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Union Soccer: The Next Generation

There are the hallowed halls of their new secondary school, and the development of their academy structure, from which the Philadelphia Union are building an avenue for the Philadelphia area to pave a lasting legacy in the sport. But what other ways could there be for the organization to develop the next soccer generation?

I attended this year's National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Conference last month.  It was my first soccer convention, and the first time I've received media credentials to cover anything.  My normal role here at Brotherly Game is to converse and attempt to entertain Twitter followers of @tBGLIVE during the Union's matches.  I was curious about what exactly went on at this gathering, other than the collegiate player entry drafts of both MLS and NWSL.  I observed several tactical discussions, which I mention here. There was a wealth of soccer experience and knowledge in that building - primarily in the area of coaching preparations and tactics, but also of development of youth programs.  That there were several discussions of various areas of youth development not surprising; this was, after all, a building full of soccer coaches.  The specific part that was interesting was that there were many discussions, not on how to teach the game, but just how to get kids to play it at all.

Rene Meulensteen spoke at the NSCAA Conference about the school system that Philadelphia Union are developing.  It goes beyond just the technical football training; it seeks to create a generation of well-rounded individuals, with the intellectual tools to succeed beyond the pitch.  The stated objective of the school, as it is linked to a soccer club, is to develop footballers of high quality.  They have the opportunity to get kids into their learning center and teach them in the same manner as European clubs have been for decades.  They'll be able to start in on the greater Philadelphia area's youth from their formative years and have soccer skills be second nature to them.  That system, however, is for the families that are able to pay for their child/children to be a part of this type of specialized training.  The tuition to attend the school is $15,000 per year, though there is no such tuition to be an academy player.  Neither the team nor MLS invested any money in the facility, which is funded by league fees paid to use the facilities at YSC Sports.  What other avenues or grassroots programs are there?  An under-utilized area of the sport's outreach are the underserved communities, of which, Philadelphia has a sizable population.

Not factoring Southern New Jersey or Delaware into it, the Philadelphia five-county area has slightly more than 4 million people, the totality of which is the fifth most populous region in the United States.  Philadelphia has the ignominious title of being the poorest big city in America, where 26.3% of its people are at or below the poverty line.  That's over one million people, and does not include Camden, Chester, or other peripheral areas - just the city of Philadelphia.  This isn't to say that I think that the Philadelphia Union can be saviors and uplift the entirety of a region out of socioeconomic despair, however it is empirical proof that there is a massive population available.  US Men's National Team Manager Jürgen Klinsmann has said publicly that he believes the inner city is a place where "hungry" players can be found.  Soccer can be their way out of poverty.

Soccer Across America (SAA) is a national organization founded by US Youth Soccer whose mission is to bring the game to all children of all backgrounds and economic situations.  I spoke with SAA Region II Chairman Marc Maxey about how it is that he believes a population segment is best reached.  His belief is that it takes connecting to members of the community, "gatekeepers," as Maxey referred to them, to then spread the word and lend credibility to the volunteers. There isn't a way for a national organization to penetrate these neighborhoods because they simply can't know someone everywhere.  They need community leaders to act as liaisons.  From his experience, the Philadelphia Union are looking for willing volunteers with clear visions and plans of a way to reach its target audience.  His opinion is that Major League Soccer can do more to help the situation.

The macrocosmic question I then asked myself is: why isn't this being driven from the top down by the Philadelphia Union?  Can it be?  Major League Soccer has existed for 19 years, but Union have been around for just five of them.  Being involved at that level of the game while their primary directive is the product on the PPL Park pitch is logically too much to ask.  They would be spread way too thin.  One can hope that the network would be in place, some day soon for MLS - in every market they're in and not just the Delaware Valley - to partner with already existing organizations.  Ideally, it benefits the franchise and its community, with the training staff logistical support to the youth team staff, while providing the professionals the route to give back to the community, the way that I'm sure someone did for them in their youth.  There are some organizations in the Delaware Valley that are working with these communities: Organizations such as Camden Youth Soccer Club (CYSC)Kensington Soccer Club (KSC), and Chester Upland Soccer For Success (CUSFS).

