Philadelphia Union Academy Looks to Find the Next American Soccer Star
The Major League Soccer club is on a mission to up the sport’s U.S. presence.
Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union
The first things Derrick Jones noticed were the soccer balls. Everybody had one. No one had to share. Back home, there were maybe two or three for all of the players. But his new home, the Philadelphia Union’s academy, had enough to make sure each person could perform drills and train without waiting. “It was so different for me,” the 20-year-old says. “I had to get used to it.”
Jones spent the first 14 years of his life in Ghana, which has a burgeoning international soccer presence but remains well behind even the United States in terms of facilities and resources. When his family moved here in 2011 and settled in South Philadelphia, Jones could’ve hardly imagined that, just a couple weeks after his 20th birthday, he’d be playing a central role in the Union’s season-opening 0-0 tie in Vancouver. Jones started as a defensive midfielder, and he played with a poise and calm that belied his youth. “I did not know I was going to play,” Jones says. “When I found out, I was nervous, of course, because it was my first game in Major League Soccer and first game of the year. I just went on the turf and played. My working hard helped.”
Jones may have been surprised to get the opening-day assignment, but for the Union, his ascension was the first fruit of a four-year-old academy program designed to create a pipeline to the team and help promote U.S. soccer on the whole. The vision of Richie Graham, a part-owner of the MLS club, the Wayne-based facility may not announce itself with gaudy architecture, but it’s the product of millions of investment dollars and houses a rarity in this country: a full-time soccer high school that develops future professional players. Modeled after European academies, it provides education and soccer training for students in grades 8-12 and hopes to feed players like Jones to the Union for years to come.
Graham, a serial entrepreneur who owns the YSC Sports soccer facility that abuts the Union school, believes that, for the U.S. to become a world soccer powerhouse, academies must sprout up all across the country. High schools and colleges do a good job of developing players, but none have the focus, resources and relationship with a professional club like the Union academy does.
People have been predicting a soccer explosion in America for decades, and Graham is adamant that the Union’s model is the key to building a bridge between the heavily populated youth ranks and the elite international level. According to him, no U.S. player is among the top 100 in the world—except maybe Hershey native Christian Pulisic—something that isn’t a condition in any other major sport. “At the very highest level, in order for the sport to become relevant in this country, we need to produce American stars,” Graham says. “That way, the guy who is the casual fan can become more of a fan when he turns on the TV and sees a dominant player who is an American.”
It’s something of an odd juxtaposition. As MLS Commissioner Don Garber answers questions genially in the lobby of the academy, an adult-rec league game trundles toward completion on the artificial turf behind him. Garber is in Wayne to provide an official imprimatur for the Union’s endeavor and to address students in a “town hall” setting. The new season has just kicked off, and he is thrilled to discuss Orlando’s futuristic new stadium and Atlanta’s new franchise. “We have been dreaming about building a league in our country—and now in Canada—where we can have young kids grow up and want to be part of the movement,” he tells the students.
Garber says MLS needs more initiatives like the Union’s to cultivate American talent and create a league that will appeal to young stars like Pulisic, who progressed through Borussia Dortmund’s youth program before joining the Bundesliga this past season as an 18-year-old phenom. He’s the youngest player ever to score a goal for the U.S. national team and the youngest foreigner ever to score in Bundesliga play.
Pulisic is clearly the type of player Graham and Garber reference when talking about creating American stars, but he’s also so good that there was no way he was staying in this country during his crucial development stages. That’s the reason MLS has contributed $50 million to teams like the Union, the LA Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps that have opened academies.
The Union’s facility offers everything necessary to help top players reach their potential and push the U.S. soccer effort forward. The fields, locker rooms, and weight and training facilities are top-shelf. The instructors are among the finest in Pennsylvania and beyond—director Tommy Wilson is a Scottish expat who spent four seasons as his homeland’s national team coach. Students receive excellent academic instruction in classrooms with plenty of technological advantages. They face competition on the field from teams throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and have opportunities to try out for U.S. age-group teams.
But Graham cautions against looking at the academy’s enrollment and forecasting which teenagers will be scoring goals in the 2026 World Cup. It’s a long process, and he is patient. “Youth development and player development take 10 years,” Graham says. “We are only in our fourth year. The MLS academies are a relatively new concept, and the league has paid a lot of attention to it. But a lot more needs to be done. Still, it’s an exciting thing.”
In addition to time, the academy needs continued support from the area’s youth-soccer community, which has entrenched directors who are often quite protective of their fiefdoms. There’s also a tug-of-war between elite teams, like FC Delco, FC Europa and high school programs for the best players, some of whom have been forced to choose sides. Further, prep squads throughout the state have lost players to developmental academies like those sponsored by U.S. Soccer and are therefore wary of developing relationships with them.
The Union found itself in a unique situation last fall with Episcopal Academy goalie Matt Freese. Freese had been training at the academy, but when Portuguese club Benfica called up starting U18 goalie C.J. Dos Santos, Wilson asked Freese to move from part-time backup to full-time starter. Freese decided against the move, choosing to play for EA and helping the Churchmen surrender just 17 goals in 20 games. However, he did train with the U18 squad, as well as the Union’s minor-league affiliate, the Bethlehem Steel, and for a time, with the big club itself. Freese will enroll at Harvard in the fall.
Graham understands the balkanized makeup of the eastern Pennsylvania soccer scene, but he insists everybody can work together toward the common goal of producing players good enough to help the U.S. become an international powerhouse. “The Philadelphia Union can’t do it on our own,” he says. “It’s all of us involved in the game, whether we are professional clubs or small clubs. We’re all in the business of developing the sport, of all moving together. We can make Philadelphia a leading market of producing talent. We are aligned with and working with local clubs to try to develop talent.”
And finding the next Derrick Jones—and many more like him.