Commentary / Union

Can the Union be a destination team for young Americans?

Last week, soccer analyst Alex Olshansky posted a study on the number of minutes U.S. nationals ages 22 and younger logged in MLS, and he compared them to the rate other leagues play their U22 domestic players.

The results weren’t pretty.

Top-flight leagues with teams that are international destinations all did a better job of getting minutes for domestic nationals.

“Not playing the kids” is one of the more popular indictments many Union fans hold against their club. But it’s clear the rest of the league isn’t doing much better. In fact, a lack of playing time for young players was the thesis to a widely circulated piece by American wunderkind Christian Pulisic in the Players’ Tribune.

“[I]t really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players – who, again, are so talented and so capable – being rostered … but then not being put on the field much to actually play,” Pulisic wrote. “I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance … a real chance … and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?”

In the transfer news for MLS, it doesn’t look like young Americans are in demand. The biggest clubs are importing South Americans as fast as they can pay them. Atlanta just concluded a transfer for Argentine playmaker, Ezequiel Barco, rumored at the time of this writing to be a record breaking $15 million dollars.

The influx of South and Central American talent into MLS is a good thing. Each of these players substantially raises the level of competition, thus making it a better place for young domestic players to develop. But not if the best we can do is give those young players two percent of the playing time.

Enter the Union

This is where Philadelphia Union can make a name for itself. We know the club is not prepared to outspend any other clubs in this league. It’s demonstrated this by trying to play Moneyball with draft picks and free transfers of risky European players that have, for the most part, failed to improve results. The club has no other identity at the moment than mediocrity (and that’s on a good day).

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The Union could build a club that is known for giving young American players a chance.

The foundation for such an identity is already being set. Twelve Union-affiliated youths were invited to a youth national team evaluation camp in Florida two weeks ago. The most exciting news in the organization has been the gathering of promising MLS draft picks to round out the roster of Bethlehem Steel. The club has several promising young national team prospects, led by Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty.

What has been missing, however, is significant minutes for these players on the first team.

Here is the Union’s opportunity to change its identity. The club should seek out and sign promising young American players — and by American, I mean anyone with a claim to that nationality, from dual-citizen Europeans, to African and Latino immigrants. Send scouts to Alianza de Futbol, the Latino-American soccer tournament where a young Jonathan Gonzalez first caught the eyes of Mexican scouts. Build the team with these players and give them playing time.

It can be done. Dallas has done it from the youth perspective. Red Bull appears to be leaning this direction. Burnley in the English Premier League has been a top 10 club all season with a squad composed almost entirely of British players (thanks in large part to the pragmatic management of Sean Dyche).

If a quality team of young players can be put together and compete, Stewart could open up opportunities for those players in the Eredivisie and Bundesliga, where he has connections (and where young players are given chances). A chance to be transferred to Europe would make the Union a more attractive choice for talented young players. And it could provide a significant source of income for the club.

Perhaps this is already the main destination of Earnie Stewart’s five-year (10-year?) plan. And perhaps competing with a young team that can develop and sell players to Europe is easier said than done.

But play on the field does not suggest this sort of plan. Coach Jim Curtin has not demonstrated an ability to improve or even play young players. Yes, we’ve seen breakout performances from rookies, but not a single one has improved over his first season.

Barring a remarkable turnaround in the club’s spending, it’s hard to imagine the Union competing with more than half of the league for quality international transfers. And the fan base appears out of patience for the same half-assed approach that has kept the Union in the bottom half of the league. Many Union fans would like to see this club build an identity, one that goes beyond poor finishing and a slavish adherence to the 4-2- 3-1.

Sign the kids. And let them play. It would be something worth rooting for.


  1. Makes a lot of sense……so the Union will not be doing this.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    I am on the record for arguing, this is the Vision and Plan.
    the Philosophy of play is what troubles me at this point.

  3. Been arguing this for years………the supporters would get behind this. I’d rather be a mid table club with a whole roster of U-23s ( with a vet or three for gel) than what it’s been for…………ever?

  4. I’m curious what would happen to that 2-3% number if you added the minutes of our U22 internationals who are getting minutes abroad? The leagues listed in the tweet are mostly destination leagues in countries where the best young players don’t need to go abroad to be challenged, whereas Americans like Pulisic and McKinnie went abroad for the higher level of competition because it didn’t exist in MLS (among other reasons). Not saying they necessarily would be seeing as many minutes in MLS as they do in Germany, but a big reason they went abroad is that the quality of their domestic league isn’t that high, whereas youngsters in Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. stay in their domestic leagues longer because they don’t face this problem.

