By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 11, 2019) US Soccer Players - A famous movie maker once opined that 80 percent of life is just showing up. Sometimes the most striking way to make a statement, however, is not showing up at all. That’s what the Philadelphia Union did this week.
It’s no secret that the MLS SuperDraft has steadily drifted towards the periphery of Major League Soccer’s player acquisition mechanisms in recent years. That said, heads turned around the league on Wednesday night when Philly drove home that point with a fairly dramatic repudiation of the whole process.
Led by Ernst Tanner, the German sporting director who joined the club in August, the Union wrote themselves out of this year’s draft process with one fell swoop. Shipping expansion side FC Cincinnati all five of their draft picks in exchange for either $150,000 or $200,000 in General Allocation Money, depending on performance-related clauses, the club decided that nothing in this year’s college crop was better than what they’re already producing via their USL team and cutting-edge academy system.
“The level of MLS has increased a lot, and I think the level in the university has been more or less the same. There is quite a big gap,” Tanner told reporters on a conference call. “Out of what I’ve seen last year when I’d see the draft picks, there are a lot of players who are quite OK for the USL level. But it doesn’t necessarily make us better on the MLS level.”
It’s a bold move for a franchise which qualified for the playoffs last year for just the third time in its nine years of existence and still has yet to win a postseason series. Many Union fans are simmering in frustration about their team’s struggles to break into the MLS elite.
Even more so, they chafe at the club’s perceived lack of financial heft, with majority investor/operator Jay Sugarman not blessed with quite the stupendous levels of personal wealth that some of his counterparts can bring to bear for their organizations. The Union doesn't have big-money Designated Players like Atlanta or the LA and New York teams, luxuries increasingly viewed as necessities in a fast-evolving league.
Those inside the club tell a different story, though. Philly has their own way of doing things. It’s not about a lack of spending or ambition so much as a deep focus on a long-range plan, a homegrown mindset, and a desire to lift the American game at large in the process.
“I think it’s a bit of a false narrative because we’re just spending in a different way,” minority investor/operator and founder of the Union’s academy Richie Graham told USSoccerPlayers.com in a recent conversation. “We’re spending in a way that we also think is long-term sustainable. When you look at our academy investment and when you add to that USL [Philly own and operate Bethlehem Steel FC] – and let’s just call that our manufacturing – the manufacturing investment is one of the biggest in the league, if not the biggest.”
Spearheaded by Graham, the Union have invested many millions into a groundbreaking academy with its own private high school, a national recruiting scope matched with a heavy dose of local pride, and some of the best facilities and technical infrastructure in the United States. So far it’s fostered several members of the US national team pools. That includes the center-back duo of Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty currently taking part in January camp in California.
Philadelphia has drawn comparisons to Dutch heavyweights and renowned talent producers Ajax. A better analogy, though, might be found in northern Spain. The Union believes they can become MLS’s Athletic Bilbao, the fiercely proud La Liga club that features only players from their Basque region. Despite, or perhaps because of, that limitation, Athletic stand alongside Real Madrid and FC Barcelona as the only clubs never relegated from Spain’s top flight.
Philly has no plans to exclude any region or nationality from their roster. They just want to develop their own. In fact, they think it’s their duty, not only to their southeast Pennsylvania homeland but the entire country, starting with the USMNT.
“When Major League Soccer was coming to town and they first approached me, I never really was interested in being an owner of a professional sports team, but I’m very interested in the idea of moving the American game forward,” explained Graham.
That’s also led him to found Playmakers Management Group, a new venture designed to, among other things, provide marketing and creative services to brands seeking entry to the country’s burgeoning soccer audience and marketplace. They hired longtime US Soccer executive Ryan Mooney away from the federation to help oversee the project, a quiet statement of intent.
“[World Cup] 2026 is going to come around pretty quickly, before we all know it, and as brands are trying to think about how to connect with the American soccer consumer,” said Graham, “we thought there was a place there for some focus – we’re literally living inside that bubble every day. From the grassroots, mommy-and-me programs all the way up through the professionals, we have a lot of touch points that are very authentic to what’s happening within the American soccer landscape… helping brands connect with the sport and hopefully do it in a way that makes the sport hip and smart and cool and broadens the excitement for it.”
Graham takes care to acknowledge that the Union doesn’t expect to win titles solely with a “play your kids” approach. He noted that the best clubs, he cited English giants Manchester City in particular, both grow and buy talent. Philly has sought out youngsters from as far afield as Cameroon in their search for growth assets. They brought in Tanner, a veteran of the Hoffenheim and Red Bull Salzburg systems, to consolidate the whole thing into a winning first team. If MLS does follow through on commissioner Don Garber’s recent statements about becoming a selling league, few are better equipped to benefit than the Union.
“I think it benefits the entire league,” said Graham. “I personally look at the United States and feel like we’re a future powerhouse of the sport. I feel like we have a lot of the ingredients – the population, the athletic infrastructure, the athletic culture. We have a lot of ingredients, and it makes a lot of sense that the league looks at that as a mechanism to grow…. You create this great manufacturing. You can showcase these guys in a league that is clearly getting better and better every year. The quality of the league is also raising the bar of the domestic player and helping them become better. Ultimately there’s this opportunity to transact on players. I think it’s a natural evolution of the game.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- Five USMNT questions in 2019
- The evolution of the MLS coaching carousel
- A look at the 2019 January camp squad
- The difficult road ahead for Gregg Berhalter
Photo by Howard C Smith - ISIPhotos.com