Philadelphia's U-16 team trained for the first time this weekend.
Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Union adopt unique academy model

This past weekend, the Philadelphia Union’s U-16 and U-18 teams came together and trained for the very first time.

It was the next step for the Union’s youth academy model, which adopts a different approach than any other program an MLS club has implemented in its respective market.

Instead of creating their own set of academy teams, the Union announced a model that would encompass and enhance the area’s top youth clubs already in existence. They approached several area teams to join forces with, giving technical guidance while also having a larger pool of players to work with.

The decision to do that came after months of work of studying how to best implement the team’s youth development program.

“It originated out of months of careful planning and consideration for how we can have the greatest positive impact on our local youth soccer environment,” said Union assistant coach John Hackworth in an email to

Certain teams that met a set technical criteria were approached to form these partnerships. The clubs spoken to included USSF Development Academy teams FC Delco, PA Classics and PDA, and also non-Development Academy teams like Lehigh Valley United, Penn Fusion and YMS.

So instead of the top players at these clubs all flocking towards a new Union academy setup, they remain at their respective clubs and are eligible to be “called up” to train with the Union academy at different points throughout the year.

That’s what happened this past weekend, as players from 11 different youth clubs from around the area convened for training on Sunday at the U-16 and U-18 age groups.

Along with identifying and locating talent to possibly sign in the region, the program sets out to help clubs improve training methods and development. To achieve this, the Union technical staff keeps in close contact with each team.

[inline_node:329872]“Our goal is to help and improve their clubs in any way possible,” Hackworth said. “The only way to truly do that is to have a constant dialogue of what is going on and how to improve it.”

This unique approach already paid dividends last year, when Zach Pfeffer signed a professional contract with the Union at the age of 15. Pfeffer had emerged after playing with affiliate FC Delco and training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

That certainly backs up Hackworth’s opinion about how much talent the region has.

“It is one of the best regions in terms of producing youth national team talent already,” he said. “From that prospective, we feel fortunate to be working with that caliber of player.”

This particular approach also helps Philadelphia cover a larger amount of ground in the region. Instead of relying on two development teams of around 40 players, they can draw from a pool of a couple hundred players and rely on the recommendations of coaches at each club to spot talent.

As the system continues to evolve and grow, the Union will certainly adapt as they need to. So far, the response from the area has been positive. Though that’s not to say that no one has had initial reservations about the Union’s method.

“The feedback we have received from clubs, coaches, players and parents has been tremendous,” Hackworth said. “That saying, there is still the occasional coach or parent that has doubts or fears. Most of it is your typical territorial/ownership issues in youth soccer.

"However, everyone that has either listened or sought to better understand the basic principles of our structure has come away with those doubts erased.”