Sakiewicz talks Union Academy

Editor’s note: Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz took part in NSCAA Google Hangout on Thursday afternoon, answering questions on a variety of topics about the Union Academy. Below is a transcript of what he had to say. Questions have been paraphrased.

Can you explain your role with the Union and the Union Academy?

Sure. So, about seven years ago, I sold the MetroStars to the New York Red Bulls, and started on a venture to found an expansion team, and I co-founded the Philadelphia Union with my partners. We built a stadium here and launched the Philadelphia Union in 2010.

Part of that plan was to build out a great youth development system. It took us a number of years to develop that, but we all here at the Union, all agree: partners and investors have a deep passion in the development of the American player.

Ostensibly, one the reasons I got involved in the league 20 years ago was because we really wanted to invest in the young American player. And so, when we created the Union a big, big part of that plan was to seed the ground with the foundation of a youth development system that would be tied to a professional team, and the youth soccer community, and the collegiate community, so that we could develop young American players in the Philadelphia area.

Today, seven years later, we have an incredible facility about 20 miles west of our stadium that houses our youth academy, and also a school we launched in partnership with Rich Graham and the YSC facilities there; it’s called the YSC Academy. It’s actually a high school for elite soccer players.

Can you explain the thought process behind integrating the school with the academy, something that is fairly unique for academies in the US?

It’s really a game-changer to the whole youth development academy system that we have. The biggest game-changer for us is that in this country is not is not a “nice to have” like it is in many other countries throughout the world, it’s a must have. And, let’s face it, most of the kids in our academy will not be professional players — the odds are stacked against them. But we want to be able to have conversations with parents of these elite players that their worst outcome is that they become very good soccer players and go to college and get a college education — in some cases, get that education paid for — and that’s their worst outcome. That’s not a bad outcome to have. The best one is that they can become a great soccer player and play for the national team, play for the Philadelphia Union, and go on to be a superstar. So, really, what the school does for us is allow us to have that conversation with the parents.

It also, by controlling what the kids do for the better part of the day, it allows us to have those kids immersed in our culture, in our own environment. When these kids go off to school, we lose control of the environment, we lose control of our culture for five or six hours a day until they come and train with us. And what the school — because its connected to the Union, to our culture and what we believe in —  that school gives us the ability to have these kids from 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock at night.

Can you explain some the steps the team took to establish the academy?

Our partner, Rich Graham, in the venture, he’s our youth development partner and also an investor the Philadelphia Union. Rich and I met almost seven years ago when we first started thinking about bringing the Union to town, and we both saw the game the same way, and saw youth development in the same fashion. Rich really is the guy that, day-to-day, oversees that. Both he and I over the decades — really, as players, as business men — have visited many, many youth development academies around the world — South America, Europe, Asia, many places — where we gained a lot, we learned a lot from those places. We took a lot of the best practices from many of the academies from around the world — some big, some small, some rich, some not so rich — and we took some of the best practices and we kind of evolved into a program that’s made for US. Because, let’s face it, Philadelphia is not London, England or Munich, Germany, it’s Philadelphia, USA, and there are certain things here, traditions, relationships, the youth soccer community, the collegiate community, the high school scholastic community — all these constituencies that have to be part of the building process.

But, we took a lot of those best practices and, really, over the seven years, we built something that we launched two years ago.

Can you give an overview of the components that go into the academy philosophy?

Yeah, so we felt a lot of the academies that we looked at around the world, the best ones surrounded the player with assets, surrounded the player with opportunities — with opportunities to learn, opportunities to develop. So, the curriculum that we’ve created, and the philosophy that we employ, is a very holistic approach to the players’ development. What does that mean? That means the player is at the center, and that player is surrounded with all sorts of opportunities and assets, from education, health and nutrition, to performance psychology, wellness, fitness, strength and conditioning, and of course technical and tactical coaching and teaching, those things that a soccer player must have at every level. What we’ve done is we’ve taken all these components and invested heavily in staff that are experts in each of these areas, and we’ve surrounded our players with that. The player is really responsible for his own development, but he has all these resources that he can tap into to become a better player. Because, at the end of the day, our philosophy is that a player has to invest in his own development and his own future, no one can do that for him, and that’s what makes elite players.

