Union Made: We need to talk about the youth system

This is the first entry of what I hope I will be a long-running discussion on the Philadelphia Union youth system. Union Made will discuss the Union Academy as well as the Zolos of the future. It seemed appropriate to start this series with one of my largest frustrations with this team: the lack of fluidity between the Academy and the team.

The Union’s Youth Policy

Since the founding of this team, Nick Sakiewicz has emphasized youth development. Early on, he stated his ambition of fielding a starting 11 of local players. To accomplish this, most of our early money was invested in the academy at the expense of a training facility and big name players. Union part-owner Richie Graham built the YSC development complex and a high school for Union youth players. Former Rangers coach Tommy Wilson was hired to oversee this operation. The team has gone all in with their emphasis on youth.

In some ways, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor. The Union were recently rated as having the best academy system in the East. However, this is where the problem starts. Where is our Yedlin, Fagundez, Najar, or O’Neill? We may have a good system in place and talented players, but it does not matter if we do not play our youth.

The Homegrowns

Right now, the Union have three homegrown players on the roster: Zach Pfeffer, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Cristhian Hernandez. Pfeffer is a highly rated USMNT prospect. Cristhian was the academy player of the year when we signed him. Jimmy has been absolutely fantastic at Harrisburg this year.

Despite their potential, none of the players have been able to break into the team to see significant minutes in their professional careers. Pfeffer only saw minutes this year when the irate River End began chanting “We want Pfeffer” during a blowout.

The futility of our youth pipeline was most evident to me in 2012 after Hack had been hired full-time. The season was over. We were out of playoff contention, and Hack had the job. Instead of giving our youth some experience since results were pointless, Hack stuck with the same group of players who had underperformed. This “baffling” player selection foreshadowed Hack’s unwillingness to play and develop youth during his tenure.

Player Selections

Over the past few years, we have seen Keon Daniel, Gabriel Gomez, Josue Martinez, Andrew Wenger, Danny Cruz, Antoine Hoppenot, and Leo Fernandes receive significant minutes with this team.

Several of these players are not with the team now. Others sit on the bench. Some still see time. Yet, they all saw minutes over our homegrown players. This is a damning critique of the Union’s youth plan for me. Where would Pfeffer’s development be right now if he had received the lion’s share of Keon’s or Leo’s minutes in 2012 and 2013?

The same can be said about this year. Leo, Wenger, Fred, Lahoud and Hoppenot have been either ineffectual or have proven that they do not have much a ceiling. Why not give the homegrowns and Ribeiro their minutes while seeing if they can contribute now?

I have been disappointed by Curtin’s inability to use these players. He is still new, so I will give him some time. However, as we fall out of the playoff hunt, it should be a major necessity to play these players and give them some much needed experience.

The Harrisburg Problem

In my own opinion, the Harrisburg partnership has been problematic for the Union. Part of  it comes down to simple geography. Harrisburg is several hours away from Philadelphia. It is not the most convenient situation to swap players. For example, it is not the easiest to call Jimmy back up to the team on a Sunday and send him back on a Thursday while swapping his loan spot with Hoppenot during this time. This has limited the opportunity for our on loan prospects to earn time during a period of congested fixtures.

At the same time, Harrisburg is a completely separate organization. The Union only have so much influence over the Islanders. Simple things such as training or selection are out of the Union’s hands.

Take, for example, Pedro Ribeiro. The first round midfielder has played several times as centerback for the Islanders. This is counter-productive in developing him as a midfield option for this team. He needs to be seeing minutes in the position he will be playing for the Union, not serving as Harrisburg’s Wheeler-esque experiment.

It’s been mentioned many times on Big Soccer, but the Union need to create their own USL team in the fashion of Los Angeles. The Philadelphia Union II would play at PPL (or the mythical training facility). The team would feature multiple players on the fringe of the first 11 as well as academy players and trialists. Jimmy could play on a Thursday and still be local and available to play on Saturday. If the Union want to take the next step in developing our youth, we need to fully control their development rather than out-sourcing players to a minor league team.

Going Forward

How do the Union get the most out of their academy? The manager hunt is a terrific opportunity to address this problem. Hack was marketed as a youth guru who was good at developing young players. However, he did not develop a single young player under his tenure.  One of the priorities in the manager hunt should be to find someone who actually emphasizes youth development.

The Union have the infrastructure in place. Now, the team needs to take the next step forward. MLS 3.0 is here. Teams like Seattle, Toronto, New York City, and Orlando are bringing talent such as Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Defoe, David Villa, and Kaka to MLS. The Union can’t keep up financially. Our youth development will be a big component of competing in this new MLS. As we search for a new manager, now is the time to put the proper system in place to finally reap the fruit of our labors.

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