Jon Scheer was finishing up school and preparing to transition into coaching at the University of Delaware when he first met Roberto Gimenez during the Spanish forward’s recruiting visit to Newark.
Almost a decade later, the former Blue Hens have teamed up to scout and recruit promising young players across the country to join the Philadelphia Union’s academy.
Gimenez joined the Union Academy staff full-time in February after doing some work for Scheer on a part-time basis, giving the academy two full-time employees dedicated to scouting and recruiting young talent.
“I think we are the first (MLS) club in the academy to have two full-time scouts and I think that speaks by itself,” Gimenez said. “If you go to Europe in the academy, first team, second team in every league they have two or three scouts.”
The partnership has already produced notable results with the pair teaming up to scout a number of players with first team and national team potential to the area dating back to last year when Gimenez, who is fluent in Spanish and English, assisted on the recruitment of Gael Medrano from Michigan. Recent additions have included highly rated prospects like Alex Perez from Las Vegas, Bajung Darboe from Wisconsin and Diego Lopez from San Diego.
These players — who have had offers from numerous other MLS clubs before deciding to relocate to the Main Line with their families or join the residency program — have supplemented the rosters within the academy that are still mostly filled with players recruited from the region through local scouting efforts.
Gimenez came up through the Real Madrid system in his native Spain and once had a trial with Arsenal but his family’s desire for him to pursue an education and brought him to the U.S., initially to Missouri, where he played soccer at NAIA Hannibal-LaGrange University. When he came to the attention of Delaware men’s soccer coach Ian Hennessy and came for a campus visit he knew very little English but he went on to star for the team, earn two degrees and stay on as a coach on Hennessy’s staff.
“Of course I do like coaching,” said Gimenez, who also coached for Kirkwood FC and Delaware FC while on Hennessy’s staff. “But the other side of the game like recruiting players, getting the best talents, etc. is my passion.”
Gimenez has aspirations to one day work as a sporting director at a club but for now he’s happy working with Scheer in an organization that values the hard work they are doing. They both said the trust they have for each other is central to their working relationship.
“We’re very close as friends, but I know that when he and I speak about the game, we’re looking at the big picture very similarly,” said Jon Scheer, Philadelphia Union Academy Director of Talent Identification. “We can have disagreements and talk, you know, how we see elements of individual players of the game holistically, things will differ a little bit, but at the end of the day, we have a very similar foundation and framework and that’s really important for me.”
Scheer grew up in West Windsor, N.J. and at the time the model of development centered around the Olympic Development Program. The system he and Gimenez now are helping to build is unrecognizable from the one in the U.S. Scheer experienced as a player. Within the Union, things have changed rapidly even since he took over his position in March 2018.
“My first six months on the job were completely different than my last six months,” Scheer said.
A big reason for that has been the introduction of Sporting Director of Ernst Tanner, who has worked to remake the academy setup into one more closely resembling what Gimenez experienced in his native Spain. The recruiting process is a big part of that since the goal is to get players ready for first team football by age 17 and to bring in not only the best players they can find locally but also scour the country for top talent.
The Union has been ahead of the curve from the start in terms of scouting players from outside the area and putting them into their residency program but as the league responds to the ripple effects of players like Brenden Aaronson signing abroad — the transfer fee for his sale to Red Bull Salzburg in January could reach as high as $9 million — the competition will only intensify.
The ace in the deck for the Union for many years now has been YSC Academy. The private school founded by Union minority owner Richie Graham in 2013 enables academy players to have up to 10 training sessions a week incorporated into a school day and for education to occur practically seamlessly whether they are on long road trips, flying across the country to showcases or training down in Chester.
The opportunity and success of first team players like Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, who is likely the next to sign with a team in Europe, has only made that pitch easier because in addition to the built-out infrastructure and methodology there is tangible proof they can point to that many teams around the league simply don’t have in their back pocket yet.
“The proof of concept that has occurred isn’t going to make our job easier but it’s something that we can point to to say we’re not just saying that’s what our model is,” Scheer said. “It’s what it is and we’re getting to the point where we’re saying no to youth national team level kids.”
Delaware men’s soccer head coach Ian Hennessy isn’t surprised to see Scheer and Gimenez working together on the forefront of a movement that is reshaping a league unrecognizable from when he played for the MetroStars in the league’s inaugural season.
“Their soccer IQ was very, very high as players,” Hennessy said. “I didn’t really have to coach them a lot, they had it figured out. We’d have these higher level discussions because they know the game and that’s not because of me but their background and their passion for it.”
As a scout for U.S. Soccer and a technical director on the youth side of things with Delaware FC, Hennessy sees the work the Union are doing as critical to the future growth of the sport in the U.S.
“They’ve had a lot of really good success stories and more from what I’m seeing coming through the pipeline and I think they’ve done a really good job of of marrying what Ernst (Tanner) wants, what Jim (Curtin) wants, what Tommy (Wilson) wants,” Hennessy said. “I think that as a club, they do a really good job of exchanging information and understanding what the nature of the first team is.”
For Scheer and Gimenez that means the work is never complete. Even as the team announces signings of new homegrown players for next season, they’re hard at work watching game film, planning trips and setting up meetings with family members all with one thing in mind: the future.
“We have to make sure we’re on the forefront of development and are reinventing ourselves in the right way,” Scheer said. “Because everybody’s catching up so if we stay in the same place that’s not going to be good for us.”