At nearly every turn of a corner, Philadelphia offers a landmark to its distinctive influence on American society and culture. While still in its nascence, the history of soccer in America is similarly beholden to the region. After what began in the Lehigh Valley around a century ago with Bethlehem Steel, and before the new tradition being forged by Philadelphia Union today, is the story of many of the sport’s pioneers and prime movers plying their trade around Greater Philadelphia.
With a quick drive north of Philly, one can revisit the seminal history of American soccer at the Ukrainian American Sport Center (Tryzub), home of the four-time U.S. Open Cup champs and current youth club Ukrainian Nationals.
“If I could sum it up, it's like a big social club with a serious soccer element to it,” says Omid Namazi, Technical Advisor and coaching consultant for Ukrainian Nationals, speaking on the future of the historic organization in the Ukrainian’s clubhouse. One could say it was something of a achievement for the Ukrainian Nationals to hire Coach Namazi, who concurrently serves as the U.S. U-18’s National Team Head Coach, where he has coached Philadelphia Union homegrowns Matt Real, Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty, and Anthony Fontana.
"There is great history here, and to be honest with you, when I first came here that was an attraction to me. A clubhouse like this, it feels like a European club. We don't have this around the country...having this and the good people that are working here was all the reason why I wanted to be on board."
The history in Ukrainian’s clubhouse is palpable. Club officials and parents mingle in the bar and sip on local beers beneath the trophies and banners from the Ukrainian’s halcyon professional days in the 60’s and 70’s hoisted above. There’s a banner from when the old American Soccer League squad matched up against Stuttgart in a friendly played in Philadelphia (the banner from the Manchester United friendly is unfortunately still missing), and of course the Open Cup trophies. Just around the corner is a kitchen that can produce thousands of pierogis in a day to service the Ukrainian community festivals or club events that are held throughout the year.
The clubhouse sits on an old 40-acre farm purchased by the organization. "The old, immigrant Ukrainians that strived to come here and become American citizens were literally coming here after work, and building [this clubhouse],” recounts Ukrainian Nationals President Dan Nysch. "They built the clubhouse...and we had a bar and small hall. About 15, 20 years ago what they did is they built [an expansion]. They rebuilt the bar. They rebuilt the deck...that was all done by these guys getting together, working their [butts] off on Saturdays and Sundays for ten hours...and then having a drink afterwards."
The clubhouse provides a communal hub reminiscent of analogous clubs in continental Europe, but is a rarity in the U.S. currently. It is the work being done outside on the pitch, however, that is pivotal to Ukrainian’s mission in 2018. It is thus quite exceptional to sit in the clubhouse not only because of its unique history in the American soccer milieu, but simply because it still stands.
While the concept of an “ethnic” soccer club may be strange today, Ukrainian Nationals used to compete against rivals such as Brooklyn Italians, New York Armenians, New Brunswick Hungarians, and the Chicago Slovaks. It’s not only the four U.S. Open Cups that differentiate the club, but the fact that they evolved and found a niche in the American soccer community after competing at the highest echelons of professionalized American soccer.
“Philadelphia has a long history of ethnic clubs,” Dan Nysch says, “Whereas, in the '60's, we had a pro team...our focus now is building as young as possible to come in and from that we build up. The other ethnic clubs, [like] New York Armenians, their focus was on the majors team.” While other ethnic clubs in Greater Philadelphia still operate majors teams as well, none have maintained the relevance Ukrainian Nationals have with its touchpoint in the community established first through its youth soccer programming.
Coach Namazi expounds, "Twenty years ago they made a commitment that the way to go is to concentrate on youth soccer. Little by little they started giving it a structure. At some point the decision was made that not only do we want to be in youth soccer and have a structure…[but] the idea is for us to now go away from parent coaches, hire professional coaches, coaches who do this for a living, coaches who have gone through licensing courses and know what to do with different age groups, and there's been a lot of investment put into place, not only from that standpoint, bringing in me...and I'm a paid Director of Coaching, which didn't exist before...but also if you look outside, just recently the club has invested close to two million dollars in the state of the art turf field."
The result has been, by focusing on youth development, Ukrainian Nationals continues to have a major impact on Philadelphia soccer. It is Omid Namazi’s role as Technical Advisor to ensure that the club continues its evolution from its focus on its adult teams to a prioritization of player development. At the core of this vision is a focus on individual player development and “Zone 1,” the youngest ages (6-12) where players begin playing competitive, travel soccer. It is a pivotal time for young soccer players to develop core technical proficiencies and the quintessential love of the game.
"Our philosophy, and I can honestly talk about this to our coaches, is developing individual players,” Namazi says, "A lot of clubs, they concentrate on developing teams and winning, and yes, winning is part of it, we don't discard that...but at the end of the day it's about developing each individual player. If we do that, our teams will be good. That's our focus. That's what we want to do."
Namazi continued, "Now this club has made an investment, and has a vision about making this club not only a good club on the youth level in the region, but throughout the country. A lot of work has been done, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. We have just now this past year been accepted into the US Development Academy at the U12 age group, and we're hoping to add to that not only on the Boys' side, but also on the Girls’ side. If we can do that with the Union present next door and while having a good working relationship, we feel like our niche is that ‘Zone 1’...and hopefully we can develop players that someday we graduate to the Union, as far as the Boys are concerned, and the Girls also to other USDA programs...but even as we continue and hope to be able to develop players for the National Team. That's something that we would be proud of."