When it comes to looking for the next great player to emerge from the Greater Philadelphia Region, the Philadelphia Union isn’t starting with the easiest places to look.
Gone is the idea of just plucking the cream of the crop from the area’s vast pool of talent on club teams. There is just as much quality existing in pickup games, neighborhood sandlot battles and on city clubs that rarely receive the recognition or accolades as its suburban counterparts.
Players like former MLS and U.S. men’s national team stalwart Chris Albright, who after retiring last season has taken on many roles with the Union. One of those roles is to act as team ambassador and in doing so has made it a mission – along chief Union Academy scout Mark Prisant – to expand the club’s outreach in not just educating (through various Union Days held throughout the region) but looking for players that might have gone unseen.
Albright is the perfect fit considering he is a byproduct of a rich soccer scene in Philadelphia and is one of many that have gone on to lucrative careers within Major League Soccer and beyond. A native of the Northeast section of the city, Albright plans to utilize his contacts and notable street cred as launch pad foray into finding the Union quality homegrown talent.
“There are a lot of established clubs that have name recognition and in the past, it’s just been easy to pluck kids right from there,” Albright said in a recent discussion with philadelphiaunion.com. “What we are trying to do is find the kid that doesn’t have a mechanism to get themselves easily discovered but has that raw talent. We bring them in and subject them to a high level of coaching, a high level of games, decent fields and hope that we can make this player even better."
I think [many of these players] aren’t always in environments where they are able to succeed on a regular basis. Those kids are tougher to find and aren’t as obvious, so it’s more important to scan those areas and spend more time there.”
Last season, the Union unveiled its first Union Day in Northeast Philadelphia. Union Day, which generally consists of free mini-clinics from members of the Union’s first team and Academy aid not only in outreach, but in exposure. What the club left with that day was a talented prospect in then 17-year-old Mohamed Conde. Conde, who played for Philadelphia Soccer Club under coach Joe DiSalvo, came out to the session simply for the pro bono advice and the opportunity to better his game.
As a result of that Union Day, Conde was discovered and joined the U18 division of the Union’s youth academy.
“One of the bigger areas we have started to scan and an area that we’ve started to [talk to coaches] from is the Northeast,” said Albright. “I grew up in that area and I think it’s a good area to start. There are a lot of clubs with rich histories and where a lot of the history of the game in this city got its start. For us, it’s important to identify ourselves with some of the rich soccer roots in this city and what better place to do it.”
But it isn’t just the area that Albright finds alluring.
“There are a lot of really brilliant soccer guys [in that area] that understand and can recognize talent,” said Albright. So to be able to tap into a network that’s already set up…it’s an easy decision. “But in regards to the rest of the city, Mark has a good scouting network already set up, all I’ve tried to do is through many of the relationships I have within the city is to strengthen and grow that network. Old coaches, guys I played with, whoever it may be.”
Tapping into the city’s rich talent pool is a notion that seemed foregone, but to Albright scouting for talent in Philly first is just one of the many way he hopes he can give back to a game and a city that over his lengthy playing career provided him with so much.
“There are some sports that are more associated with the inner-city like basketball or [Americanized] football,” said Albright. “We are trying to tap into a wealth of undiscovered talent because there are a lot of kids who play soccer too. It’s an area that’s close to my heart and where I grew up playing. I know there is a lot of talent there. If you look at a lot of the guys that made it and have had great careers in the League, a lot of them come out of areas like the Northeast. Myself, [MLS journeyman Bobby Convey], [fellow Union assistant and former MLS All-Star] Jim Curtin, all of us come from that area and grew up playing ball together. I do believe that scouting this way will only strengthen our relationship with the community. Because the goal is to have those same neighborhoods come out and cheer for that player we found and be able to say ‘we knew you when.’”
Have thoughts on the Union’s inner city scouting network? Leave a comment below.
Contact Union digital editor Kerith Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org