Commentary / YSC Academy

YSC Academy’s new location

Photo courtesy YSC Academy 

Eight years ago this November, Union Academy founder Richie Graham, YSC Academy Head of School Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee, and Union head coach Jim Curtin, along with then sporting director Earnie Stewart and then academy director Tommy Wilson, introduced Union’s Academy to the public. The introduction took place at the school in Wayne immediately across the street from the former Rocket Sports that Graham family interests had bought, refurbished, and rechristened.

A month later, PSP immersed itself for a day in the life of the academy.

We started by joining 7:45 AM’s personal greeting to each student as he arrived to dress for morning practice. After watching one of the practices, we attended classes for a full academic day. Then, we watched afternoon practice for one of the two older teams.

The move

YSC Academy moved from Wayne to the old Power Station on Seaport Drive along the Chester Waterfront this past September. Academy training has moved to the WSFS Sportsplex fields. Academics moved to the power station’s ground floor, to the river-facing rooms fronted by a lawn and picnic tables.

After enough time had passed to settle the move’s dust but before the controlled chaos of the first end-of-year and graduation in a new place, on Wednesday, April 17, PSP visited the new school and connected with several new friends and reconnected with two old ones–math teacher Kelly Rakus and Head of School Nooha Ahmed-Lee.

While the school population varies each year, roughly it has numbered seventy-five since 2016. Currently, 10th grade is the largest, reflecting this year’s addition of a U16 team to the Union Academy’s athletic pathway. This year, there is also a large contingent of 7th and 8th graders.

In addition, the fundamental rhythm of the academy’s college processes has changed recently.

The NCAA transfer portal for student-athletes means that men’s soccer rosters are no longer predictable seasons or months in advance. Before the transfer portal, academy juniors already possessed firm college commitments. Nowadays, such early certainty has been replaced by last-minute fluidity. Determining college destinations has migrated from the fall of junior year to the spring of senior year, a year and a half later.

Different physical space

The new schoolhouse has more space, providing 14 new square feet for every nine of the old. The new ceiling is higher, and there are more oversized windows. Unlike the school in Wayne, natural light dominates through these windows, even on a cloudy day.

YSC Academy’s front door

The space one enters from the riverfront through the blue door is a common area called “town hall.” (Look to the right of the staircase in the feature photo above.) Town hall covers two-thirds of the schoolhouse’s frontage. It is full of tables and chairs, academic desks, and more easy chairs. It is also used for individual or collective academic work and school-wide meetings.

Veteran teachers will recognize town hall’s noise as creative and constructive, not the opposite. Headphones and earbuds create individual isolation. Students are expected to behave responsibly and are trusted to do so, an approach that has been successful for over a decade despite the population being teenage boys. Expecting responsible behavior creates it.

The commissary survived the move and continues to thrive. It is no longer physically separate from town hall but lies at one end of it (the furthest end of the feature photo). No separation reflects the relationship between teenage boys and food, especially for elite athletes who have already contributed an hour-and-a-half of energy to an early morning soccer practice.

The commissary remains fully equipped with nutritionally sound foodstuffs readily available throughout the academic day.  Packaged breakfast sandwiches are laid out on demand every morning. The commissary-plus-town hall system eliminates the need for a dining hall, a kitchen, and a separate lunch period, thus condensing the total time needed for a full academic day.

Individual classrooms lie inside the town hall, delineated by the massive square columns of the building’s structure and a hallway.

Above them is a mezzanine of offices currently occupied by academy coaches. New Academy Director Jon Scheer’s door heads the stairs. The juxtaposition facilitates frequent collective meetings of academic and athletic staff together.

A final physical detail is the color scheme. Clean white paint accented by light blue signage reinforces the dominance of natural light under the high ceilings.

The new space intensifies the academy’s culture

Why do the changes in the schoolhouse’s physical space matter? They create “cross-fertilization.”

With the move from Wayne to the waterfront, the entire Union operation exists on one single physical campus. The Union is the first organization in Major League Soccer to achieve that. Physical proximity exposes every member of the organization to the entire operation.

We were privileged to have an hour of the Head of School’s time during the first academic day after she returned from her trip to support the academy U16s’ month-long Spanish tour (17 games and 11% of the academic year). She was full of ideas how she wanted to take advantage of these new opportunities.

An obvious one already well underway is “outside” speakers.

Not only is town hall a physical space, it is also a daily mid-day assembly of the whole school community. One day a week is devoted to clubs, e.g., German language, e.g., birds. A second is devoted to career planning, i.e., college and soccer. The college counsellor schedules time every week and sees every group of students once a month.

On a third day there can be the aforementioned speakers. They are outside in the sense that they are not everyday academic presences, however, club president Tim McDermott is not an outsider. Neither is first team head coach Jim Curtin, nor is first-team captain Alejandro Bedoya. The boys have been introduced to the front office’s use of data analysis. They have also heard about how the ticketing department works. Someday, they may hear from the head groundskeeper.

Given the academy’s progressive educational philosophy, we strongly suspect that all these sessions end with opportunities to ask questions. Curiosity is encouraged. The self-confidence so necessary to inquire is both deliberately taught and overtly demanded.  All facets of the organization learn about each other, especially when directly invited and promised food like donuts.

Wholistic knowledge of the entire operation is the goal.

From day one back in Wayne, academic teachers and athletic coaches all met together frequently to review the boys as whole persons. Math teachers know the growth needed by their boys, say, to defend successfully against the Red Bull high press system. Coaches of free kick defenses are aware how their charges are currently managing their research projects in, for example, AP Government.

Every large organization analyzes tasks and compartmentalizes responsibilities. Physical proximity and consequent cross-fertilization make such barriers penetrable. To illustrate, in the table of organization, the formal communications staff is numerically smaller than it was eight years ago. But now there are more people on staff  who can write a match recap, a tactical analysis, or any other kind of sporting article when needed.

The single united campus should reinforce the trend toward flexibly versatile, adaptable generalists.


  1. Matt McClain says:

    Tim – please keep writing. This is great, hope you’re well!

    • Tim Jones says:

      As with all of us my age, we need more frequent trips to the auto parts store. But so far the parts remain in stock.
      Good to hear from you,Matt. I trust you are well.

  2. Great look into the Union’s homegrown developmental side. Thank you!

  3. lopezzzz says:

    This was awesome. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this insight!

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