Before the second leg of GA Cup regional qualifying began at Real Salt Lake's academy, Union Academy Director Tommy Wilson and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner briefly discussed whether eligible players should leave preseason training with USL Championship side Philadelphia Union II to help the academy fight toward the GA Cup finals in Dallas.
It was not a long conversation, because both men share a guiding principle: "Always with development as the focus."
Wilson emphasized this after the Union U15s and U17s both came agonizingly close to making the GA Cup finals following penalty shootout losses to New York Red Bulls. Both Union squads topped their groups in goals scored, and the U17s had the best goal differential in Group C.
It was a difficult finish for two teams that have vastly improved their collective defending since they began learning the Union's new playing style. But Wilson's mind was, as always, on the unexpected growth he saw in understanding how to control the center.
"It's something he doesn't always do," Wilson said wryly, "But Ernst preached patience with the two striker shape." Tanner and Wilson have pushed the academy to be the driving force in bringing players capable of executing a complex system to the first team. But few clubs use the narrow shape Philly has adopted, and the Union itself often used wingers to isolate defenders in space prior to Tanner's arrival. So to see two young sides excel at creating chances in this shape gave Wilson even more confidence the academy continues to move in the right direction.
"There's adversity, for sure," Wilson admitted, "But there's a lot of pride." Overcoming that adversity and turning it into motivation is part of learning the mentality it takes to succeed in the Union's demanding system. Properly executed, the Union's current style of play is unrelenting and pits Philadelphia's physical stamina against the opponent's mental resources. Often, it is the opponents who make the mistake. U15 striker Nelson Pierre capitalized on just such a situation against Inter Miami, latching onto a loose touch from a defender -- and bodying that man off the ball -- and finishing with his next touch.
"We plunge them into the fire, like a proving grounds," Wilson said. "Some come out tougher, with a strength and resilience that we believe can help them go as far as they want to go. There is suffering, such as falling just short like today. So it has to be with a purpose."
That purpose? Preparation for professional and top level college soccer. The toughness to overcome injury setbacks like Brenden Aaronson's collarbone injury two years ago, or Mark McKenzie's difficult wait for playing time last year after a breakout 2018.
And then, when the big moments arrive, the discipline and focus to capitalize on them. In Utah, Wilson watched U15 players like Gael Medrano and Aaron Heard that thrived last year with the U13s show they were uncowed by a physically imposing Red Bulls side. He saw a U17 team missing seven key pieces due to Union II preseason and injuries nearly punch a ticket to the GA Cup finals.
The competitor in Wilson wants to win, but the coach in him always has the final say: "Progress," he intones, "Is more important than outcomes."
And as the spring season approaches, progress on the pitch and among the staff - "We can be a pathway for players, coaches, and staff at the academy," Wilson says - continues to point toward the kind of development the Union believe will produce the next Aaronson, the next McKenzie.
There will be better outcomes in the future, and, surely, a few more heartbreaking results along the way. But all of it will happen with development as the focus. Always with development as the focus.