Philadelphia plan to blaze a trail for MLS academies

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The Philadelphia Union’s plans for future development are getting plenty of press this morning.

And those plans rely on youth, heavily.

Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz and other high-ranking officials at the MLS club are thinking big in terms of youth development and using homegrown talent in their future, as they spoke to local press about the plans.

“Our plan is to develop a college-prep program that would provide players an opportunity to pursue their goals on and off the field — and it’ll be like no other,” said Richard Graham, part owner of the Union and a major benefactor to the Union Academy setup.

That goal is achievable and given the fact that the Philadelphia area is one of the hotbeds of youth soccer in the US, they could prove very fruitful.

It all ties in with the Union opening up their Development Academy for the 2013-14 season.

But is the model sustainable? What if the Union continue to throw plenty of cash into youth development and it doesn’t yield results? That’s the last though on head coach John Hackworth’s mind. “We’re in a business that spends millions of dollars in player acquisition,” Hackworth said. “To me it makes so much more sense to grow that player within your area, to teach him the philosophies and the style so that, when they get here — and it’s a long, long path, and very few get here — they’re ready and (will) be so much more prepared for it.”

While the CEO is harbouring dreams of one day having the enitre starting lineup made up of players from the Philadelphia area. “My dream someday is to field a starting XI from this region, with kids that grew up in this town,” Sakiewicz said. “With 35,000 boys in this area between eight and 18, that’s very possible. That’s more boys than Chelsea has to look at.”

So this all sounds great. It really does. But is it achievable?

There are so many factors that go into developing and nurturing young talented soccer stars who will go on to make it big in the future. The Union have incredible staff on board to help with their aim, former Glasgow Rangers academy technical director Tommy Wilson fronts the Union’s academy, while former US youth national team coaches and top college coaches now run teams at every age group of the Union’s academy.

Not to mention head coach Hackworth is the former US U-17 head coach and director of the US Soccer federation’s Bradenton academy.

But sometimes, despite having all these great coaches and developing wonderful facilities, a little bit of luck comes in to the equation. At Manchester United, when Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt all arrived on the scene at the same time, it was an anomaly. Something that couldn’t be explained. How did six future international soccer players just turn up? And look at the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Barcelona’s academy. United and Barca poured plenty of resources into their youth setup, and the Union are looking to do the same.

However there is a big gamble with building the whole structure of the club on youth development. What if you don’t get lucky and other external factors play a part in the development of your players, then what do you have to show for it?

But if any club in MLS are likely to succeed with ambitious academy plans, it is the Philadelphia Union.