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Wins are great, but scouting and development key to Reading United success

Bethlehem Steel FC has strengthened the Philadelphia Union’s ties to its PDL affiliate

Mo Adams in a game for Reading United against FA Euro on May 27, 2017
Dave Musante

Success in the win column has become so common for Reading United - nine playoff berths in the last decade - a team that didn’t win a bunch of games would be a surprise.

But even this season as the wins have piled up - a dozen in 14 league games, another pair of Ws in the U.S. Open Cup - the true mission of the Philadelphia Union’s Premier Development League team has played itself out on the training pitch.

That’s where some 40 players have done battle to prove themselves not only to make the game day 18 but to gain exposure in front of coaches and technical staff within the Philadelphia Union organization.

For a group of players, like holding midfielder Mo Adams, that has meant training not only with Reading United, but with Bethlehem Steel FC and the first team. Each week, Bethlehem Steel FC has brought in Reading players for training.

“That’s probably the main reason I wanted to go to Reading,” said Adams, a former Nottingham Forest youth player who will be entering his second season at Syracuse this fall. “It’s important to get that exposure with professional teams.”

Adams has also had a training stint this summer with Sporting Kansas City.

While the pathway for Adams to Major League Soccer is through the draft - either as an early entry via a Generation adidas contract should one come or after his college eligibility is exhausted - increasingly more players spending the summer in Reading have come out of the Philadelphia Union’s youth academy system.

Lamine Conte in a game against Jersey Express on July 8, 2017
Dave Musante

Lamine Conte is among the group of Academy grads who have excelled both in training and in matches for Reading this summer. He’s fourth on the team in minutes and has been an anchor on a back line that has conceded just 10 times in 14 league matches.

“You’re expected to fight for your spot every single day,” said Conte, who will enter his second season at NAIA University of Mobile this fall. “It keeps you focused, it builds you mentally and you become more competitive, which I think are some tools that will help us young players in the long run.”

Whether it’s training with Reading United or Bethlehem Steel, the hours are logged toward the 30 needed each year for academy alums to stay eligible for a homegrown contract with the first team.

To date, just one of the Union’s six homegrown signings have been signed out of college - Jimmy McLaughlin signed after a season at Colgate - but this year’s senior class will be the first to have players who played for the academy in its first season in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2013-14. Prior to joining the DA, the Union had a youth training setup that brought in players from youth club affiliates for reserve matches and competitions.

Zach Zandi
Dave Musante

The first U18 team in 2013-14 included a trio of players who have been with Reading United this season in Will Campbell, Mo Conde and Zach Zandi. All three will still be college underclassmen this fall.

When the Reading United players spend time training with Bethlehem Steel, they do so alongside current academy players, who are regularly in training with the team and unlike current college players are able to play in games under USL amateur contracts.

Union U18 head coach Jeff Cook, who also serves as an assistant on Brendan Burke’s staff with the Steel, said the training sessions with Steel are a way to re-introduce former academy players back into the organization.

“It’s an important connection to the whole group and a really important part of each player’s pathway as they try and continue to keep their dream of becoming professionals alive,” Cook said.

Mixed in with the former academy players are a number of top Division 1 stars and some lesser known players out of the lower divisions of NCAA, the NAIA and other young international players uncovered during a lengthy recruiting process.

“It’s built on recruiting,” said Reading United head coach Stephen Hogan, who is also on the Steel FC coaching staff. “Not that results don’t matter but the scouting tool is the more important thing. That’s why we tried to recruit a lot of players this year.”

A total of 39 players logged minutes with the team during the PDL regular season. Other players have spent time with the team in training, but haven’t seen the field.

“It’s tough because of so many players, but it’s fun and I get to pick from some of the best players in the country,” Hogan said.

That talent - year after year Reading United alums have their name called on draft day - is why, even if it isn’t the primary focus, the results have gone so consistently in the team’s favor. This year, Reading United finished with the third best record in the 72-team league and tied for the most wins with New York Red Bulls U23 and OKC Energy U23.

Still, because they came up a point shy of first place New York Red Bulls U23, they travel tonight to play Seacoast United Phantoms in Massachusetts. The reward for a win over Seacoast will be a trip to Georgia for the Eastern Conference Championship Weekend, beginning on July 22.