Union's cooperation with local youth soccer power a model for MLS

USSOCCER05-B
Coaches from local youth soccer powerhouse Continental FC work with the Union's academy at YSC Sports in Wayne, as part of a broad relationship that helps both clubs develop young players.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber comes to Philadelphia on Tuesday to visit the Union's academy, and to speak at a forum with Union fans, club executives and Mayor Kenney. So it's a good time for me to post a story I worked on toward the end of my recent series on the state of the U.S. men's soccer program, but didn't have time to finish.

In the course of reporting that series, I put an emphasis on the Philadelphia Union's academy. Not just because it's local, but because its investments in American player development really do stand out on the national landscape.

There's another significant way in which the Union's academy program stands out: the degree to which it works with local youth clubs, instead of fighting against them to attract top players.

Other markets in Major League Soccer don't enjoy quite that much harmony. You don't even have to be a youth soccer junkie - and rest assured, there are plenty of such people - to have heard stories from Seattle, D.C., Chicago, Dallas and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous clash is in Toronto, where Toronto FC's academy competes with Sigma FC, the youth club that produced Orlando City star striker Cyle Larin.

Philadelphia's equivalent club of Sigma's caliber is Continental FC. If you haven't heard of it, you might have heard of its old name: FC Delco. The club has produced a boatload of professional players, including Chris Albright, Jeff Larentowicz, Ben Olsen, Jeff Parke, Zach Pfeffer, Zack Steffen, Bobby Warshaw and Jeremiah White.

(I say that with apologies to Penn Fusion, PA Classics and Lighthouse Boys. If you're going purely off name recognition among the broader soccer fan base, Delco wins, though PA Classics has been in the news a lot recently thanks to Christian Pulisic.)

Imagine if Albright or Olsen was 14 in 2013 when the Union's full-time academy launched, and started looking to fill its team rosters with southeastern Pennsylvania's top players. You're in charge of Continental. Would you work with the Union or would you think your players were being poached?

Continental chose to work with the Union, and the partnership has proven successful.

"For us, it's just so much easier, because we don't want to stop a player from having that opportunity to play for a MLS club," Continental's Development Academy director Jonathan Rhodes told me recently. "We could really try and put roadblocks in the way and tell [the Union] that we're better than they are, but at the end of the day, if we work together and look at it as 40 players rather than two groups of 20 players, that's just better for all involved. There's less acrimony between them and us on the field, and it's just a better environment for the families off the field."

Spend enough time watching Union academy teams train at YSC Sports in Wayne and you'll eventually spot Continental coaches helping with training sessions. The players under their watch come from the Union's high school and Continental teams.

If a player from Continental proves good enough to join the Union's pathway, Rhodes has no problem with letting him go.

"We see it really as a promotion for our players," Rhodes said. "We discuss it during the season, and then when it comes to when we can transfer players at the end of the season, we usually are in agreement on which players move in the direction from us to them. And the same happens with their players to us as well."

Yes, you read that right: Continental takes players from the Union's high school. One example is Ronald Williams, a defender who recently committed to play college soccer at Penn.

Rhodes credits the Union Juniors program - a free-of-charge supplemental training program for kids age 9 to 13 that's open to kids from any club - for helping to establish a good working relationship between the Union and local youth clubs.

"That gave a little bit of trust, so you knew they were going to do a good job with players," he said. "Some of the other MLS academies, they just come along and say, 'We are going to do a good job because we're a MLS club.' That kind of gets the backs up of the clubs that have been doing a good job to that point. There was definitely a good relationship before the academy started. I think that really helped."

Continental is just one club, of course. Not every youth club had the same view at the time, or does now. But consider the following from Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer CEO Chris Branscome:

When the Union academy started, a lot of the local clubs had some concerns about keeping players within their clubs and not having players poached, in a sense. They wanted to keep their competitive levels up, and if they were going to lose their best players, obviously that would be a concern to their teams.

Philosophically, I don't think there's a lot of people that were opposed to the idea. It made sense that there would be a way for players to matriculate up through the system, whether it was for college identification or for potential national team or professional identification.

