Richie Graham - Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union co-owner Richie Graham on why he's betting bigger on soccer

As a kid growing up in York, Pennsylvania in the 1970s when soccer obsessed Americans weren’t commonplace, Richie Graham remembers riding his bike a couple miles to youth soccer games and tuning into "Soccer Made in Germany" on PBS.

“It was a completely different world back then,” Graham recalled.

Graham, who today is a minority owner of the Philadelphia Union, ended up leaving Pennsylvania to attend a private ski racing school – Burke Mountain Academy – in Vermont, but his zeal for soccer didn’t subside. He continued to play soccer and was part of the Olympic Development Program in Vermont and after high school played for legendary coach Bobby Clark at Dartmouth.

“Bobby Clark was one of those guys that once you get in his orbit, he's just an incredible person,” Graham said. “And I saw the way he was invested not only in his college players but into the entire community with youth soccer and camps. So that’s how I got into that side of the game.”

Graham can still be spotted mixing it up on the soccer pitch at YSC Sports, the suburban soccer facility that’s home base for his soccer businesses. The Philadelphia Union branding around the interior and framed jerseys of the Homegrown players who have come through the academy system illustrate a key contribution Graham has made to American soccer to date through the Philadelphia Union academy and YSC Academy, a private school he modeled after Burke Academy for elite boys soccer players.

Graham (left) with Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke and Union head coach Jim Curtin.

Graham funds scholarships for the school through the philanthropic side of his business holdings but also reinvests the profits from his soccer business right back into the academy. YSC hosts programs for kids 18 months on up, over 40 leagues at night and there’s ancillary businesses that run tournaments and leagues throughout the region. He’s also funded scholarships through sales of his high-end landscape photography.

“I could choose to do something different with those dollars but I want to create an environment where we have that accessibility for players and they're not boxed out of the game,” Graham said.

While he remains committed to the Union and the work he’s doing with the academy and school, Graham has decided to cast a wider net with his investment into the American game – some $50 million over the past decade for the work he’s doing in Pennsylvania – to contribute to the growth of the sport on a national scale.

To that end, he announced the formation and launch last week of the investment firm For Soccer Ventures, which includes The Soccer Collective, a new media house which states its focus will be on celebrating American soccer culture and fan experiences through storytelling, experiences and brand content development and The Soccer Alliance, which is an expansion of Graham’s existing network of soccer properties with a focus on youth clubs, leagues and tournaments.

Former executives from US Soccer, ESPN, adidas and Copa90 are involved.

“The opportunity behind For Soccer Ventures is basically taking everything that Richie has done and taking this approach of making it about the player, making it about the game and taking it to scale,” said Ryan Mooney, managing director of For Soccer Ventures.

Mooney left his job as an executive at US Soccer earlier this year to join the team.

“He was someone that I always knew to be very passionate, very committed to advancing soccer in the US and advancing the American player and that was something that I also strongly believe in,” Mooney said.

One of the beneficiaries of Graham’s investment over the past decade is Union Homegrown defender Mark McKenzie, a 2017 graduate from YSC Academy. McKenzie joined the academy as a 13-year-old in 2013 in their first season in the US Soccer Development Academy and went on to attend the school, which builds training sessions into the daily schedule, during his high school years.

“Having Richie place us in an environment where we can flourish and where we are forced to grow not only playing football but as young men, that’s something that hadn’t been done before,” McKenzie said. “It’s definitely inspired a lot of youth to want to be part of something bigger, want to be part of this movement of football.”

The 20-year-old US youth international, who earned his first senior national team call-up for a camp in January, sees the work Graham has done locally and aims to scale up as vitally important for growing the game and bridging the gap in quality between the US and the top countries on the international stage.

“In order for us to compete with these world powers in Europe and South America we have to be able to field players who are able to compete, not only athletically, but who tactically understand the game on a deeper level,” McKenzie said. “To do that we need to be placing guys who are 9, 10, 11 – those are prime years to develop – in an environment where when they are 16, 17, 18, they are able to compete at a higher level.”

The 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted in the US, Mexico and Canada, and the 2028 Olympics, to be hosted in Los Angeles, are both big targets for what Graham is hoping to accomplish.

“With 2026 and 2028 [Olympics] coming, there's no doubt that the sport will continue to grow,” Graham said. “We want to be in a situation where we help tell stories that are going to accelerate that growth. Both of these initiatives, whether it's on the player side or on the marketing and media side are driving toward the same end game, which is to move American soccer forward.”