Philadelphia Union drafted a known quantity with their third selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
Reason being: Levi Houapeu featured for Reading United A.C. last season, Philadelphia’s exclusive PDL affiliate, enabling the Union to keep close tabs on a player who led the nation in cumulative goals over his last two collegiate seasons but went relatively under the radar.
“When I speak with John [Hackworth] and Rob [Vartughian], it’s usually about a specific player,” Reading head coach Brendan Burke told philadelphiaunion.com. “Levi was in those conversations and what we do is feed information up the line. Obviously the bulk of the work is done by John and Rob going out and watching college games, but it certainly helps to have our guys in Reading watching all summer.
“We can really get a read for not just what type of player they are and what they are capable of on the field, but also how they act and what type of people they are. In Levi’s case, one of his biggest attributes is that he is very professional about everything he does.”
Houapeu was the only Reading player selected by the Union in this year’s SuperDraft (41st overall), but three others – three first rounders – were taken by other MLS clubs. Zarek Valentin (Chivas USA, 4th overall), CJ Sapong (Sporting KC, 10th overall) and Penn State product Corey Hertzog (New York Red Bulls, 13th overall) have all spent time with Reading. In other words, Burke’s squad is a breeding ground for top college prospects with professional aspirations.
While playing for Reading doesn’t automatically grant the Union rights to a player, it does present a significant scouting advantage. And more importantly, as Philadelphia’s academy system becomes more established, players like Valentin and Hertzog – both of whom developed within a 75-mile radius of PPL Park, the designated “Home Territory” for MLS clubs – will be able to bypass the draft and sign as Home Grown players.
In the meantime, the Union can credit an assist to Reading for what amounts to an advanced scouting report on Houapeu.
“Levi is a player who has obviously proved to be very dangerous as an attacking player,” said Burke. “I think at the Combine what might have been lost in translation is that they pushed him out wide and he is far more dangerous playing underneath the forwards. I think, to be honest, he was just too nice of a player to say that to anyone down at the Combine, but he will be far more effective there.
“He slid into that spot with us on a handful of occasions last year. When he gets in and around the box he has a very good first touch and a nose for goal, so I think he will do well. There may be an adjustment period because he isn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he certainly listens well and he will adapt to Peter [Nowak’s] style quickly.”
Just as it may take time for Houapeu to establish himself in America’s top flight, the full impact of Philadelphia’s partnership with Reading won't be immediate. Last season, the Union loaned several first-team players to the Harrisburg City Islanders, the club’s exclusive USL affiliate, but that benefit doesn’t exist with Reading, as professional players aren’t permitted to play alongside amateurs according to PDL rules. Union academy players are a different story, however, and many of the club’s more seasoned youth players are likely to spend time with Reading in years to come.
“From my standpoint,” Burke continued, “there is certainly a level of trust coming from those guys, from John and Rob and Peter, because they got to see just how good the PDL team can be when we are at our best. I think that, as with any relationship, it is going to take a little bit of time to grow, but for me it has been fantastic. I get to pick their brains and they are some of the brighter soccer brains in the US, so it is working both ways.”