    • Pete Mazzaccaro says:

      I’m not sure if it qualifies as cognitive dissonance, but I think MLS is definitely of two minds about this. On the one hand, it wants to have a better level of competition in its league. At the same time, it wants to provide playing time for American players. This is the argument you will see time and time again for Americans who return from so-so sojourns oversees. “Better to start at Toronto FC than sit on a bench at Roma.” MLs isn’t the only domestic league to struggle with the same question. I’ve read recent critiques of Chelsea’s roster which carries more Spanish players than Brits.

      At the same time, Josh Sargent tells interviewers he favors Bundesliga, not for the competition level, but because he expects more playing time in a league everyone agrees is superior. Yet still, it offers more playing opportunities? This contradicts conventional wisdom that MLS gives younger players better opportunities to play than they’d get overseas.

      So while The Bundesliga is good for McKinnie, Pulisic and probably Sargent, the American players who aren’t that good need options. They should be getting minutes that currently go to MLS vets. If these other leagues can provide opportunities for their domestic players, I don’t see how MLS can’t do the same. The Union remain a great example for me of a team that could stand to get younger.

      • Just Woke Up says:

        I think part of the problem is the perspective on “young” players in the US and MLS. Many people still think of Keegan Rosenberry as young. He is 24 years old! That is not that young at all for a professional soccer player. He is closing in on his peak years.
        The college system in the US makes people think of age differently here. We think of those who just graduated from college (22-23 years) as rookies. Therefore someone 17-18 years old isn’t ready for professional soccer in our minds.
        They don’t have this problem overseas as their development system doesn’t involve college at all. I think they look at teenage players more objectively according to their playing ability and are more willing to play them.
        This is not the only problem just part of the problem.

      • Just woke up…other us sports use the college to pro format with notable exceptions. Given high cost of college many Americans like the dream of their kids winning scholarship. Those who do, do benefit.
        Soccer is different in that internationals with uncertain futures come to America, get at least 30% of the roster spots for male college soccer and likely good portion of scholarship pie.
        Most European players don’t want to sit and wait like Vardy.
        It is a gamble for them and clearly for American athletes where soccer is already the fifth professional sport in terms of pay.
        So what is alternative?
        I think ussf should embrace and reform college system and build similar path to pro like NFL NBA and mlb. The pulisics like the LeBrons will still go right in but majority will have that college seasoning.

      • Just Woke Up says:

        I agree with you Union Goal. I do understand the downside of the development systems that do not include college. And I understand the huge upside for players in the American college system. But that wasn’t my point.
        My point is that the Pulisic’s and Josh Sargent’s (teenage prodigies) of American Soccer get looked at differently by MLS because of our system. I doubt that Pulisic would have been given the same opportunity to earn minutes in the MLS (Pulisic has even spoken on this himself). So not only is the Bundesliga a better league but teenage players are more likely to earn minutes, which is backwards. I was just pointing out that the mentality that goes with the college system is part of the reason why MLS doesn’t play young players.

      • Just woke up…two words. Freddy Adu.
        Mls is reminded about him every year as he shows up on another 3to or 4th division team like he has a dartboard European map.
        Mls can’t develop players yet…goes beyond giving them minutes.
        Europe 20 years ahead with academy and viable lower divisions.
        Pulisic didn’t just fly over to Germany and start a bundesliga game.
        If Freddy had played Usl then mls might have been different outcome.

      • Just Woke Up says:

        Of course there are outliers and Germany is obviously significantly better at developing young players than the US, which I agree is a factor as well. But did you see the statistic at the top of the article? That is what I’m referring to.

      • Pete Mazzaccaro says:

        JWU, I agree 100%. I hate hearing things like “Najem isn’t ready yet.” When is he going to be? He’s 23. If he’s not ready now, he’s likely never going to be. We seem to have an attitude about these players that’s informed by baseball, in which players typically do improve through their early 20s.

        Like Scotty Mac says below, it suggests a lack of talent in the players and poor coaching. I think coaching is a bigger issue here.

  5. Pete Mazzaccaro says:

    This could have real impact on what the team is doing with youth. A huge step in the right direction:

  6. This is a great and timely article. I fear that it’s unlikely to change while Curtin is at the helm. I know ES supposedly advocates for the youth to play, but Curtin very stubbornly still insists that the only thing that matters at all is that specific week at practice, even if a single payer has multiple week of failure in games. It seems that the game day roster will always be his decision. It will ultimately be what fails the youth and team.

  7. Alice the Eagle says:

    If you have ever watched the Union training you will realise why some young USA internationals are not being played. They’re just not good enough. They have been signed as a PR exercise to justify the academy system and to fill roster spots so that money does not have to be spent on quality players.

  8. Sounds nice. I’d bet against it while the senior club is a shambles. When our homegrowns can’t break into a lineup that was off the pace by 10 points, either they’re not good enough or the technical staff isn’t.
    Or more worrisome, both.

  9. Section 114 (former) says:

    Can someone explain the salary cap ramifications of Man City paying Diskerud’s contract? Shows the system for the scam that it is.

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