While it is well-known that the Union have been making a big push in supporting and growing youth soccer programs around the Delaware Valley, specifically through their partnership with the Wayne, PA-based YSC Sports, what hasn't been as public is that an official U-17 team has already been assembled and will be competing in this year's SUM U-17 Cup, which is taking place in Houston. All sixteen MLS organizations are represented by their own home-grown U-17 teams in this year's Cup. The Union U-17s are in group B, along with the U-17 teams of Columbus, Dallas and Seattle.
Like many international tournaments, each team will play one game against each of the other teams in their group, and the team with the most points from each group will advance to the single-game semi-finals. The winners of the semi-finals will play in the final on the afternoon of July 28 at Reliant Stadium, just a day after the MLS All-Star Game takes place on the same pitch.
The Union U-17s kick off group play tonight at 9 PM Eastern against Columbus. They will then play tomorrow night at 9 PM Eastern against Seattle, and finally take on Dallas at 9 PM Eastern on Monday the 26th. Should the Union U-17s win their group, they would play the winner of group A (comprised of Colorado, D.C., Chicago and San Jose) on the 27th at 7:30 PM Eastern.
The focus on youth that is evident from not just the Union, but from all of MLS, is incredibly critical to the future of the sport in this country. Yes, the US Men's National Team doing well at the World Cup and other tournaments is important in gaining more converts to the sport, and especially in convincing elementary school kids that they should play soccer. But once you have kids who are playing the sport and getting better, you need a way to funnel the best of the best into not just the national team system, but also the professional system. With baseball, basketball, football and even hockey, that funnel is college. But with soccer, talent and skill need to be found and developed earlier, because in truth, there's really not a minor league system where development and polishing can take place like in baseball and hockey, nor is there a strong national college system like there is with basketball and football. The Union have gotten around that by sort of creating their own minor league system through their rather innovative partnerships with Reading United A.C. and the Harrisburg City Islanders. Restarting the MLS reserve league and really giving it the financial resources it would need, however, would be better than hoping MLS teams can find already-existing nearby lower-level teams to partner with. With that done, you can expand the MLS draft so teams will not only be more willing to bring in raw, unpolished players who have potential, but will be willing to give them the patience and time necessary to develop, since with a reserve league there's no concern about a "project" player taking up an MLS roster spot that might be better filled by an established veteran. It all starts, though, with fostering player development at the youth level, and for the Union, that effort truly starts tonight at 9 PM in Houston.