Philadelphia Union II

Young women at the Union Academy, and other Steel points

Photo: Paul Rudderow 

Last November, Philadelphia Union minority shareholder Richie Graham was asked about possibly including young women in the YSC Academy.

Should he do so, he would double the pool of prospective patrons. To laymen outside the industry, judging by four decades of deliberately expanded enrollments in secondary and post-secondary education, such doubling would seem likely to strengthen the school’s future.

But three points make such an expansion difficult:

First: The school is full.

  • YSC Sports has no obvious avenues for more fields, whether they be indoor or outdoor.
  • Neither does YSC Academy for classrooms.
  • And to include young women athletically and academically would require more teachers and coaches.

More people and more facilities represent major capital investments. One is a continuous expense and the other requires on-going maintenance and upkeep. And the academy is not yet self-sustaining financially.

Second: Women’s professional soccer in the United States is not yet as developed as men’s.

To illustrate, among young men, a player training for 80 hours with a particular club’s academy gives that organization a right of first refusal, thus partially protecting its investment. And there may be other protections.

No such structures have yet developed to protect investment in young women. Young women’s soccer academies are beginning to emerge, and some of them are affiliated with MLS-associated NWSL teams, like in Orlando. Investment protection will probably emerge in the future but does not exist now.

Furthermore, especially in Philadelphia, there is no local NWSL side to represent the pinnacle for the elite among an academy’s players.  The pathway for females would have to be different, muddling a single school’s over-all message and opportunity would not be equal.

Third: To leave a great deal unsaid, coeducational schools are more complex to run than single-sex ones.

Currently, adding young women to YSC Academy does not seem feasible.

Postscript: Lehigh

Readers with long memories may recall that Bethlehem Steel’s original announcement of its relationship with Lehigh University indicated that it would officially last for one year. But many people expressed hopes for a longer relationship.

PSP noted last summer that, when asked, Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart sounded positive about the Steel continuing its immediate future at Lehigh. His more recent remarks at the season-opening press conference focused on the existence and continued development of positive relationships there between guests and hosts.

Lehigh Athletic Director Joe Sterrett, standing in for the unavoidably absent university president, also sounded positive about such relationships. He said the first season had been primarily about the nuts and bolts of making things work, transactional details being his label. But in a low-key manner, he expressed pleasure at discovering the core values of the Union organization and realizing that the university and the club seemed to share key ones.

A university would be able to understand YSC Academy and its mantra of training its individuals for success in their chosen, most productive fields, whatever those fields may be. In addition, clearly after four home games, the second season is going forward at Lehigh, although nothing was said about legal formalities like contracts.

Tactical twist

In his last two games, Steel head coach Brendan Burke has made a late-game offensive tactical change: Reconfiguring the same players.

He has his two central channel offensive spear tips, striker Seku Conneh and attacking central midfielder Cory Burke, switch out of the central channel onto the flanks: Burke to the right and Conneh to the left. Santi Moar moves into the center, and either Adam Najem moves forward behind him or Chris Nanco substitutes on as attacking center mid in front of Najem.

Burke does this at the end of the game when his two powerhouses are tired and the game is stretched due to fatigue on both sides. That accomplishes several things:

  • He avoids having to sub for the spear tips, as he no longer has five subs, as USL allowed till this year, but only three.
  • He maintains his team’s ability to distribute the ball long in the air, switching the pattern to the flanks rather than in the center.
  • He changes pace on the opposing central defense from strength and speed to jitterbug quickness and combination.  And he does so at a time in the game when the opposition’s mental ability to adapt may be weakened.

Against USL teams with the league’s traditional tall trees at center back, the changing matchups should create opportunity. If opposing flank backs ignore the changed nature of the threat on their flanks, they may pay a price. The presence of the Jamaican and the Liberian should calm frantic forays forward and ease the pressure on the Steel defense.

Postscript the second

Consider the message sent by Bethlehem’s goalkeeping roster in 2017. Jake McGuire should be your first thought, and backing him up are three players from the Academy:

  • Tomas Romero, 16 years old and El Salvador’s U-17 national team starter who has been away with them for a month
  • Matt Freese, 18 years old, bound for Harvard and a choice of Brad Friedel’s for the USMNT U-19 program.
  • Jahmali Waite, also 18, who earned his first game jersey last Saturday after absorbing practices and drills beyond counting this season and last.

Yes, FC Cincinnati has a 26-man USL Roster, the financial resources to pay for soccer-friendly modifications to Nippert Stadium and the ability to attract veterans of high USL price. But at the moment, they have nothing like the Union’s academy.

It is not an exact counter to the Lions’ resources. Each organization has to figure out how to maximize its own advantages. But the Steel are not bereft of potential answers.


  1. I have been hearing that the growth in the Union program at YSC in general may force them to reduce their Girls Union Junior program. Hoping that is not the case, as it is a great community service that the Union / YSC provide.

    Would love for Graham to buy/start a women’s team if the Sugarman decides not to sell the Union.