It's reasonable to have some system in place and some stratification of clubs who would take that responsibility. But again, if you were going to lose some of your best players, it didn't always sit well with people, even though it may be right for the player.

A lot of people in American soccer see a way to heal those wounds: the adoption of FIFA's rules on training compensation and solidarity payments to youth clubs.

The short way to explain those rules is that whenever a player is sold from one professional club to another, a portion of the transfer fee gets passed down to the youth club which developed that player. Clubs around the world use that money to sustain themselves financially.

But when MLS teams sell players abroad, they don't pass on any money to the youth clubs that developed those players. In fact, there's a track record of MLS keeping all that money for itself.

That's a problem in and of itself, but the roots of the overall issue are more complex. There are U.S. labor laws and MLS governance laws in play, and potential conflicts with terms in MLS' collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Union.

(The union is notably against adopting the global training compensation standards, claiming they reduce the ability of players to move between clubs by raising the cost of doing so.)

In 2015, prominent youth clubs in Seattle, Dallas and Chicago filed an official complaint with FIFA to try to force U.S. Soccer and MLS to play by the global rules.

The matter still has not been fully resolved. It will take a pretty big agreement to solve everything, and for better or worse, big agreements take time. You can learn more about what's happened since the FIFA filing here and here.

Continental did not join the clubs that filed the complaint with FIFA, but it has talked to them and their lawyers. Rhodes' personal view is that he'd like to see a training compensation system adopted:

I think that would be huge. I really do think that would be a big value-add for us as a club. And what we would do is simply take that cost away from the parents. So anything that came in, we would then subsidize it more.

Because we are currently a pay-to-play [club] - we subsidize it as much as we possibly can, but at the end of the day we have field rentals and things like that, and we don't have a MLS club to support us. So if we did get money for players that way, it really would help pass on that benefit to the families.

We do a good job with providing scholarships on a financial need basis as a club, using tournament revenue and things like that, but we really - that would be huge. And I know other non-MLS clubs feel exactly the same way.

There is increasing momentum across the American soccer community to get a deal of some kind done. It might not be exactly what FIFA's rules dictate, but a lot of people believe it can be substantial - including people within MLS. Even if the league would lose some money by giving it to youth clubs, there surely would be a lot more money overall coming in.

One of those people within MLS is Union sporting director Earnie Stewart.

(Yes, I saved the real news for the end of this piece. I wanted you to read the whole thing.)

Stewart saw the benefits of the training compensation as an executive in the Netherlands. The clubs he ran sold players often, and often for big money.

"I believe that a lot of people see the value of it, because there are owners that are putting a lot of money into their academies, and it's a shame if those players leave at an early age, 16, 17, and go abroad," Stewart said. "It's capital that you've thrown away, [and] the potential of one of those players reaching the first team of a MLS franchise. From a sporting standpoint, [that] is a shame."

He also believes that there are legitimate reasons why the system doesn't exist in the United States:

There's a lot of people working on that right now. It's not as easy as it seems. At first I thought let's just put it in place and it's done. But there are laws you have to abide by. I think it would be very beneficial, one to keep players in your country that have great potential tor each a first team in MLS.

That gives another possibility: that they don't leave at an early age, but you can sell them at a little older age when they are fully developed. And you can validate that we do have a good product when it comes to developing American players.

As I've written over the last few weeks, the Union are well on their way toward validating their increasingly good product. From the strength of the academy to Derrick Jones making his first MLS start on Sunday, the signs are there for all to see.

Garber certainly knows. He's close with Union academy chief Richie Graham, and of course club owner Jay Sugarman.

But it's always good to get an in-person reminder, as Garber will have Tuesday. He'll see the work that Continental and the Union's high school do together, and he'll see a raft of players who could follow in Jones' footsteps in the years to come.

Garber will also likely get plenty of questions from fans at that forum he's having with Mayor Kenney. I won't be there, as I'm traveling from Vancouver to D.C. to cover the U.S.-France SheBelieves Cup game.

So I can only wonder from afar if someone will ask Garber for an update on the training compensation talks. I'm sure it's down the list of priorities for many Union fans, but it could have a significant impact on the team in the years to come.

The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.

Continue Reading