When Adam Lenges, Cole Sotack and Aboubacar Camara walked off the field in Leesburg, Virginia after a 3-2 loss to D.C. United on March 7 they had no idea that they had just played their last game together.
The YSC Academy seniors, set to graduate in an online ceremony on Friday, have been teammates since 2015 when they were rostered on the first U13 team fielded by the Philadelphia Union in the Development Academy. Their involvement in the academy even pre-dates that season with the Union Juniors.
“It’s very sad to see everything that we’ve worked toward this year in a soccer sense and also in a community sense over these past years kind of just end,” said Lenges, who joined the academy at age 11 from Penn Fusion after starting his youth soccer career at Kirkwood FC in Delaware.
Lenges and his Union U19 teammates were coming off preseason with the Union II — a productive one that saw them make strides adjusting to the new system under Sporting Director Ernst Tanner before opening the USL Championship with a scoreless draw at home to Loudoun United — and had just started the back half of their senior season in the DA.
While Lenges is planning to take a gap year, Camara is committed to the University of Louisville and Sotack to Rutgers University for the fall. Their journey in the academy over the past five-plus years has been one marked by change — in systems and tactical setups, in coaches and in the rosters of the teams they’ve played on.
Of the 17 players on the U13 roster in 2015-16, Paxten Aaronson is the only other player still in the academy. He’s entering his junior year at YSC Academy in the fall.
“It shows you how cutthroat it is,” Sotack said of the roster turnover. “I’ve seen friends, best friends, leave throughout the years and it’s difficult but it also shows how much you have to work to keep progressing.”
Sotack initially joined the Union Juniors program before joining that U13 team from FC Delco. Unlike Lenges and Camara, he only started attending YSC Academy as a junior after attending his local high school, Central Bucks East.
“It was kind of tough for me to move from my high school because I had to give up so much for something I love to do,” Sotack said. “But being in high school with your teammates — you’re always around everyone and you get to meet some of the other age groups — has its advantages too.”
As his CB East friends have had to cope with ending their senior years through completing assignments online and seeing events canceled, the school component of the final months of Sotack’s senior year has been the least disruptive aspect of things. Before the shutdown over the coronavirus pandemic, the older academy players were already completing coursework for the most part away from the school campus to accommodate training sessions with Philadelphia Union II in Chester.
“It was a similar situation to what we have now so we already had exposure to how we were going to do school before all of this,” Lenges said.
The flip side of that is that the suspension of the USL Championship season with still no return in sight has meant potentially missed opportunities for the three seniors to make their professional debuts.
“That was one of my goals to get some minutes but now I’ll never know if it would have happened for me or not,” Sotack said.
As is the tradition at YSC Academy, each of the graduating seniors will give a speech in the virtual graduation, this year via pre-recorded video. The seniors will have a chance to thank everyone who has played a role in their time at “soccer high school” and recount their journey.
For Camara, who was recruited to the academy as an 11-year-old after being encouraged by a teacher at Penn Wood Middle School to try out, the journey he’s taken is unique among the stories his classmates will tell. Soccer was one of the only ways Camara was able to interact with kids his age when he arrived in the U.S. from Guinea as a 10-year-old.
“The toughest part was I didn’t know any English so it was really difficult,” he said. “It was tough for people to even help me because I didn’t know what to say.”
His soccer did most of the talking for him upon his arrival at the academy but the development through high-level training during the week and games against top competition on weekends have enabled him to progress to a more polished and well-rounded attacking player.
“When I first got to the Union I didn’t know a lot of the technical part,” Camara said. “I knew how to run in behind but as I’ve gone through the different age groups I learned a lot more of the technical part, knowing when to check in, when to run in behind, when to hold the ball up so I think that’s where I’ve improved the most.”
Dating back to his 2016-17 season with the U14 team, Camara has scored 57 goals in 77 appearances.
Beyond the successes on the field, Camara said it’s the support he’s received off the field that he’ll remember most about his time in the academy.
“I had some good times and I had some bad times,” he said. “It’s been tough but it’s also been fun. I’ve enjoyed every moment.”
Those moments didn’t get the exclamation point they deserved.
The final trip to play Red Bull away in North Jersey that would have been last weekend, the in-person graduation ceremony and the recognition before a home game at Subaru Park as the tradition has been in June to name just a few things that have been significantly changed or postponed.
Camara and his classmates will look back on their senior year as the year coronavirus put the world at a standstill and think about the what ifs that may have transpired, the goals that they never got to score, the creativity they never got to display together in celebrating them, the ways they may have made each other laugh to pass the time on long road trips, the banter on the training fields in Chester and so much more.
“It’s out of our control and we aren’t alone in this but it’s not how any of us would have ever imagined it ending,” Lenges said. “All we can do is make the most of it and look forward to being back on the field again.”