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Go pro or go to college? Academy standouts weighing options

Several top youth prospects for the Philadelphia Union Academy have a tough choice to make about their future

Mark McKenzie makes a play on the ball against Continental FC for the Union U18 team
Matt Ralph

College soccer used to be the goal of all but a handful of the top youth prospects in the country, but with the growth of the academy and the advent of USL teams owned by Major League Soccer clubs, more young players are facing a decision over whether to skip college to go pro as teenagers.

“We’re starting to see the transition from young kids playing club and academy soccer to get the opportunity to go to college to now they are being told they play academy to become professionals,” Wake Forest head coach Bobby Muus said in a recent phone interview.

Muus, who led a team that included Philadelphia Union Academy graduate Joey DeZart to the College Cup final in December, has already lost a pair of recruits with ties to the Union.

Last August, former U16 forward Isaiah Young backed out of his commitment to return to academy soccer with North Jersey club PDA and eventually signed a professional contract with Werder Bremen in Germany. In January, defender Matthew Real opted out of his Wake Forest commitment when he signed a one-year deal with Bethlehem Steel FC.

Two others committed to go the Winston-Salem, North Carolina school this fall - Mark McKenzie and Justin McMaster - could be faced with a similar decision.

Philadelphia Union Academy director Tommy Wilson said in a recent interview that the club is in contract talks with “3 or 4 boys.” Though he didn’t name names, McKenzie, McMaster and Anthony Fontana, a junior in high school, are likely candidates. Josue Monge, who is committed to the University of South Florida, is another.

“We’re not against education, but we are about developing players for the first team,” Tommy Wilson said. “That’s a big, big part of what we do but I was down at the school recently, we were taking pictures with 11 or 12 boys going to Division 1 colleges. That’s also part of the process.”

While homegrown rights follow a player to the college ranks and Premier Development League affiliate Reading United provides a summer development platform, the pathway of academy/Bethlehem to college/PDL has yet to produce a first team player. (Keegan Rosenberry, who played for Georgetown and Reading United, was a member of the Union’s youth system when it was essentially an all-star team of players from local club affiliates and was acquired via the 2016 MLS SuperDraft.)

All four of the full-time academy alums on professional contracts with the club - Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty on the first team, Real and Yosef Samuel for Bethlehem Steel - skipped out on college. Jimmy McLaughlin, who played for youth affiliate FC Delco (now Continental FC), is the only Union homegrown to ever play college soccer, which he did for a season at Colgate before signing in 2012.

For Real, a Drexel Hill native who has been in the Union’s youth system since he was 9 years old, the opportunity to turn pro was simply too good to pass up.

“It’s a big sacrifice because a lot of good comes from college but for me this is what I’ve always wanted since I was young so I felt like since the opportunity was at my feet I might as well just take it now,” Real said. “College is always there so it’s not like I can’t go back in the future.”

Missing out on a player like Young, who could have made the difference in the national title game lost to Stanford on penalties, and now on a talented left back like Real is no doubt disappointing for Muus, but the third-year head coach (he was at Denver for eight seasons prior) said he still believes in what Wake Forest and other top college programs can offer young players.

“College seems like a really good option until the contract is put in front of you,” Muus said. “But it’s still possible to play at a high level and get a degree from one of the best institutions in America. There’s a foundation in place and there’s proof in the pudding that you can be a very good professional player and go to college.”

Two recent examples Muus points to are D.C. United homegrown player Ian Harkes, who won the MAC Hermann Trophy as college’s most outstanding player last season, and FC Dallas draft pick Jacori Hayes.

“Those guys really can’t fail, because they have one of the best degrees in America to fall back on,” he said.

Signing a pro contract as a teen is, of course, not a big deal in other leagues around the world and Wilson and Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart both come from a background where that is the norm, Wilson at Rangers FC in Scotland and Stewart at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands.

“That’s what we’re used to, that’s what we’ve been brought up with,” Wilson said, pointing to the path Jones has taken from the academy, to Bethlehem to the first team as the ideal. “It’s slightly different here and the culture is slightly different here and I understand that but I think (Derrick Jones) is a great role model for the young lads to follow.”

Whether the latest crop of college-bound prospects will follow suit (Jones was once-upon-a-time committed to Rhode Island) will ultimately be a decision they each make with their families, weighing scholarship money and contract figures, the value of a subsidized education versus the opportunity of pursuing a dream.

Salaries being what they are at the MLS level (Jones’ compensation was listed at $57K, Trusty’s at $80K in figures released in September) and significantly lower at USL, it’s not always a slam dunk proposition for the team trying to convince a player and his family from going the college route. The league did, however, just up the ante by recently announcing that teams can now dedicate $200,000 of targeted allocation money to sign homegrown players.

Even before this announcement, Seattle Sounders star Jordan Morris received the richest homegrown offer ($190K) in league history after playing three seasons at Stanford and Harkes’ homegrown deal to keep him from going abroad after exhausting his college eligibility was reportedly on the higher end of homegrown contracts.

“For me I think you can have the best of both worlds by going to college,” Muus said.