youth soccer scene far better than I do would say that the Union shouldn’t be able to have their own academy and have affiliates as well.
I’ve asked for a clarification on how the setup is going to work, and I’ll update this post again when I get an answer.