Ask Philadelphia Union Coach/Youth Development Coordinator John Hackworth about player development and his smile can light up a room.
Hackworth can talk about it forever.
In addition to assisting Manager Peter Nowak with first team duties, Hackworth plays a large role in cultivating players from a much younger level.
There may not be a single more qualified individual in the country to oversee Philadelphia's youth academy, a program that is still in the process of being built out according to Hackworth's vision.
Prior to coming to the Union, Hackworth served as the Development Academy Technical Director in U.S. Soccer’s player development initiative, which launched in 2007. Before that, he spent more than six years at the helm of the U.S. Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., leading the team to first place finishes in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying in 2005 and 2007. During that time, he was instrumental in producing some of the United States’ best young professionals, including Michael Bradley, Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Spector and Troy Perkins.
The former University of South Florida Head Coach recently oversaw the Union’s first U-17 squad as they participated in the SUM U-17 Cup from July 23-28.
Even before reaping the benefits of a successful youth academy, the Union have a number of promising young players on their roster, including teenagers Danny Mwanga, Jack McInerney, Roger Torres and Amobi Okugo. Recently, 15-year-old Zach Pfeffer became the first academy member to begin training with the first team, even featuring for the club in an international friendly against Chivas Guadalajara.
The message? The Union are serious about their youth development.
The foundation begins with a partnership the club forged with YSC Sports that concentrates on player development from ages 8-12. The YSC Union Juniors program was created to provide elite players in the region with high-level, supplemental training designed to complement and support the efforts of their club teams and coaches. The initiative is "club neutral," meaning the YSC Union Juniors won't compete against area club teams. It's also free-to-play, ensuring that economics don't stand in the way of player development.
"I can talk about this all day,” Hackworth told philadelphiaunion.com. “Developing players from a young age is so important as we work within the local communities. Soccer is a sport that starts with kids from a young age and if you can work with them from the start, you’ll see results for the long term.
“Overseeing this U-17 team is very special to me because this is a major step for these young players not only on the field, but off the field as well.”
While Philadelphia only finished third in their group in the U-17 Cup, a youth tournament comprised exclusively of all 16 Major League Soccer U-17 teams, the squad received strong reviews, especially for a group playing together for the first time. The tournament ended on a high-note, with the Union U-17's edging Dallas' academy club 1-0 for their first-ever win.
Hackworth is in charge of the overall vision of the program, but the coaching staff for the tournament was comprised of former Scottish international Iain Munro serving as Head Coach and Ian Hennessy as Assistant Coach. Munro has extensive experience as an ex-professional soccer player who played in the top soccer divisions in Scotland and England during a long playing career. He played for teams including Glasgow Rangers and Sunderland, working under renowned coaches Jock Stein and Sir Alex Ferguson. Hennessy, a former All-American soccer player at Seton Hall who played professionally with a number of teams including the New York MetroStars, currently serves as Head Men’s Soccer Coach at the University of Delaware.
In addition to his duties with the Union U-17 squad, Munro is the Academy Director at YSC Sports and runs the YSC Union Juniors program under the supervision of Hackworth.
“The player development in this area is so vital,” Hackworth said. “We are making a concerted effort to work with clubs in the community and YSC is a perfect partner to do it with. The U-17 Cup was a result of the hard work that goes into player development, which is a long road. We think this is so important. I told you I could write a book on this. We start with the kids from a young age in the community. It’s a wonderful program and one we’re looking to work on all the time.”
The feedback from the players themselves has been extremely positive.
“I heard nothing but great things from the kids,” Hackworth said. “We had the youngest team there in Houston and we had good results. I was very impressed by that. The players did very well and they connected to the coaching staff very well. I thought with such a young group of kids, we represented ourselves very, very well. When I heard the reaction from the players was all positive, it made me feel good because of all the hard work required with this program. I think the direction we are heading is a very positive one.”