24 Under 24: Philly youth movement after cups, not cash
WAYNE, Pa. – To say the Philadelphia Union are young would be a serious understatement.
Let’s take a look:
• There are 16 players on their roster younger than age 24 – the most of any team in MLS – and key starters Michael and Gabriel Farfan only recently turned 24.
• Their average age is 23.57.
• Their No. 1 striker (Jack McInerney) is 20, their starting goalkeeper (Zac MacMath) is 21, and their longest-tenured defensive starter (Sheanon Williams) is 22.
• The only players older than 30 are Brian Carroll (31) and Chris Albright (33), and Albright has only played one minute since April.
• Only two regular starters (Carroll and 27-year-old Carlos Valdés) are older than 25.
So how exactly did it get to the point where the Union, in only their third season, are only slightly older than a veteran college team?
“When we started this three years ago, the idea was to develop players and to develop a club and a culture and a style of play that could be recognized as 'Philadelphia Union,'” Philly manager John Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com. “And there are pros and cons to that because when you have young players, those players are inexperienced, naïve and not at their full potential yet. So there are growing pains that come along with that.”
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The Union have certainly felt those pains this season. After shedding a few of their veterans from last season – including Sébastien Le Toux, Danny Califf and Faryd Mondragón – the Union have struggled to gain traction in 2012, as their 7-13-5 overall record would indicate.
But many of their youngsters have seized the opportunity to play an increased role, while providing a positive glimpse into the club’s future. One example is 21-year-old Amobi Okugo, who was given the chance to be a starting center back in the middle of the season and has since emerged as one of the team’s most reliable players.
“In the last three months for sure, we’ve seen some young guys really step up and start to develop and come into their own,” Hackworth said. “And the great thing about that is – while it’s tough to go through some of those growing pains – when you get the other side of that, there will be some exceptionally good players and our team will be significantly improved.
“I know that if we’re patient, we’ll be rewarded for it long term.”
One question is whether the Union will be able to keep the entire young core together long enough to reap the benefits and contend for a championship.
That’s where Hackwoth’s philosophy seems to differ from ex-manager Peter Nowak’s. While Nowak overhauled the roster before the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Hackworth hopes to make far fewer changes and let many of his players develop in Philly.
“It’s my philosophy that you want to build a team and that doesn’t mean you make wholesale changes, in and out, in and out,” Hackworth said. “You’ve got to invest the time, you’ve got to put the faith into these players and you’ve got to allow them the chance to be successful.”
At the same time, Hackworth acknowledged that it can be difficult to keep a core together for the long term in a league like this one. Part of the reason for that is there will likely be offers for young players that turn into stars – which, while helping financially, would disrupt the building process.
For the Union manager, however, exporting players is not an end goal.
“The Philadelphia Union ownership has not said, ‘Hey, this is what we want to do – we want to develop players and sell them on,’” Hackworth said. “That’s part of the business and if an opportunity comes up like that, fair enough. But right now, we want to make sure our team develops, gets better and comes back and puts itself in a position to compete.
“We’re probably not in the playoff race at the moment, but we hope it’s a much different scenario at this time next year.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.