People say in life that timing is everything. When the 2002 FIFA World Cup rolled around, a 10-year old Jimmy McLaughlin from Bryn Mawr, Pa. proclaimed to his family that his goal in life was to become a professional soccer player. It was at this age when he could really process his personal experience of watching international soccer and translate it into a measurable and achievable goal for his life. But how achievable – or realistic – was becoming a professional soccer player out of Philadelphia?
In the years prior to 2002, Soccer had yet to hit home with the American Public and resonate with their culture nearly as much as their European or Central and South American counterparts. It was barely visible in the media and not nearly as glamorous of a sport as basketball, baseball, or (American) football. While soccer can be a way of life in a city like London or Buenos Aires, the MLS had only started in 1996 and had yet to gain much mainstream traction, still being seen as far inferior to the established leagues around the world.
When the 2002 World Cup begun, the USMNT had only won four World Cup finals games in 72 years. However it was this World Cup in which everything would change. The team recorded their best-ever finish in a World Cup in modern times, as they reached the quarter-finals and famously beat arch-rivals Mexico 2-0 in the first knockout stage.
It was all coming together for McLaughlin. While only 10 at the time, there had never been a more suitable soccer landscape in America to want to become a professional. The positive World Cup performance gave visibility and credit to MLS’s mission, as a majority of the USMNT players had come from the then-unestablished league, and performed admirably as underdogs against much bigger and better teams.
Perhaps even more instrumental, this team created a new, unique American soccer culture that still persists to this day in the next generation of players such as McLaughlin, who grew up watching and idolizing icons such as Brian McBride and Landon Donovan. With a passion for the sport already in him and the 2002 World Cup glory to look to as inspiration and drive, McLaughlin was at the prime age to develop his skills and thrive with the backdrop of this new popularity geared towards soccer in America.
Debbie McLaughlin, Jimmy’s mother, recalls that her family spent at least three-quarters of the year doing “travel soccer weekends,” reflecting that they “went everywhere.” From tournaments as far west as Oregon, as North as Maine, and as South as North Carolina, the McLaughlin’s were in their mini-van nearly every weekend as they supported Jimmy’s goal of one day playing professionally. Despite the tremendous amount of sacrifices one would expect a family like this to go through; Debbie says she would not have had it any other way.
“It was a unique family experience – believe it or not – it was soccer, but there was so much more to that,” she said.
While Jimmy had been travelling competitively for his youth soccer clubs, it was perfect timing that served as the bridge between Jimmy’s dream of playing soccer professionally and its reality.
Debbie notes that things fell into place when there were rumors that Philadelphia might get a soccer team. These rumors – and reality – came around the time Jimmy was 15 years old. In early 2008, Philadelphia was added as the 16th team in the MLS after the Sons of Ben supporter group and other instrumental figures successfully advocated for Philly to receive a team. It was in this same year that McLaughlin began to play for the Union’s Youth Development Affiliate, FC DELCO; a stint that would last three seasons. In his senior year of high school playing for FC DELCO (2010-2011), McLaughlin led the club with 16 goals in 24 appearances.
McLaughlin committed to Colgate University to play soccer after this breakout season. The summer before his freshman year, he was invited to play in several reserve games with the Union, which led to him being included in several international friendlies before he left for college. He played against Real Madrid and Everton and fondly remembers his opportunity to play against Cristiano Ronaldo.
At Colgate, McLaughlin was the only freshman to start in all 22 matches and was one of just six players on the entire team to start every game. In his first collegiate start, he scored and led his team to a 1-0 win against Syracuse University. He finished his freshman season in 2011 as the Patriot League Rookie of the Year.
After also winning the Patriot League Title that same year, McLaughlin was offered a contract to play for the Union. McLaughlin returned as the Union’s second homegrown player to make the first team, ultimately achieving his dream of playing professionally.
“The Union created a path for young players like me who are aspiring to become professionals and shows them that there’s a way to do it,” McLaughlin said. “And you start here, you work your way up, and this is how it happens.”
While timing might have been perfect to induce McLaughlin’s development into the Union’s second ever homegrown player, Jimmy’s persistence and passion allowed him to progress to the next level and achieve his dreams. As his dad Jay said, the journey has been well worth it as he sees his son step onto the pitch at PPL Park in a Union jersey.
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This story is part of AAA’s “Start Your Journey” campaign, an effort – in partnership with the Union – to help celebrate families’ journeys in support of their young athletes…the long road trips, all-weekend tournaments, and the special bonds that are formed from the extensive time on the road. Each month, the Philadelphia Union and AAA will select an individual within its soccer network to develop a feature story on their path to success in association with the game of soccer. Additionally, fans are encouraged to share their own stories via social media using #ShareYourJourney.