As we continue our kickoff of Philadelphia Union "Academy Week," we offer part two of a two-part question and answer series with new Philadelphia Union academy director Tommy Wilson.
In this portion of our interview, we talk about youth development philosophy, scouting, and the comparison between American and European setups.
Philadelphiaunion.com: There are obvious differences between Europe and America when it comes to youth setup. Major League Soccer has been around since 1996, while some top European clubs have been around for a century. What's the philosophy for this project? What's the approach going to be with the Philadelphia Union academy structure?
Tommy Wilson: Well, I think the introduction of the academies through U.S. Soccer and the MLS, they have to be applauded for that. We'll play a 10 month season, which is unusual for players over here. I think a lot of them play for a school for a period, then play for a club for a period, and so on. So, there will be far greater continuity. Our boys will train five times a week, plus a game at the weekend, so that's bound to improve. We'll also have young boys in a school adjacent to the facility here, so we'll get access to them in the morning. That'll again increase the contact that we have with the players. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that if you play less, and train more, and practice more, you should get better. That would be the philosophy that we would follow. We'll have teams at fourteens and sixteens and eighteens, and then the bit between 18 the first team is the bit that's somewhat gray for me. Some boys will leave school and go to the first team. Some boys will go to college. So you start to lose your grip on them then. That for me will be the next piece of the jigsaw.
PU.com: Do you have an opinion on the college setup in the United States? It's always been a back-and-forth issue here, whether it makes more sense for young players to leave for school or remain in an academy setup beyond 18 years of age.
TW: I can't come in from Scotland and complain about the culture. I have to adopt the culture of the country I'm in. I can't change that. If you look around the world, you would say that this is really the only country that does this. So you can draw your own conclusions from that. But rather than say, 'I can't believe it's going on and it's working against the game' - a lot of my friends, and a lot of the most respected coaches in the country are college coaches. I think we need to find ways to work together. The college setup isn't going to go away. So you've got that bit from 18-to-21 where the boys are governed by NCAA rules or whatever college body they play under. I need to say that doesn't help. We've got a game coming up against Chelsea. Some of the young players who are on our homegrown list, can't play in that game because of the NCAA rules. That's working against what we're trying to achieve. So we need to try to work together to find a solution to that, and I'm sure we will.
PU.com: You look at a guy like Jack McInerney – he’s 20 years old and he’s the first Philadelphia Union player called up to the senior national team. When you consider a situation like this does it reinforce to academy coaches and academy players that similar things can be achieved by following the path he took?
TW: Absolutely. And I think also for us, as I said earlier, I think college is a great opportunity for young players, and I think a lot of parents are still sold on the prospect of the players playing for the academy here and then going to college. But I think you could look at Jack, who didn't go to college at all, and there's another pathway. I mean, I've been speaking to young players who come out of school, saying, “ok, when you're that age, come 18, if the first team coach thinks that you're good enough, then go to college later. Be a footballer first. Set aside some money, and maybe the club can help you get to college later.” These are situations that I hope come up and give us a headache more and more often, because it means we're doing our job right. Jack McInerney doesn't have to wait until he's 22 to come out of college to start again. Regardless of what college he goes to, the season only lasts for three months. He's logged 10 goals. So that's a different career path and one that we hope will confront our young players in years to come.
PU.com: We’ve got affiliate clubs in the USL and PDL with Harrisburg and Reading. Are there any similarities in Europe to our affiliate setup over here?
TW: There are. We had the reserve team, which I was the coach of. So the boys who were 18-to-21 played on the reserve team along with some first teamers. We also put players out on loan, and that's essentially what's going on with Harrisburg and Reading. But we could pull these guys back and they could still play on the first team. There's no real restrictions, but some of the Reading players (do face issues) because of their eligibility for college.
PU.com: For the longest time, soccer was considered a “privileged” sport in America. There was this concept of the “inverted pyramid”, where the majority of club and travel team players came from middle or upper class white suburban backgrounds. Kids without money weren't playing at the highest level. How do you open up the scouting process to include inner city children and those who might not have the resources to take part in the academy setup?
TW: It's a good question and one that's exercised my mind since I've been here. We're currently putting in a scouting structure that will, if you consider the Philadelphia area your home territory, as a country, you know I think Nick mentioned that there's around seven million people that we can recruit from. That's a country. That's bigger than Scotland. I need to put in place a comprehensive scouting network that looks right across that region. We did a Union day in Northeast Philly and a team came and worked with some of our players. We recruited a player from that team. We may not have normally been in that area looking at those players. So our scouting needs to be comprehensive and inclusive, not focused on those who have the ability to pay but those who have the ability to play. That's the most important thing for me. If a boy lives in Allentown, or wherever, lets see if we can support him and get him into the club. That's what they do in Europe. We had four buses coming in every day at rangers, bringing in kids from two hours away. They would bring them to the training ground and take them home at night. At Schalke they told me that they had a magnetic board with 25 sets of keys on it. They said that those keys were for all of the shuttles that they had. They had 25 drivers. Every night they would drive the boys to the training ground and back. It's a huge commitment, but it's something we've taken seriously.
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org