CHESTER, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union are currently right in the thick of the playoff race, sitting one point out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
In less than two weeks, the franchise will begin something they believe will keep them in more playoff races for many years to come: a unique high school that will be the centerpiece of the Union’s ever-growing youth academy.
“We’re the only ones [in MLS] that have started and deployed our own high school program,” Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz told MLSsoccer.com. “I think that’s going to be a game-changer for us.”
Other MLS teams like Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas have partnered with outside schools in the surrounding districts, but when researching what model would be best for their club, the Union decided to build something new in an office complex across the street from YSC Sports, the Union’s youth development training center in Wayne, Pa.
The renovations were recently completed and the school, dubbed YSC Academy, is set to open its doors on Sept. 3, with the Union’s first team, coaches and team executives in attendance for the momentous occasion.
“What the school allows us to do is really drive the cultural identity of the club,” said Richie Graham, the owner of YSC Sports and a partial owner of the Union. “We considered partnering with an outside school, but an outside school has its own culture.”
The school consists of grades 8-12, but there will be no 12th graders enrolled for 2013-14 while the club grows the attendance up from the younger grades. There are no girls currently enrolled, but Graham told MLSsoccer.com the club might be open to the possibility of admitting girls in the future.
For Graham, who has overseen the project, it’s been a long road to reach this point. Among the challenges that go into starting a private school are working with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, hiring teachers and settling on a curriculum.
But Graham believes the right steps were taken along the way to provide the best educational and athletic opportunities for the 32 boys enrolled for the 2013-14 school year, all of whom are part of the club’s youth development programs (either on the U-14, U-16, U-18 academy squads, or in the Union Juniors Program).
A lot of sports science went into the students' schedule, which includes a training session in the morning before classes begin and another one in the afternoon after school gets out, as well as four nutritional meals per day.
The school will also have a modern feel, with a progressive curriculum, a digital library, small class sizes and classrooms that look more like a modern Internet startup company than what you'd expect to see in a traditional school setting.
“One of the big elements is we are really big on giving kids a voice and a choice in their education,” Graham said. “It’s the idea that kids are a part of their educational process and take ownership of it, just like we’re asking them to do on the field, where they’re pushing themselves to be the best they can be.”
The Union briefly considered setting up a residency program with dorms but, after studying some European models, decided it’s best for high school-aged kids to have a home life. Some students could still come from outside the club’s catchment area and live with host families, but the main purpose of the school is for standout players from the Philadelphia region. And many of the students will receive financial aid, as provided on a need basis.
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“I’m not saying our model is better, but I do think it gives us the ability to really focus on driving through the culture of what it means to play for the Philadelphia Union,” Graham said. “A dream come true for me would be that someday these boys are representing the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park, they score a goal, that they run in the corner and they’re the kid that’s kissing the badge.”
Of course, many of the club’s academy players won’t be good enough to score goals for the Union first team some day. But the hope is that those that don’t are still in good position to play college soccer and succeed in life. And the Union believe that the few who do get to PPL Park will make this ambitious project worth it in the long run.
“This is not an inexpensive venture,” Sakiewicz said. “This is multiple millions of dollars over a long period of time. But our dream is to put as many starting-11 players as we can from our local area. And this is how we can do that.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.