Where do you see soccer going in the US and how does the Union Academy help players prepare for, or even influence, those changes?

Well, you’re talking to a guy who’s been in the game for 30 years, through my college days in the early 80s, six years as a professional, and now 20 years in Major League Soccer. It’s been an incredible 30 year run, but there’s never been a more exciting time to be in the sport of soccer. I really believe that the next decade, the next 10, 20, 30 years are going to be exponential growth for the sport in this country. When you just look at the last World Cup and the previous World Cups and the growth of that; and also the college game, the growth of the youth development system in this country; and then the growth of Major League Soccer, USL PRO, the other leagues in this country, it’s really an exciting time to be in the sport of soccer at whatever level you’re at. So, we just see big things happening with the sport in this country. And that’s why the belief in the academy system is so vital, because it’s really within that academy system — whether it’s a professional Major League Soccer team, or the work that our partners at the USL PRO level are doing, our partnerships with the collegiate community — they play a vital role in not just lighting kids up with the game and making sure that it’s fun, but also training them so that they can play at the highest and best levels. That’s what’s really going to seal the growth of the sport in this country. Those academies –which, by the way, every MLS team is now mandated to have an academy system by US Soccer and Major League Soccer — the investments made in those kids is going to be a tremendous outgrowth for the growth of the sport in the country.

How does the college system fit into the soccer structure in the US, and how important is it in keeping players involved in the game?

Well, throughout that 30-40 year time cycle, the collegiate game has been absolutely invaluable to the development of the players. The further you go back, the more valuable the collegiate game has been. In fact, at one point in the 80s, the collegiate game was the place where players got their experience and got their development. Soccer has evolved and the college game has evolved, to the point where today the college game is still a very vital component. In fact, as we speak, all the MLS coaches are going down to Florida to watch the combine, which is made up ostensibly of all collegiate players that are eligible for the draft. And then, of course, the draft will be next week on the 15th around the NSCAA convention here in Philadelphia. It’s a vital, vital piece in  identifying players, identifying the next star of MLS, the next star of the US national team, and has acted as a feeder system for professional game and the amateur game.

Having said that, though, soccer is changing in this country. We see it dramatically in MLS; over the last five, six years the quality of the league has risen. The game has changed at the minor league level: this year the USL PRO is adding 12 expansion teams — unprecedented. And the collegiate game has to find its next step, its next evolution, to continue to develop and grow along with the rest of the sport in this country. I would encourage those that are running the collegiate game, and the influencers, to think about how the collegiate game can continue to evolve to give those young players — both men and women — the best possible chance to play at the highest level.

Do you plan to extend the Union Academy to girls in the future?

The big picture answer to that is yes. We’re not quite sure on the timing of that. Women’s soccer, girls soccer, is massive, not just in the Philadelphia area but in the United States. There’s a pro league that’s out there that is getting some good footing in building some roots and we hope that, finally, they’re able to provide and outlet for the elite player.

For us, it’s not a matter of if, but when: What’s the right timing for us as an organization to do that, to introduce that to our academy system? You have to understand, we’re two years into it with the academy, we’re one year into it with the high school, and we’re just kind of finding our way and things are settling a little bit. Once we get a foundation firmly put in place, like I said, I don’t think it’s a matter of if we’re going to introduce girls and women into the program, it’s just a matter of when, and what timing’s right.

What steps are taken to ensure a strong diversity of players within the Union Academy?

Any good academy system is about recruiting. Not just recruiting but identifying talent. It’s really the first step to creating the right diversity mix. Identifying that talent, then going out and recruiting it, and then properly supporting it with everything with everything in that holistic approach I talked about before. So, it really all starts there.

We have built up a robust recruiting department in the academy system that we have and I’m very proud to say that our diversity in our group of kids is fantastic. I think we’re 37 percent African American, 33 percent Caucasian, something like 18 percent Hispanic, and then others. So, we have an incredible mix of talent, players coming from inner-cities, players coming from remote areas, Hispanic players, African American players, players of different walks of life. And it’s really exciting to see that when you come to our academy, you see this rainbow of talent and colors there. It’s really exciting.

