A Perfect Union
A Wayne soccer facility partners with Philly’s major league soccer team to inspire young player
by Mike Narducci

It’s official—soccer has arrived in the Philadelphia area. Sure, young boys and girls in the area have been active in school teams, club teams, camps, training programs and backyard pick-up games for as long as we can remember. But if you ask John Hackworth, assistant coach of the newly established Philadelphia Union major league team, many young soccer players in our area—and the country— lack the right kind of player development that breeds a true passion and commitment to the game.

“If you ask me, the detrimental aspect of youth soccer in this country is that it’s so result oriented,” Hackworth says. “It’s not performance oriented.”

Paoli resident and soccer dad Rich Graham agrees, and so in 2008 he founded the Youth Soccer Center (YSC) in Wayne, an indoor and outdoor turf facility and club-neutral soccer education organization with player development as its primary mission.

And now, YSC has been brought on as the official youth development partner for the Philadelphia Union. It’s a unique strategic move that other Major League Soccer teams could look to as something that could be instated across the country.

The YSC Union Juniors Academy is a free program directed at the top players in their “golden learning years” of 8 to 12.

Out of the 1,500 boys and girls from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who tried out last fall, a total of 537 were selected to participate in the program for the next 12 months, split into two different pools. There will be the select pool, consisting of those considered to be the more talented players, and a developmental pool of players not quite at the top level, but with potential.

Players will remain in the program for a year and then there will be tryouts held again, but don’t be mistaken—the program is not an all-star team. While scrimmages against each other will be held, there will be no scores kept and no trophies awarded.

Besides intense soccer training, players will also receive education in areas such as nutrition, sports psychology and fitness, as well as personal development like good sportsmanship, attention to schoolwork and healthy life habits (getting enough sleep, for instance). All with an emphasis on instilling a long-lasting passion for the game.

“I think it’s sad when kids give up sports at a young age, and it is because they don’t have a love of the game,” says Iain Munro, a former professional soccer player in England and Scotland who now heads up the YSC Academy educational program. “If we can get them playing something they enjoy and give them a sense of discipline and [get them] working as a team and developing camaraderie, then we are on our way.”

YSC takes its playbook from the people who truly know and love the game—non-Americans.

Graham says he and the YSC staff studied the inner workings of the top youth academies in Europe and South America to learn how they develop talented players.

“The pro clubs do development really well and all have the following structure: each pro club has a first team of full professionals, a reserve team of younger pros trying to make the first team, and academy teams consisting of youth players ages 9 to 19,” Graham explains. YSC studied the philosophies behind the youth academies of teams like FC Barcelona and Manchester United.

“We take their ideas and use the ones we think fit with our culture and market,” he says.

The YSC coaches aim to translate soccer skills into life lessons, not professional playing contracts. “We are using soccer as a vehicle to teach kids about core values, setting goals, etc.,” Graham says. “While YSC and the Union hope that some YSC Union Juniors player will someday play in PPL Park, this is not our primary intent or metric of success.”

Hackworth and Union team manager Peter Nowak say that they want to build one of the top franchises in Major League Soccer, and they also feel a deep responsibility in aiding the development of youth soccer players.

Hackworth has spent nearly a decade working for U.S. Soccer, the governing body of the sport, with player development as his main objective.

“My role at U.S. Soccer in the last eight years was to be a catalyst to push player development and create a better environment and get players really excited about things,” Hackworth says.

In order to provide the Juniors program free of charge, YSC has two main modes of generating income. It is an indoor and outdoor soccer facility that other organizations rent to stage tournaments, play in leagues or simply to conduct practices.

The other side is the education of soccer, under the name of YSC Academy. Here, children beginning from 3 years old up to 15 can receive soccer instruction, for a fee. There are innovative programs for youngsters such as soccer gymnastics, which combines the two

Additionally, the exposure YSC will receive from its partnership with the Union is invaluable.

So it’s a win-win situation, one that isn’t judged by any final score—except the number of young players who want to continue to develop and grow as soccer players and young adults.

Marc Narducci is a freelance writer based in South Jersey