Philadelphia Union planning to create own USL team for 2016: "It's been a missing rung in the ladder"

The Philadelphia Union have committed a lot of resources to building up their youth academy program, especially with the development of the franchise’s two-year-old affiliated high school, YSC Academy.

But now that the first group of seniors has graduated from the school and are preparing to move on to college, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz knows there needs to be another option for those players to continue their development within the organization.

And so, like other MLS clubs, the Union have set the wheels in motion to launch and operate their own USL team with Sakiewicz telling MLSsoccer.com that he’s “confident it will be executed in the 2016 season.”

“It’s been a missing rung in the ladder,” the Union CEO said. “We have that whole pathway to college but there was a hole in the ladder so to speak where there was a step but it wasn’t a robust step. We are just evaluating everything in that missing piece and we’re about to make investments to figure out the right solution to make sure there isn’t a gap in our development system.”

Sakiewicz stressed that the Union’s current USL partnership with the Harrisburg City Islanders has been “a great relationship,” pointing specifically to the development of second-year pro Richie Marquez, who honed his skills at Harrisburg in 2014 before emerging as Philly’s starting center back this year. The City Islanders have also benefited from the relationship as Marquez and Union teammates Antoine Hoppenot and Jimmy McLaughlin were vital to Harrisburg’s run to the USL PRO title game last year.

But, in part due to their own injury situation, the Union have loaned fewer players to the City Islanders this year. Even more challenging, according to Sakiewicz, is the simple fact that Union coaches aren’t able to see their own players in training and have little control regarding “their whole regimen – whether it’s nutrition, their living accommodations, how their commuting, the kind of surface working on every day.”

One of the main ideas for a new team is for the Union’s technical staff to be a part of the minor-league operation, as well.

“We need to step it up a notch and be able to see what guys are doing every day,” Sakiewicz said. “It’s the holistic part of the players’ [development] that we’re lacking right now because we’re not involved on the technical side over there. Basically the arrangement right now is we send players to get game time and we’re out of it. But in the modern MLS, we have to be more involved.”

Sakiewicz insisted that the two-hour commute from PPL Park to Harrisburg’s cozy Skyline Sports Complex is not an issue and that the plans have “nothing to do with geography.” As such, the Union are looking into another area of Pennsylvania that’s not especially close but one that is rich in soccer history: Bethlehem.

The Union have already shown their deep appreciation for the area, having worn jerseys to honor the Bethlehem Steel, one of the country’s most successful clubs in the early part of the 20th century.

“We’re looking at all options,” Sakiewicz said, adding the team will likely finalize their plans in the next couple of months. “You know my love affair with the Bethlehem Steel and the jersey and I’m very proud we were able to revive that history. We’re studying that market closely, absolutely. There’s a lot of great soccer fans in the Lehigh Valley and they certainly deserve a team.” 

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.