MLS Cup opponents couldn’t have been built more differently

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MLS Cup 2022 offers a stark contrast between two different philosophies of Major League Soccer roster-building. LAFC’s and the Philadelphia Union’s.

The Los Angeles approach

Los Angeles Football Club is building the academy infrastructure and professional level youth player development mechanisms required of it by the league. But from their beginnings they have projected ambitions to be what might be called a “Big Splash” club. The splash-factors included:

  • Celebrity owners widely known to the public, e.g., NBA Hall-of-Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
  • An introductory public relations device closely associated with both Europe’s and Asia’s medieval aristocracies that has nothing to do with soccer, falconry demonstrated before the opening tap of every match.
  • A state-of-the-art, soccer-specific, no expenses-spared, downtown stadium, (if LA can be said to have a downtown).
  • And a big-name first-signing well known to the southern California soccer community, Carlos Vela from Mexico’s Liga MX and El Tri’s national team.

The strategy is understandable. LAFC were the new, second club in the largest U.S. city west of the Hudson competing against one of — if not the – signature clubs of Major League Soccer’s first decade located in the SoCal metropolis’s suburbs.

Consider whom their direct competitors the Galaxy had signed over the years, starting with Landon Donovan and David Beckham, through Robby Keane, and ending with Zlatan and Chicharito.

From the get-go their ownership group was designed to out-compete the Galaxy. Hollywood’s tradition of searchlights in the night to draw casual potential patrons out for an evening drive almost requires signing former world cup stars as designated players. The DP signing mechanism itself was first created so the Galaxy could sign Beckham while allowing the league to maintain the collective financial entity that helped, and still helps, ensure its financial survival.

Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini are only the latest examples in the “splash-the-cash” modus operandi.

Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union also have built and continue to build the academy infrastructure and professional youth play development mechanisms required by the league.

But Philly is an opposite pole distant from LAFC.

  • No one outside the Real Estate Investment Trust industry had ever heard of Jay Sugarman, or anyone else in club ownership until Kevin Durant bought a slice recently.
  • Subaru Park is a utilitarian soccer-specific stadium built on the waterfront of an economically depressed Rust Belt suburb, as an urban blight rescue project that only this fall is showing signs of coming finally  to life.
  • For more than its first half-decade of existence, the club paid no transfer fees to sign new players. Zero.
  • Almost from its moment of formation, the organization began working towards economic sustainability through identifying, developing, and selling local soccer talent.
  • Union ownership are playing a long, frugal game. They follow a defined plan with sustained discipline.

As a young adult, Union Academy founder Richie Graham experienced a German academy designed to train professional skiers.

He decided to learn a new industry, education, and create a similar school to educate and train professional soccer players. He got the Graham family business entity to buy Rocket Sports in Wayne, acquired use of sufficient floor space in the business park literally across the street from Rocket’s field house, hired Tommy Wilson to direct the soccer side of his new school, and brought in progressive educational administrator Nooha Ahmed-Lee to run its academics. In November of 2016 Graham introduced YSC Academy to the public, since it was graduating its first senior class the following June.

A year after that graduation, U.S. Soccer hired Ernie Stewart away from the Union to run the U.S.’s national teams, and Sugarman sent Graham to Germany to ask respected Red Bull Salzburg academy director Ernst Tanner whom they should consider as Stewart’s replacement. After a second discussion, Tanner himself was announced as the Union’s new sporting director. (See Tom Bogert’s recent story on Tanner.)

This past Sunday at Subaru Park, less than two minutes after the referee’s final whistle ended the Eastern Conference Final, Tanner was seen running onto the field, jump-hugging head coach Jim Curtin, and enthusiastically belting a soccer ball far across the pitch towards the opposite stands in a remarkable celebration of history.

The frugal businessmen were going to LA LA Land to confront the cash-splashers.

Two details illustrate the difference
  • LAFC has seven 2022 salaries of a million dollars or more. The Union have only one. (Seven is made possible by using Targeted Allocation Money to buy down the salary budget charges of players fitting certain criteria.)
  • LAFC have five homegrowns on their 2022 roster who total 1,866 MLS career regular season minutes. Philadelphia have twice as many, 10, totaling more than three and a half times as much, 7,533. And the Union’s player development infrastructure trained 86.8% of LA FC’s homegrown regular season minutes. (See immediately below the following table.)

Years rostered to MLS

MLS Regular Season minutes


Nathan Ordaz



Tony Leone



Christian Torres



Erik Duenas



Tomas Romero



Philadelphia Union

Jeremy Rafanello



Anton Sorenson



Cole Turner



Brandan Craig



Quinn Sullivan



Paxten Aaronson



Jack McGlynn



Nathan Harriel



Matt Freese



Matt Real



86.8% of LAFC’s homegrown career minutes come from a player who was trained in the Philadelphia Union Academy playing with Bethlehem Steel FC/Philadelphia Union II, goalkeeper Tomas Romero formerly of Cherry Hill, NJ. Romero is an LAFC homegrown because they bought his homegrown rights from the Union for $50,000 of general allocation money on January 21, 2021.

One Comment

  1. Jeremy Lane says:

    That stat about LA’s homegrown minutes actually coming from a Philly academy product: chef’s kiss.

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