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Harrisburg becomes an American soccer science lab with USL team overhaul

Rush Soccer's overhaul of the City Islanders could produce a soccer pathway unlike anything the United States has seen.

FNB Field, the Harrisburg City Islanders’ home stadium, sits on the banks of the Susquehanna River just over a bridge from downtown.
FNB Field, the Harrisburg City Islanders’ home stadium, sits on the banks of the Susquehanna River just over a bridge from downtown.Read moreKris Brown/Harrisburg City Islanders

When making a list of places at the American soccer vanguard, would you ever consider Pennsylvania's capital city?

You might be about to.

Harrisburg's USL team is in the midst of a revolution that aims to produce a new kind of player development pathway.

In mid-November, Colorado-based Rush Soccer joined forces with the City Islanders, a team that was the Union's minor-league affiliate from 2010-15. Rush has 84 youth soccer teams across America and other countries, including Brazil, and more than 40,000 players.

Rush rebranded the City Islanders as Penn FC, and turned Harrisburg into the end point of a funnel for its top domestic youth prospects.

It's the opposite of what MLS and USL teams have done. They've launched academies after planting professional flags. Rush is a youth organization that is adding a pro team.

Rush's expansion is the brainchild of a few people. President Tim Schulz played for the NASL-era San Jose Earthquakes and coached the U.S. under-20 women's team in 2005 and 2006. Lead owner George Altirs, who bought the City Islanders this past March, founded sports gear company Capelli and owns a 15 percent stake in German club MSV Duisburg.

Then there's Rush's chairman, Jérôme de Bontin. The Paris-born Amherst alum was the director, and later president, of French power AS Monaco from 2002-09. From 2012-14, he was the New York Red Bulls' general manager.

De Bontin came to know Schultz between those jobs. Schultz asked de Bontin to come on board at Rush, and de Bontin brought in Gérard Houllier, the world-renowned French Football Federation technical director who coached Liverpool to the 2001 UEFA Cup title.

Their conclusion was simple.

"As Rush, with the number of players we have, both female and male, we should provide them with an easier way to the pro ranks," de Bontin said.

The first success story was a female player: Lindsey Horan. She knew as a teenager in 2012 that she wanted to turn pro. Rush helped her get a trial with Lyon while she was still in high school. She proved she could make it, and after finishing high school, she did something revolutionary: renege on a commitment to North Carolina to sign a pro contract with Paris Saint-Germain.

De Bontin said PSG's offer "was quite astonishing to us. But it did sort of prove to us that if we prepared those elite players for such opportunities, that more of them may come our way. That's when we started thinking of tying the pyramid to a professional organization."

Five years later, that plan has come to fruition.

Rush looked at partnerships with European clubs. But de Bontin knew from his time at Monaco that work permit rules in many European countries make it hard for clubs there to take chances on American prospects. So they started looking inward.

"We're serving our audience better by getting into this relationship with a local club in a part of the country is fairly accessible, close to big cities that people know," he said. "And where if successful, they will probably get not only the right training, but also the right exposure to what could be the next steps for them."

Rush could benefit greatly if American soccer adopts the global system of training compensation and solidarity payments for youth clubs.

Training compensation is paid to a player's youth club from the first pro club that signs him after his 12th birthday.

Solidarity payments send a percentage of a player's transfer fee to any club involved in his development from age 12 to 23.

For example: When Barcelona bought Thierry Henry from Arsenal in 2007 for 24 million euros, de Bontin's Monaco received a check for 1 million euros.

"Without that carrot, it will be very difficult to continuously expect those thousands of clubs that we have across the country to invest even more in the development of players," de Bontin said. "If tomorrow we were able to get some compensation for the money that's been invested by others, clearly we'll be able to make our programs even cheaper, or extend our programs to even more underprivileged players."

He believes it's "only a matter of a couple of years" until a system is in place.

Europe is one thing, but how about if MLS teams come calling for Penn FC players? There haven't been many transfers for real money between American soccer leagues. But as the game here diversifies, there are likely to be more.

"We won't stand in the way," de Bontin said. "We're really there to help our players. If some of our Harrisburg players are lured away by the New York Red Bulls or NYCFC or the Union, great."

De Bontin gets along with the Union well, and appreciates the team's work at the youth level.

"I have a very good relationship with [majority owner] Jay Sugarman," he said. "The Union is a great club to look at. … The emphasis that they put on player development is to their credit. Richie Graham, the other owner [who bankrolls the academy], I think, is very vested in this."

De Bontin is also fine with sending Rush players to college soccer, as well as scouting prospects on college teams.

"We will always be open to the players who suddenly at 17, 18, 19 show promise," he said. "Many [players] have matured later than others or fallen through the cracks of the recruiting process, and should be given opportunities to join the pro ranks at one point or another."

De Bontin would like Rush to build a pro pathway on the women's side, too, some day. He said the organization has spoken to the National Women's Soccer League and European clubs. The answer isn't there yet.

"We would like to have the exact same opportunities that we have for the men," he said. "We may find another partnership in the future that will involve a professional women's team. … I don't know what is the right formula for us, but clearly we feel the underlying demand is there from the players. So we're working on finding some avenues for them."