I spoke with Jim Hardy of KSC at length about his motivations and methods used in directing his kids.  Jim is a teacher at a Kensington high school.  This is important for several reasons: he already has an in with the community, and he is educated in how to educate.  His passion for the project is driven by his personal love for the game, and he desire to share his love of the game with those who had yet to be exposed to it.  The task  is daunting.  Inner city activities always face the challenge of securing funding.  KSC is no different.  Some of his participants are able to pay the "suggested donation" of anywhere from $5 to $30.  No person is ever turned away, however, if they aren't able to pay.  The growth here is as organic as can be.  Jim works as the high school's soccer team coach.  That turned into spending time at the recreation center organizing pickup games instead of playing in leagues.  He invited those players from the immediate neighborhood to join him.  That turned into those kids talking at home about the games, and subsequently bringing their siblings, or friends.  Two people become four, four become eight, and so on.  Suddenly, he was confronted with not having to pick teams, but how to harness what had been built and make it something larger than what he would have imagined in his dreams.  The KSC program, turning no one away, has kids as young as 3, all the way into the high school ages.

While the objective of community development through the teaching of soccer has never changed, there are some varied focuses for the organization.  Jim, as an educator, always keeps that aspect of life at the forefront.  A central credo is to use the program to give the kids a reason to work harder in school, and care more for their community.  The community is built through the kids getting to know one another through the sport, which teaches the value of teamwork.  Furthering that beyond the game organization, Jim utilizes the older children, or those who have experience in the program, to mentor their younger or less experienced peers.  Not only is the attendance borne of word-of-mouth organic growth, but the interpersonal development is also built from within.  These kids are bonding over the sport with their geographic neighbors.  Where their life situation often seems hopeless or desperate, the sport, and their friend network within it, gives them the confidence to succeed and persevere.

That segues into another off-shoot focus.  KSC works with the kids at every age bracket to help them advance their position.  Children of middle school age are guided and advised with what high school they can or should attend.  From there, the high school kids get consultation on the prospects of attending college or some form of continuing education.  The soccer side of this is that the club, founded in 2010, has developed and evolved enough that they have been able to impress Union Academy personnel.  Hardy would love to see one of his pupils make it to represent his hometown team in Major League Soccer someday, but he would be equally tickled to have them earn a college scholarship because of sporting skills developed at KSC.

Camden Youth Soccer Club and Chester Upland Soccer For Success are similar in that they are less competitive than what KSC has become.  These clubs primarily promote health and wellness through the playing of soccer.  The fitness aspect is part of it, while also giving these at-risk children a positive alternative to getting into trouble.  Both organizations have weekend-based programs, while CUSFS also has an after-school component which includes both schools and the local YMCA.  CYSC has recently added a winter program, partnering with The Salvation Army's Kroc Center so that the game can be played indoors until Spring's warmer weather arrives.  These organizations both work to develop self-esteem by way of developing soccer skills, not so much in finding the best players.

The Chester Upland is a third-year program is based out of Widener University.  The program was the recipient, four years ago, of a grant through US Youth Soccer to build a turf field, though the school also uses the field for its own purposes.  The relationship between Soccer For Success and US Youth Soccer is that USYS, being the national body, pools its coaching resources in distributable fashion, made available to all of its peripheral segments.  SFS entities across the country have all of this information and accrued knowledge within reach.  Their aim is to identify those aforementioned community leaders.  That the Philadelphia Union set up their operation in Chester made Widener a natural partner for the charitable outreach.

Widener's Men's Soccer Head Coach Brent Jacquette is the Program Director at CUSFS, and he spoke with me about the program, and the level of involvement of the Philadelphia Union.  The CUSFS website says that Union "will provide curricula review as well as experienced interns and staff members.  The Union will assist with site procurement and logistics and enhance the overall program through their soccer know-how."  Jacquette, however, described their involvement was almost exclusively financial.  A criterion of Chester Upland's grant is that the program contribute to the operation dollar-for-dollar what it receives from US Youth Soccer, and Union help the organization cover that cost.  Union also hosted CUSFS at the stadium grounds as a site for a round-robin style tournament for its members.  There was no mention of members of the Union organization being directly involved in any instruction of players.

Philadelphia Union are a for-profit organization. They have investors and business partners who expect them to do their best to be successful in their league: That is first and foremost.  Involvement at any level with groups such as the three mentioned in this post is great for all involved.  That is, provided that it is done correctly.  I spoke with a youth league director who lives and works in a city with an MLS club in it.  That club's interaction with the youth group was characterized as "exploitative."  The club had staff members visit once and take pictures with the kids so that they could use that to create positive public relations.  He said that this team donated a total of $25 to them.  This is, plainly, an example of how an MLS club trying to be involved can turn out badly.  The Union so far appear to be doing things the right way.  KSC, CYSC, and CUSFS grew organically from people wanting to use their love of soccer to make a difference.  The Philadelphia Union should continue to be involved as they have been, to show support for what the programs are doing, and be an example of hard work in soccer paying off.  The youth clubs' mission is to better their community, while Union's mission is to better their squad.  Strengthening these outreach initiatives could one day achieve both of these goals.