'We're sitting on a talent goldmine' - How the Union are unearthing America's next Pulisic, Reyna and Aaronson
The California Gold Rush is a key moment in American history. It was a period that saw residents of the United States push further and further west in hopes of finding incredible riches. It was a period of great promise, great uncertainty and, eventually, great change.
Philadelphia Union owner Richie Graham believes American soccer is in the midst of its own Gold Rush. But, in this case, it's a rush filled with clubs looking to win the race to find the next Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna or, in the Union's case, Brenden Aaronson.
At this moment, the Union are among the best in MLS when it comes to identifying, developing and selling on young players. Aaronson, one of the brightest talents in MLS, looks bound for a European move . Mark McKenzie appears to be destined to follow him .
In Sunday's 4-1 win over the Montreal Impact, Union homegrowns combined for a goal and three assists as a total of six academy-bred players featured. That, in many ways, is by design. Graham's design, to be specific.
"We are sitting on a talent goldmine over here," Graham told Goal . "The population, the learning environments are getting better. Just think about the level of MLS academies today and even your local amateur soccer clubs versus where they were 10-15 years ago. It's getting better and better.
"I think that with population, with those ingredients, we have the potential to produce some top-level players that can make the leap, and that's critical for U.S. Soccer."
Graham, recently nicknamed the “ the godfather of development in the United States” by U.S Soccer’s sporting director Earnie Stewart, is no newcomer. The Union minority owner has been refining his ideas regarding youth development for years.
As a youngster, Graham was a multi-sport athlete, excelling in both soccer and alpine ski racing. Eventually, he made the move to attend Burke Mountain Academy, a school founded to train the country's top skiers to compete at the international level.
Skiing, like many Olympic sports, doesn't have the infrastructure or popularity of basketball, football or baseball. As a result, many of the top young stars don't follow the traditional high school-to-college pathway, with academies like Burke Mountain a destination for those looking to continue to dedicate themselves to those more niche sports.
After playing soccer at Dartmouth, Graham wondered what it would be like if soccer had its own version of Burke Mountain: a school that balanced the setup of European academies with the realities of the American landscape. Others had existed before, such as the famous IMG Academy, but when given the chance to take the lead and establish his own school in collaboration with the Union, Graham saw the perfect setup.
"I just kind of got inspired by that idea and thinking that we're one of the final frontiers for the sport in terms of talent," he said. "I'm a big, big believer that there's not something magic in the water over in Europe or other parts of the world. We can do it too. We have incredible athletes, great coaches and, and the environments are getting better and better.
"When the Philadelphia Union came knocking on the door looking for investors in the Philadelphia area, I was immediately interested. I told [Union owner Jay Sugarman], 'I'll invest in the club, but I'll invest into a youth academy system and those dollars will go towards my equity.'
"So, it's almost like a guy that went to a university and said, 'Yeah, I'll give to the University of Michigan, but I want to direct my giving to the science department'. From the very beginning, I built my relationship with the Union around that."
And from that, the YSC Academy was born.
The private school, which is modelled on the one Graham attended to further his own athletic pursuits, is affiliated with the Union. It's been integral in the development of Aaronson and McKenzie, players that are now stars for the club's first team.
Founded just seven years ago, 25 YSC Academy alumni have already signed professional contracts, while 97 per cent of academy graduates have been offered athletic scholarships. A majority of the school's students are part of the Union academy, while a small selection play on other teams in the surrounding area.
The hope, Graham says, is, after several years focusing solely on soccer, graduates will follow the pathway from the academy to the club's USL team,and, eventually, to Jim Curtin's first team. Those that don't, meanwhile, will get an education on and off the field that sets them up for whatever comes next.
To achieve that, the club focuses on a player's schooling just as much as their dribbling. The school is run by Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee, who is also an Adjunct Professor at nearby St. Joseph University, where she focuses on cognitive processes. The aim? To help students learn to think critically in the classroom and use that skillset to teach them to think critically on the field.
Graham uses Aaronson as an example.
"Cognitively, there's a lot that's going on there and that's where we'd like to have kids in that period so we can begin to work on not just the physical player, the technical player, but the cognitive player," Graham says. "For us, we think that's the future of where soccer is headed.
"Brenden's not the biggest kid in the world but he's very quick upstairs in terms of the way he thinks, his awareness. There's a lot of science behind the cognitive process and those ages."
The Union's system, Graham acknowledges, isn't one that can work country-wide. Many academies around the country remain pay-to-play, while YSC is scholarship-based. Schools like YSC are an investment, one that doesn't always have a guarantee of paying off.
Several MLS clubs have been able to make their academies free in recent years but, with the absence of solidarity fees like those in Europe, the pay-to-play system isn't going anywhere any time soon.
Graham calls it a "necessary reality", one that clubs from the grassroots level must navigate.
"Anyone who's involved with soccer should be thinking about this," he said. "If I'm running a little club in XYZ town, you really want to make sure that you're providing opportunities and scholarship programs for kids to give them an opportunity. You hate to hear that kids are moving away from the game or families are moving away from the game because it just cost too much to play."
He added: "We can't [do it alone] even in the Philadelphia area. We need all those youth clubs in our area because kids develop at different times. at different paces and we want to keep as many fish in the net as possible.
" I'm quoting a guy from Iceland and he said, 'We don't have enough fish so we try to keep the fish in the net as long as we possibly can'. And we need to do the same here in the United States."
But it can't be left to the grassroots game alone. Graham says that MLS and U.S. Soccer must play their part in setting a tone, one which can be followed by all involved from the top on down.
MLS has begun that process with the foundation of MLS Next, a new system of youth leagues country-wide. Clubs across the country, meanwhile, have the freedom to develop their own system, with the Union, New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas among the leaders at moving players from the youth level straight to the first team.
Not every club focuses on youth as much as those three, each of whom has spent the last several years establishing themselves as the leaders in homegrown minutes.
U.S. Soccer, meanwhile, is under the leadership of Stewart who, coincidentally, played a vital part in organizing the Union's system during his time as sporting director of the club.
"I can tell you right now with Earnie and Gregg [Berhalter], you've got guys that are committed 100 percent to player development," Graham said. "I do think MLS is putting their money, their investment, their energy and time there.
"MLS is also undoubtedly a major force in this. I would estimate that MLS is spending collectively $50 million ((£39m) to $60m (£47m) annually into academies. And now with MLS Next that investment's going up, so they're putting their money where the mouth is.
"You do need that at the top level. I would like to see Earnie and Gregg get a little bit more support for U.S. Soccer leadership. Without youth national team games on the schedule or camps even on the schedule, them dropping out of the Development Academy, we do need to make sure that the federation is organized and thinking and investing in the future alongside MLS."
It's that future that Graham is working towards and investing in through YSC Academy and For Soccer Ventures, an investment firm that has already spent $50m to acquire several American soccer companies.
The U.S. is a country with tremendous potential at every level and, with the World Cup and Olympics both right around the corner, Graham believes it is the responsibility of those involved to take that potential and turn it into gold.
"I always use the analogy that we're kind of the pioneers that are blazing a trail," he said. "When you're trying to cross the Rocky Mountains the first time, there's no trail, so the first couple guys to go over literally are cutting down trees and trying to figure out which way to go.
"Some of these guys that carved the path before us from older generations, they were the true pioneers but we are still early in the process in terms of American soccer. You're seeing more and more kids headed overseas but it's still relatively early in the process.
"For anyone in the Philadelphia Union, we haven't done that yet, so it's all new. It's a new thing but we definitely want to see all of these kids do well."