    But for a Girls Academy to make sense NWSL needs to create a homegrown process.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    MCB, your ear is to the ground clearly.
    At the current moment, a young women’s academy in eastern PA or South Jersey cannot have homegrown players as a goal because there is no first team.
    The young men’s academy example demonstrates there is a market for a soccer school that gives graduates a very high probability of earning a formal athletic scholarship – Division 1 — or a less formal scholarship based in part on soccer prowess to lower division schools.
    That same market opportunity probably exists for young women, should an entrepreneur choose to seize it.
    But, to borrow from the terminology of mathematics, any tie-in to women’s professional soccer is “undefined.”
    Somebody else might want to start a parallel soccer school for females. But right now there is no reason for the Union to do so, aside from cultivating future ticket buyers.

  3. throwaway says:

    I don’t want Mr. Graham to use his money to develop female talent. I applaud the athletic scholarships and “rolemodeling” that come from girls and women playing soccer but frankly, I want Graham’s investment to be focused on the Union/MLS which is currently for men only.
    Frankly, I wouldn’t be opposed to co-ed professional soccer but I know the greater would community would never accept it. Women’s soccer is fun to root for but we’re a long way away from it being as mainstream and profitable. Graham and his money will be long gone by the time Philadelphia’s professional women’s squad needs talent.
    I know I sound awfully callous but I want the Union to succeed because the Union actually exist and could succeed b/c of YSC’s commitment. Women’s pro soccer is in a sad state and I don’t see that changing while Graham’s money is on the table.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Regarding Tactical Twist “….maintains his team’s ability to distribute the ball long in the air.”
    If I could express how troubling this is to my ears. Like…wow troubling.
    Is this really the de facto option for getting forward for Steel? My imagination sees the ball bypassing the midfield altogether…. is this what you are explaining here Tim…..This is Glasgow Rangers stuff…….archaic man. United Kingdom Soccer.
    Can you speak to this as an identity? We see this all the time with the first team too to be honest which confirms for me almost completely Jim Curtin is not the right coach as this is the MLS 1.0 system he came up playing in——Yet I see the Academy teams committing to building the ball along the ground and from the back as best as our rudimentary ability at this point allows.
    What gives?

    • I mean you did ignore an important second part of that sentence: “, switching the pattern to the flanks rather than in the center.”.

      That sounds to me, more like Nog’s style of constantly flipping the flank with gorgeous long balls than blindless route 1 balls to the striker.

      “Long ball” is not a banned word in soccer. There can be good long balls you work into your style.

  5. Tim Jones says:

    I have never discussed the observation with Coach Burke, first, el P. And I do not read tactics with the eyes of a pro coach.
    First, I have seen this move in the last fifteen, only, in the last two games.
    For the limited value that my “gut” has, my gut says it keeps Burke and Conneh on the field in lower energy roles, and forces the opposing defense to stay home on the flanks because of the threat these two have posed all game.
    It happens at the end when fatigue on both sides means the game is back-and-forth and shapes are badly ” stretched”. So it is not a primary identity.
    In this end-of-game phenomenon, Burke and Conneh are looking for passes into the newly-central players, Moar and Najem/Nanco, but you are correct that they are not building on the ground through the center.
    To move on to your underlying concern about primary identity, to the degree that I have any idea what I’m doing trying to talk about it, they do not build out of the back on the ground into the center. However, James Chambers has only just returned from attending his father’s final illness and memorial service in Ireland, so the pattern may become more versatile.
    To date, and also in preseason, if the look to the center is blocked, they go wide and play up the flanks. They have tended to favor the right side. A bit more than the left, although the balance is being centered a bit more as Wijnaldum becomes better integrated with the players with whom he will play on game days.
    Adam Najem has played the #8 for the Steel, because since the 57th minute of the opener against Rochester, Cory Burke has seized control of the #10. He does not play it as you would want, ball control, killer passes, surgical combinations. He plays it with high energy, gut-busting high risk runs, attacking defenders in possession and forcing turnovers and improvisational opportunities. Conneh does the same but as the lone striker. They can be lethal, but it is not cerebral surgical skilled soccer. It is superior athleticism, and almost reckless risk-taking.
    Burke has license to roam. Najem’ defensive positional discipline and anticipation behind him allows it. Conneh has more refined skills, but Burke has the bigger engine and is the older stronger athlete. Both of them have shown “balls to the wall” mentality, which is the biggest difference between this year and last.
    The style you like requires all four backs to be excellent offensive distributors. None of Auston Trusty, Hugh Roberts and Mark McKenzie are that, yet. I am confident from publicly available comment and from other things I have heard Coach say that all three are being encouraged to grow in that direction, But right now the emphasis from them offensively is to find green space behind a high opposition restraining line, no question. None of them are Jack Elliott, yet.
    These aren’t necessarily the answers you want, but it is what I think I have seen so far.
    They play a traditionally tough team Saturday night in Charleston, SC. The video will be available on You Tube. They play simultaneously with the Union v Red Bulls game. Charleston is Atlanta’s affiliate and the have a youth player named Charleton who is an Atlanta homegrown who is supposed to be good. They may also have Romario Williams again. I haven’t begun to pay attention yet.
    Time to quit.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Let me say, Thank you. Wow what a thoughtful response.
      I appreciate your self effacing manner of humility. Clearly you pay very close attention and this is not lost on me at all.
      A good deal to digest in this answer, some leaves me hopeful, some leaves me concerned. Be well, sir.

  6. Steven Whisler says:

    I have an issue with this:

    “Second: Women’s professional soccer in the United States is not yet as developed as men’s.”

    That’s because there aren’t the same pathways to development accessible to women.

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