There will be some noticeable changes when the Philadelphia Union Academy kicks off its eighth season this weekend.
First, teams will no longer be playing under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer. Replacing the Development Academy, which the Union joined in 2013, is the MLS-run MLS Next. The name and brand for the new platform was officially unveiled on Monday, but the ongoing pandemic means things will not be business as usual.
Other noticeable changes will include the number of teams the Union will be fielding. MLS Next includes every age group from U13 to U19, but the Union will have just four teams at the U13, U14, U15 and U17 level.
This move away from the U19 team is part of the strategy of Sporting Director Ernst Tanner to push players through the pipeline at increasingly younger ages. Most of the players who would have been on a U19 team are currently not only playing in the USL Championship but starting.
Some, like Brandan Craig and Quinn Sullivan, are rostered with the U17 team and will have an opportunity to play when available but for the most part you’ll also see a lot of younger players playing at the U17 level, like the 2006-born striker Gael Medrano, who may be the biggest prospect right now not already featuring with the Union II.
There’s a possibility we’ll see friendlies and other competition with local adult amateur squads and players within the system too old for the U17 team. There’s also flexibility within the system as it’s set up now to allow for some over-age players — particularly at the goalkeeper spot — to get game minutes when needed. But as far as the official league schedule, which will be rolled out in phases, goes the focus will be on the four teams competing for now just within the region.
All of this means that expectations for performance — always a secondary consideration to development anyway — should be tempered. Past domination from Union Academy teams beating up on their peers may be replaced by struggles against older more physical teams with greater lineup consistency as players adjust to higher levels of play and work through the growing pains of perfecting the desired 4-4-2 diamond system being drilled into players even at the younger age groups now.
The pressure has maybe never been greater within the academy system as MLS is showing even more commitment to the model the Union have been one of the leaders in to grow domestic players not just for first team football but for the overseas transfer market. Growing interest from overseas for Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson is only intensifying those efforts within the staff, which is all working off the same script from Ernst Tanner, Chris Albright and Jim Curtin on down.
The race for pushing younger will certainly have its casualties as rosters turn over and players deemed at 15 or 16 to not be first team material will be passed over (and hopefully have something to say about it years later) but no one can accuse the organization of not being ambitious. From last year to this year, the total number of rostered players has gone from 119 to 91. Twenty-six players on Union Academy rosters this time last year, not including graduates and no longer rostered academy players with Union II, were not listed on the rosters released earlier this week.
Aaron Heard, widely considered one of the top prospects in the system, has left but Las Vegas defender Alex Perez leads a strong recruiting class of 13 players mostly with local club ties that have already shown well in preseason. New recruit Jack Brown from PA Classics even has a golazo under his belt already.
The seeds planted in 2013 when Union minority owner Richie Graham opened the doors of YSC Academy (a learning center environment for select players predated it) with the mission of creating a training environment where players could develop quicker with sessions built around their school day has started to show real fruit. The model is doing what Graham promised it would do, thanks to near constant refinement and tweaks, which includes the recent decision to not field a U19 team and the establishment of a remote campus for the school down in Chester for academy players training daily with Union II.
There have been bumps along the way and there will continue to be wrinkles but for the most part what Graham predicted and invested a small fortune to support has come to pass.
Here’s to the next chapter.