The other thing I should mention to you is that we have — this is the second year of our residency program. We have about 25 boys that live in a residency program that come from areas that are a little bit too far to commute everyday to the program.

So, the diversity is fantastic. It really produces an interesting style of play on the field, and something that matches our city. That’s what Philadelphia is all about, it’s a melting pot of different types of people.

Can you talk about your personal experience with NSCAA Convention? What are you most looking forward to?

My personal experience is probably 30 years going back to being an NSCAA McDonald’s All-American in 1981, so I’ve been around and a member with you guys for many, many years.

Specifically to Major League Soccer, we partner with you guys to host our draft, and of course Major League Soccer SuperDraft will be hosted by yourselves at your convention together with us on the 15th of January starting at 12 o’clock; that’ll run 12 to 4 o’clock, and that’s where all those players vying for a draft spot will be picked, and we’re really excited about that.

Our coaches, we’ll have some of our coaches doing clinics throughout the convention. Our director of our academy, Tommy Wilson, will be conducting a clinic, and some of our coaches of our under-18 team will also be conducting a variety of discussions and talking points. Cristina Fink, who is our performance psychologist — she’s a world-renowned performance psychologist — will be speaking. Bill Knowles, who is also a world-renowned fitness expert, and preventive fitness expert, will be speaking. Rich Graham, our partner in the youth academy who oversees the school and the youth academy — doesn’t only oversee the school but actually founded it, it was his idea to launch the school — will also be speaking in some capacity, So, we’ll be very involved throughout the convention, and we’re looking forward to it.

Looking ahead ten years, what in your mind would constitute success for the academy?

Well, the fact that you asked me over a ten-year period tells me you know the game of soccer: It takes time, it takes expertise, and all those things that we put in place. But you cannot create success in a short period of time. It’s a long play for us, it is a ten-year cycle.

What I envision in ten years is, I envision a number of Philadelphia Union first team players having come from our academy. Success — it always depends on how you measure success — we’re having success because we’re placing kids in great schools, on scholarships, to play soccer. So, we’re successful already.

At the professional level, I envision in ten years time having a handful of players on our first team lining up as starters for the Philadelphia Union, and a pipeline of players coming through the system. In ten years, I envision having a professional women’s team playing at PPL Park every Saturday, and a pipeline of girls and women coming out of our youth academy feeding that team, as well.

And then I see, hopefully our US men’s national team winning World Cups. That would be an awesome legacy to leave as part of this academy system.

You know, Richie and I always kind of think the day we have an academy player play and start for our team, and score a goal, and go in the corner and kiss the badge will be the day that we look at each other and say, “We’ve been successful.” We hope that day comes sooner than ten years but that’s kind of the measure of success.


  1. Nick may drive us nut-z-O but the academy thing (futbol and HS) is pretty cool and a clear step in the direction of the future. Credit where credit is due. I was talking with a friend about 2 years ago how residency was going to be the next wave with the game in this country and boom! Union open new high school.
    Been waiting patiently to see if any one writes anything regarding Nick’s little interview- but mum…..

    • I agree, it’s nice to see this organization look a little progressive.

      But let’s be realistic – credit is due around results – Nick’s management of this team, coaching staff and the current youth prospects in the system lend me no confidence that the Philadelphia Union will get their academy system right.

      Any other executive without an ownership stake would be long gone by now.

    • The best part about this club is its progressive, residential academy. Besides Real Salt Lake, I think its the only other residential MLS academy. IMG and Shattuck’s St. Marys are two clubs in the DA that are also residential…….they spit out some nice players too! Now, the next step is putting some of that product out on the pitch! They should look to be the Ajax of the MLS since we don’t have the wallet some other clubs do…….

  2. I'm Sak, Please Fire Me says:

    FIRE ME NOW!!!!!!!!

  3. This is also Nicks Chat Roulette pic.

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