On Tuesday, the YSC Academy officially opened its doors and welcomed a full class for the first time. Hailed as a unique endeavor in American soccer, 32 students are enrolled in the program which is soccer-focused but maintains a rigorous academic curriculum. The staff looked at clubs around the world, including FC Barcelona and Hoffenheim in building the soccer program, and brought in Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee, an adjunct professor at St. Joseph's University, to head up the academic side.
As expected, the adults are bullish.
"It’s huge," said Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. "It’s one of those days in Union history where we will look back 10 or 15 years from now and see a bunch of players at PPL Park and say we were there when we affiliated with YSC Academy and the school. It’s the most important day -- there was groundbreaking, there was naming the stadium, our first game, there were great moments. But this one is full circle.
"I’m an American player that didn’t have a league to play in to make a living. Now, these kids have a league, a school, an academy and amazing opportunities to fulfill their dreams. "
Perhaps more impressive is the reaction from the students.
"It’s changed everything," said ninth-grader Matthew Real. "Especially since it's associated with soccer. My whole life all I wanted to do was be a soccer player. And just to have a school that affiliates soccer with learning gives me so much more concentration and focus to want to be good in school but also in soccer as well."
Given the omnipresence of Philadelphia Union imagery, from the logo on the lockers and on polo shirts worn by students to the blown-up photographs of PPL Park adorning the YSC Sports facility across the street, one could be forgiven for thinking that the school was run by the local Major League Soccer club.
In the strictest sense, the YSC Academy is not owned by the Union. It and the YSC sports facility are owned by Richie Graham, a Union part owner, and the relationship is referred to as a "partnership" or "affiliation." Neither the team nor Major League Soccer invested any money in the facility, which is funded by league fees paid to use the facilities at YSC sports and by tuition at the school, which is $15,000 per year.
While the idea of hopeful families paying for a soccer development school could be accused of a passing resemblance to the much-maligned "pay-to-play" system that has plagued American soccer for decades, forcing players from poorer backgrounds out of the expensive elite levels, Sakiewicz believes that charging tuition is a fair practice, and financial aid is available for those that need it.
"Tuition is for families and kids who come from households of means to pay tuition," he said. "It’s a very reasonable amount of money to pay for a private education -- and some of them have come from a private school. It’s pretty inexpensive for a high-level education like this.
"For those students that don’t have the means, and are really good players, they will be put through a process where they will get the opportunity to get a scholarship into the school. I don’t know the exact numbers of how many scholarship kids are enrolled, but I believe it’s 50 percent. They have to pass certain guidelines to receive financial aid.
"If they come from families with means, it’s a lot less than most private schools. We’re not asking them to do anything, they can stay in their private school."
The Union's own in-house youth development system -- the Union Futures (6-7 years old), Union Juniors (8-13 years old) and Union Academy teams -- is completely paid for by the Union.
The school has a wider focus that just producing young players for the Philadelphia Union. Elite players from any club are allowed to join, and Graham predicts that the vast majority of players will use the opportunity as the springboard to a collegiate career, rather than following in the high-school-to-pro footsteps of Union players like Jack McInerney and Zach Pfeffer.
"Most of the kids are on the college route," he explained. "There may be the very special kid that comes to the school and decided I’m going to say no to college soccer and I want to go straight to the pros. The majority of these kids will go to an NCAA school and play competitive soccer there.
"So we understand that and that’s why we’re focusing so much on the academics. We want to prepare these kids for that academic college experience."
One person who understands the path from Philadelphia soccer to college to the pros is Chris Albright. A former United States national team player, Albright was a standout at Philadelphia's Penn Charter school and attended the University of Virginia for two years before going pro early.
"I made a pretty good career for myself with my dad as my coach, and playing on fields that certainly don't... I didn't have the luxuries of YSC," he said. "And then when you add in the dimension of a YSC academy, what that's gonna do -- the soccer immersion that the kids will get that I wasn't able to get at a young age -- you're giving a kid that was a good athlete and has a lot of potential all that soccer repetition.
"You're just gonna create better players. I mean, that's the idea. So it really does change a lot. The big thing for me too is that in a lot of ways, I think it may trump the residency program because these kids get to stay with their parents, get to stay home with their friends. They don't have to go down to Bradenton (the U.S. Soccer Federation's U-17 residency program) to get high-level training and high-level scholastics as well.
"It's a game changer."