WAYNE, Pa. — For Philadelphia Union academy director Tommy Wilson, the timing could not have been more perfect.
Just two days before MLS Commissioner Don Garber paid a visit to YSC Academy, the Union-affiliated private high school for youth academy players, Homegrown product Derrick Jones enjoyed a memorable MLS debut that had the entire franchise buzzing. Jones will try to build off that performance in the Union's home opener at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday against Toronto FC (4:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE in US | TSN in Canada).
Jones — the first player to pass through YSC Academy, sign with USL Pro affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC and get first-team minutes for the Union — played a full 90 in Sunday’s scoreless draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps and, according to Wilson, looked like a “veteran in a young man’s body.”
So when Garber came to tour the YSC facilities Tuesday, Wilson and the Union staff had something concrete to show the commissioner as to just how effective their growing pipeline from the youth ranks to MLS can be.
“Life’s not that good,” Wilson told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh. “It doesn’t normally work that way. I think we have a good reputation but it’s much more credible to have players back it up.”
In fairness, Garber probably didn’t need to see Jones light it up in his MLS debut to know the Union’s model is a promising one for American soccer.
Although he had never been to YSC Academy before, he’s close with Richie Graham, the Union part-owner and brainchild of the high school — which opened in 2013 as the first of its kind in the country. And he believes having young athletes train and learn in the same setting is an important step in creating the “next generation of great American players,” pointing out that some other MLS clubs like Vancouver, Toronto and Real Salt Lake may be following suit.
“It’s fantastic,” Garber told reporters from YSC Sports, home of the indoor training fields that lie adjacent to the high school building. “Everyone should know that the Union really are punching way above their weight and have been doing so for many, many years on the developmental side.”
After touring YSC Sports, Garber walked across the street to chat with YSC Academy principal Nooha Ahmed-Lee as well as the students, a few of whom asked the commissioner questions about the growth of MLS, the league’s relationship with the USL and the youth development model. He continued his day in Philadelphia with an event at City Hall with Mayor Jim Kenney, who proclaimed March 7th “Philadelphia Union March to Soccer Day.”
Many Union academy players were in attendance for that as well, with Garber pointing to them as the biggest difference between MLS today and MLS in the late 1990s.
“When I went to the academy program earlier today, I could have been in Barcelona, I could have been in Manchester, I could have been in London,” Garber said. “But we have it right here in Philadelphia.”
Wilson admits he’s heard many of those kind of glowing “plaudits” before, based on the investments the club has made in its infrastructure. But he said the “actual test” is when players graduate from the program to the first team — all of which made Jones’ debut a true “testament to our environment.”
And it was particularly rewarding because Jones, who emigrated to Philadelphia from Africa as a teenager, was discovered by Union coaches while he played for Junior Lone Star FC, a club founded by West African immigrants living in southwest Philly. From there, after a successful trial with the academy, Jones was plucked into one of their three residency houses in West Chester, spent about two years at the high school, and then bypassed college soccer to became the first-ever player to sign with Bethlehem Steel FC.
“It would have been tough for him without this opportunity,” Wilson said. “Not impossible because he’s got talent. But I think the talent has to be realized and we have the environment for that to happen.”
Based on Jones’ success, Wilson said he and Union sporting director Earnie Stewart have been taking a harder look at some other potential Homegrown signings, looking to Vancouver’s 16-year-old phenom Alphonso Davies as proof that even younger players can excel in MLS. And while he doesn’t want to hype Jones too much since it’s so early in his professional career, he’s perfectly fine using the 20-year-old midfielder as a glowing example about what current academy players can accomplish.
“I think it’s easy to follow a path that’s already been made,” Wilson said. “Jonesy’s the trailblazer for us.”