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Union Academy residency program attracting top youth players from outside MLS territories

More than a dozen players in the Union’s youth system hail from Florida, Michigan, Texas, West Virginia, Vermont and other areas where an MLS team doesn’t have first dibs

Axel Picazo was born in Mexico, but joined the Philadelphia Union Academy from Austin, Texas last season
Matt Ralph

For most families, children leaving home to pursue an education or a dream job waits until at least after high school.

But last summer, Axel Picazo left home for the first time at the age of 15 to join a youth soccer club more than 1,500 miles away from his home in Austin and even further from where he spent the first decade of his life in Mexico City.

“We always thought about having our children until they marry,” Axel’s mom Amor Picazo said in a phone interview shortly after he returned to Pennsylvania for his second year with the Philadelphia Union Academy. “Everything changed since he has this dream about being a soccer player.”

Axel is one of more than a dozen players currently in the Philadelphia Union’s youth system who aren’t from the tri-state area. Since Austin doesn’t have a professional team and is outside the homegrown territory for FC Dallas, Axel had a choice of three MLS clubs who were interested in the Lone Star SC midfielder.

The Picazos ended up choosing the Union over Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City, in part because of YSC Academy, the school where members of the Union and local club Continental FC attend, and also because they liked the setup of the residency program, where players live in houses with a house parent.

“His main goal is soccer but for us it was also important not to forget about school,” Amar said. “We really loved the whole concept of the school and the house environment.”

Axel, who turns 17 in April, had a productive first year, scoring six goals in 24 appearances for the U16s and is part of the U19 team this season. He’s also on the U.S. youth international radar, receiving a call-up to the United States U15 camp last December.

He’s one of several players from outside the Delaware Valley making an impact.

Senior midfielder Issa Rayyan hails from Michigan, as does junior central defender Benjamin Ofeimu and academy newcomer Nicholas Pariano, who isn’t part of the residency since his family recently relocated to the area.

Florida has been another fertile ground for recruiting with senior midfielder Darius Lewis, junior goalkeeper Kristopher Shakes and newcomer Shaynder Borgelin while Dante Huckaby came to the Union from West Virginia and the Miscic brothers, Selmir and Arnel, are from Vermont and newcomer Anthony DeFilippo is from Alabama.

Issa Rayyan has scored 15 goals since joining the Union in 2015 from Michigan
Matt Ralph

Peter Pososki, who is the academy’s head of talent identification, said the process of recruiting players is very similar to the college level, where he worked most recently as an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Explaining to families why they should trust you with their son is very much the same as the college process,” he said.

Major League Soccer introduced the homegrown player initiative in 2008 as a way for clubs to sign players directly from their academy systems without them being subjected to the SuperDraft.

The Union, of course, didn’t exist then, but did sign three homegrown players in the early days of the club before a full-time academy had really been established. Those players - Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez - all played with youth club affiliates.

But the signing of Derrick Jones last season signaled a new era for the club in terms of homegrown players. Jones, a Ghana native who moved to Philadelphia when he was 14, lived in residency when he was part of the youth academy and became the first player to sign with Bethlehem Steel FC.

The other two homegrown signings - Auston Trusty, of Media and Anthony Fontana, of Newark, Del. - have also come from the area but it’s only a matter of time before a player from an out-of-town zip code will make it to the first team.

“It’s my vision to have a residency stocked full of 20 of the best young players in the country that we’re able to attract from different areas,” Academy Director Tommy Wilson said in an interview last month. “It’s a game-changer. It separates us.”

Wilson recalled a visit to Auxerre’s academy in France, where only one player in the academy was local.

“Without the residency they were nothing,” he said.

Unlike at Auxerre, which can draw young players from across Europe, the Union are limited to recruiting players from outside MLS homegrown territories and to those with green cards (a FIFA requirement for players under 18).

That makes areas not within an MLS territory increasingly more competitive for recruiting efforts.

Sporting Kansas City’s recent homegrown signing, 15-year-old Gianluca Busio, came out of one of those areas in North Carolina.

The Union currently have a 15-year-old from North Carolina of their own in William Burnett, who joined the club from Capital Area Railhawks at the end of last season. The forward is currently ranked 29th in TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Boys IMG Academy 150 for the class 2020.

When the Union do attract a player from outside the area, there is no guarantee the arrangement will work out, as has been the case recently with the departure of highly rated prospects Chad Letts and Rayshaun McGann, who joined Atlanta United’s youth academy after leaving under different circumstances.

In the case of Letts, he was granted release to return to his hometown while McGann was asked to leave because of off the field issues.

Dozens of other players have left prematurely since last season, their spots filled by new players coming in. Most are coming from Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey after performing well with local clubs like Penn Fusion, Continental FC, Real Jersey FC, Kirkwood SC and others.

“Those boys don't have to change their lives as much as some of the others,” Pososki said of the local kids. “A lot of them can still live with their parents.”

Whether they are from around the corner, are riding in a van from over the river in New Jersey, or coming from halfway across the country, the professional environment provided by the academy and a school schedule that builds training into the daily schedule and long road trips into the curriculum is one Union officials think will pay off in the long run.

“It’s not an immediate payoff,” Pososki said. “It takes a lot of time and it takes struggles and some failures.”