Youth development is a central pillar of Philadelphia Union's philosophy. A long-term plan to evolve the Union into club that constantly infuses its first team with talent from the academy was accelerated under former Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, and that has put the onus on Academy Director Tommy Wilson to enact an ambitious project.
Wilson has led the Union's academy since 2013, and he has built it into one of the nation's best.
"Our mission is to try to get players in the first team, as you would see this year," Wilson tells me while sitting one floor above the field-turned-graduation-hall that recently saw Anthony Fontana's inspiring speech to the next generations of young talent. "Auston [Trusty] and Mark [McKenzie] and Matthew Real, and [Derrick] Jonesy, Anthony Fontana... our boys should be scrapping to be the next one of them."
"We don't necessarily praise them for winning and down them for losing," Wilson continues, "We reward effort over outcome. That sounds a bit trite, but it's accurate. We look for performance, so we look for the performance of the team, the performance of the individual, the performance of us as a staff, and then we can consider the result. So normally, if we get the first three right, the fourth one takes care of itself."
As Wilson and his academy coaches -- including newly named pre-academy director Ryan Richter -- prepare for players to return in the fall, they are continuing to learn how to handle their young charges as the Union's developmental pipeline becomes increasingly solid.
"I think I can say -- and I've been doing this a long time now -- that no two years are the same," Wilson explains. "Early in our [2017-18] season, the U19 team had eight or nine players training because the rest were with Bethlehem Steel. So by the 19s going up to Steel, 17s go to 19s, 15s go to 17s, and so on and so on and so on.
"And that's the great part about the development process: Some boys that you don't think are ready, they're thriving in their own age group. And they go up to the next age group and they struggle. But eventually they survive, and that's part of the process."
Other big parts of the process? Rest ,recovery, difficult realities.
"A lot of it is to do with rest, rest is really important," Wilson emphasizes. "Each of our players have an offseason plan which is prepared by our sports science performance department. At the end of the season and during the season, our staff meets with the players. We also meet with the parents three times per year. We meet at the start to talk about our expectations for the year. In the middle to get the parents an indication of where we see their son, and at the end -- because not everyone will be retained, it's just part of the process."
Indeed, some players don't make it through the academy. But for those that do, Wilson is grateful and excited about the link Bethlehem Steel has begun providing between the first team and the academy.
"Bethlehem Steel completes the pyramid," he says, "And is assisting the path to the professional level, and it's really tangible.
"When I came at first there was no second team, really, so there was a kind of glass ceiling. Boys were in the Under-18s then, and they could look at the first team but they couldn't make that jump."
With Steel well-established and under the guidance of Brendan Burke, Wilson feels he can focus on building the club's methodology into every aspect of the academy and is tailored to players at each stage of their growth.
"Now that we have integration with our first team and there's a common method and common methodology throughout the club, I'd like to really focus in on that and ensure that the work that we're doing is age appropriate and is consistent throughout the age groups," he says when I ask about goals for the upcoming year.
But amidst all the work, this is the year Wilson can finally see the fruits of his labors at the academy ripening into first team contributors, and that, as much as anything else, drives him to continue what he views as a long-term, evolving process.
"I spoke to Mark [McKenzie] and Auston [Trusty] the other night and I thought I was standing in a hole when I was standing beside them!" Wilson laughs. "They're so big and tall and strong now! And I can remember them both playing -- Mark as a non-goal scoring center forward, and Auston who had a real struggle through the academy.
"It's nice for me to use both of those as an example to our young ones. And I'm really proud that these are the first boys to come all the way through the system. I think they represent the club with a great deal of humility and professionalism. And I think a big part of that is the work that the academy does in preparing them for this."
That belief in the academy's role in developing top American talent is supported not just by Trusty and McKenzie, but by a wealth of young talent hot on the center backs' heels. Brenden Aaronson is starting for Steel right now, and Selmir Miscic recently joined the first team for a friendly against Eintracht Frankfurt; Brandan Craig, meanwhile, scored a stunner in the International Champions Cup Futures tournament in July.
Each of these players will know Tommy Wilson well by the time they graduate from the Union academy, and they will take his philosophy with them to the next stage of their journey.
"I think it's important that we don't get too high when we're winning, too low when we lose," Wilson contends. "Just try to be slow and steady, keep an even keel. Approach both winning and losing similarly, prepare for the next game in the same way. And that's a message that's consistent across the whole staff."