When walking through the hallways of Philadelphia Union’s newly built YSC school on the Chester waterfront, Academy Director Tommy Wilson stopped David Vazquez in the hall, offering his congratulations. The 17-year-old midfielder was named MLS NEXT Pro Rising Star of the Matchday after scoring the game-securing goal in the final moments of Union II’s 3-1 win against New York Red Bulls II. His effort saw the team claim the final spot in the playoffs for the second straight year.
Vazquez is just one name among a lengthy list of Philadelphia Union Academy products that have helped propel Union II through the 2023 season – a total of 19 academy products contributed to Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc’s squad, providing a stream of young talent within a season that featured near-constant roster fluctuation.
Between frequent changes in personnel due players needed first team matches or training, college departures, United States Youth National Team call-ups, and more, the team rarely had a stable roster. Amidst those uncertainties, academy players remained the anchor, accounting for a staggering 59% of the team’s goals and 69% of assists through the final regular season game.
Their impact is testament to Philadelphia Union’s commitment to the Pathway to the Pros, which is a club pillar focused on bringing young talent from the youth and academy levels to the top of the American game and beyond.
“I think performing against professionals with a crowd in the building in a meaningful league is something that really prepares the young players to be pros. So from that regard, I would say that's the beauty of the MLS NEXT Pro team,” Wilson said.
“This is what we do. This is who we are, this is what will always be. And I think this is the only way to do it. If you're going to be a club that relies on homegrown players to develop from within, then you need to expose them to professional environments and that's what we do.”
During the season, academy players like goalkeeper Andrew Rick, midfielder Sal Olivas, and defender Neil Pierre have moved up through the pathway, earning MLS NEXT Pro contracts with the club.
“There has to be a pathway – a clear pathway, unobstructed, that if you work hard and play well, your chance will come, and I think that's what we've got here. It's taken some time to develop it, but we have an infrastructure that supports that,” Wilson said.
“We have staff that, like myself, have come from clubs that have a long history and tradition of doing that. Jim Curtin was part of the academy and has been brave enough to put the young players in the team. In that respect, we’re set up to be successful, but we need to have the raw material and development to fulfill those roles, and I think we've done that this year.”
Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc’s squad is diligently preparing for their upcoming win-or-go-home match against New England Revolution II on Sunday, but the club's goal for the season has already been realized. For leaders like Wilson and LeBlanc, success is measured in athletes' development, and there’s been no shortage of it across the Union II squad this season.
“It's not the be all and end all to get to the playoffs. It's nice and we'll try and go as far as we can. But it's more important that the players contribute in a meaningful, meaningful way and they are,” Wilson said.
Sunday’s test against 2nd-seeded Revolution II will provide the young group another opportunity for growth for the young group as they’ll have the chance to battle in a must-win matchup.
“Playing in knockout games is very important because in a league game and even in this league, even if you tie you get the chance to win it with penalties. But with this one, it can be one and done. For our young players, if they're going to be professionals in our first team, they're gonna go out here in a playoff scenario where it becomes a knockout and they need to get used to that,” Tommy said.
Tune in on Sunday, October 1st at 8 p.m. to watch Union II take on New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium with MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.