Union U-16 head coach Jeff Cook talks his move from the Big Green to the Blue and Gold

Second sitdown in a three-part series with Academy coaches

Jeff Cook academy

Photo Credit: 
Greg Carroccio

It was going to take a lot to get Jeff Cook to leave his post as head coach at Ivy League powerhouse, Dartmouth.

Cook spent 12 years with the Big Green, leading the Ivy League program to four conference titles, and seven NCAA tournament appearances which included a pair of Sweet 16 appearances.

He's won well over 100 games in his career as a head coach on the college level, but one glance at the Union's overwhelming "commitment to youth development" made the decision for Cook to pack up his family and move to the Delaware Valley a relatively easy one. In this interview with philadelphiaunion.com, Cook explains why this was the logical next step in his coaching career and in addition to the intrigue of committing to lend his expertise to an academy system poised to set the bar high.

PhiladelphiaUnion.com: How does the Union's developmental plan fit your ideologies when it comes to youth soccer?

Jeff Cook: What excited me so much about the project was the idea that the Philadelphia Union is one club and that their commitment to youth development is unique. I don’t think we are the only club that hopes to produce homegrown players and there are certain clubs out there doing a very good job, but just the integration between the management and the ownership between John Hackworth and the first team staff right through the Union Futures and Juniors -- the little six and eight year olds -- was really unique. 

PU.com: Talk about the enviroment here at YSC as a Union academy coach. What's it like?

JC: The environment here is great.  We are partnered with YSC Sports and their phenomenal staff which enables us to really focus on the most current development techniques. I think that the last thing that will set us apart is the approach to creating the complete player as we do want to produce top notch, world class, professional players -- that is our goal. It is not going to be easy, it is going to take some time, but as we do it we are also concerned on developing good people. That is what struck me even being around the first team and even being around the staff, both at the Union and here at YSC, is the emphasis on character and club culture. I was so impressed with that when you go to first team training and you see the professionalism that is throughout the place. It's an idea we are trying to instill that in the academy players right now.

PU.com:  Was it the ideology that was intriguing for you to come here?

JC: I think it was a combination of the right club and the right opportunity for me. I was very happy at Dartmouth, it was a terrific place to work and to live so it took a lot to get me to leave. I do think that this is a unique time in soccer in the United States and even over the last two years I have noticed a real upsurge in interest in Major League Soccer and the quality of the product, the commitment of investors and owners. I think that was something in the back of my mind that if I want to advance in my career professionally, to be involved with a club that was so forward thinking and progressive was exciting.

PU.com: On a personal level, what did it take for you to come here?

JC: On my personal side, to have a chance to work with players for a longer period of time and if there was one negative to the college environment it was the shortness of the season and there’s a lot of restrictions by the NCAA rules in terms of how much you can work with players and I saw this as an opportunity to do more coaching basically.  Simply put, hopefully that will lead to a bigger impact on player development putting them in this environment. I think college soccer has an important role to play going forward, I don’t mean to be dismissive of it, but for me as a coach I thought this was for me to really get on the ground. The final thing is to do something that is building from day one, from scratch.

PU.com: Why do you think it took so long to skew away from that club mindset and be more academy based?

JC: I think there are a couple of factors. I think, one, the culture of high school and college sports is very strongly engrained in the United States and rightly so. The combination of athletics and academics in the United States is probably the only place where you see high level sport combined with University education, so I think that is number one. I think number two, the pay for play model took some time to evolve as a league, as US soccer development academy took hold we kind of crossed that hurdle of not playing high school soccer. Then MLS academies I would probably 5 or 6 years ago was the first…the Columbus Crew and DC United and others started to produce their own academy free of cost was revolutionary. I think that changes the dynamic of what we are doing and that is something the academies in South America, Europe, and other places, Asia, have had for a long, long time is that when you get in a professional club’s academy you are not playing and that changes the atmosphere.

PU.com: In addition to this academy, there will also be a school. Why is it so important for these kids to be entrenched in the sport and almost not leaving its side?

JC: The school has grown just since we started preseason in [July]. What was a handful of kids is now approaching 30. I really believe our ownership has the right idea when we talk about a culture of excellence. There are no shortcuts. In other words, if we have a talented player we want them to have excellence in all areas of their lives. So we are not going to accept someone who is rude, immature, and doesn’t reflect the club in the most positive light. We are not going to accept someone who doesn’t do their work academically because we all know that you are one injury away from not having a professional career. It is such a small margin so we want to produce guys that have intelligence, professionalism, and represent our club with a lot of pride and we hope that when our guys get to the first team level someday that the manager can know that he can rely on a player that was honed through our academy. I also feel that the staff at the YSC academy has been outstanding to work with so far and integrate the two worlds so it is not just you show up for soccer two hours a day and you go home and you leave school aside. We are off to a great start in building that relationship. For example, if we are traveling for an MLS event, we can coordinate the curriculum so the kids aren’t missing school. That is why I think it is such a vital aspect of what we are doing and one of the things that really hit me on the head when I came in to see what this was all about. I left knowing this was something special. 

Tomorrow: We cap this series with a look at U-14 head coach Chris Brewer.

Contact Union writer Kerith Gabriel at kgabriel@philadelphiaunion.com