Richie Graham has had an idea for as long as he’s been part of the Union’s ownership group.
“If you look at other leagues across the world, they have already demonstrated this idea that talent can be identified, nurtured, showcased, and sold,” Graham said. “There’s no reason why the United States can’t do that. There’s no reason why MLS can’t do that.”
Graham launched YSC Academy, the Union’s high school in Wayne, seven years ago to fulfill that goal. But when it would really pay off was never quite certain.
Seven years might not seem like much in the context of other American sports. In American soccer, it’s an eternity. And because the Union took 11 years to win their first trophy, there was nothing to fall back on when fans got frustrated — if they bothered to care at all.
This year, the payoffs have finally arrived, and it feels as if they’ve all come in a deluge. On the last day of the regular season, the team won the Supporters’ Shield, its first trophy, for finishing with the league’s best regular-season record. Four weeks earlier, Brenden Aaronson’s $6 million transfer deal to Red Bull Salzburg was sealed. And rumors have been flying since the start of the summer that Mark McKenzie is next to go.
The rest of MLS has noticed. Fans, national media, and even rival teams have praised the Union for winning the league’s toughest trophy with a team full of homegrown talent.
Montreal Impact manager Thierry Henry, a World Cup and Champions League winner in his playing days, has called the Union “an example” of what he wants to do with his club. Vancouver Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster called the Union “one of my role models.”
Most discussions of the Union’s brass center on majority owner Jay Sugarman, sporting director Ernst Tanner, and manager Jim Curtin. But it’s not a coincidence that all three of them have made a point of praising Graham for his role in this year’s success. No one has done more than Graham to develop the pipeline that produced Aaronson, McKenzie, Anthony Fontana, and the rest.
‘A long bet’
“I give a ton of credit to Richie Graham and his belief in this thing,” Curtin said.
“It’s a great appreciation of the work we put in, and ownership, and in particular Richie, who always believed in that and never gave up,” Tanner said. “It was quite a fight. I’m totally happy for Richie Graham.”
Sugarman said he “wouldn’t have invested so heavily in development without a clear plan, without Richie’s expertise to lean on.”
» FROM OUR ARCHIVES: A look at the Union’s high school when it first opened
As Tanner noted, it was indeed quite a fight — and not just to convince fans that it would work. The rest of the Union’s owners needed convincing too.
“There were days it felt like I definitely had to defend this decision,” Sugarman said. “There was no instant gratification in the first couple years. It’s a long bet.”
Sugarman has plenty of experience with long bets from his career in commercial real estate. But this one wasn’t up to the stock market or the tax code. Instead it required intelligence and a lot of patience.
“I certainly believed,” Sugarman said. “I wanted to see results, but when I stepped back and said, ‘Is this the right way for the Union to build this winning club?’ The answer has always been yes.”
Over the last 11 years, the Union have developed not just players but an entire ecosystem of people from the academy to the senior team. It hasn’t always been easy and it hasn’t always been done right, but the last three years have brought real progress. Now there are real results.
“You’ve got to get all the dials locked in,” Sugarman said. “Development on its own doesn’t work if they’re not getting playing time, if you don’t have a top-tier infrastructure setup, if you don’t have a second-division team that they can get continued development time [at]. You have to have coaches who buy into it, who understand that sometimes you’re going to be playing these players in a situation that’s probably beyond them, and not just worrying about winning but worrying about these players getting better every day.”
The world’s game beyond the game
Henry’s endorsement is notable not just for his name. His life story is one the Union want to replicate.
Born in a Paris suburb, Henry was scouted by French club Monaco as a 13-year-old. He joined their youth academy, turned pro two years later, and won a French league title in 1997. He won the World Cup with France in the summer of ’98, and a few months later was sold to Italy’s Juventus.
From there, he went on to England’s Arsenal, where he became a global star, and Spain’s Barcelona, where he won a European Cup. It was one of 12 major club trophies he lifted in his career.
Or take a current Barcelona player whom American soccer fans know well, Sergino Dest. He grew up at Dutch club Ajax, Europe’s gold standard of player development for decades. From Johan Cruyff to Dennis Bergkamp to Patrick Kluivert and his son Justin, no club has done it better for longer.
Ajax hasn’t had the money to be a truly big-time club in nearly 30 years. But the young players on the 2018-19 team were so good that they reached the Champions League semifinals, upsetting Real Madrid and Juventus along the way.
Within months, those players were sold to bigger clubs: Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona, Matthis de Ligt to Juventus, Donny van de Beek to Manchester United, and Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea.
Dest debuted for Ajax’s senior team in July 2019, two and a half months after that Champions League run ended. His season was so good that Barcelona bought him for $25 million afterward.
It takes a lot of work to build a pipeline that can produce just one crop of top-quality players. To become the American version of Ajax seems a Herculean task. But Sugarman and Graham believe they’re up to it.
“The financial commitment has been very, very significant, and we’ve had to make a bet on that idea, but I think you’re starting to see why we made that bet,” Sugarman said. “And yeah, look, would you have rather spent $20 or $30 million on first-team players over the last five years? You know, there would have been some improvement. But we were trying to build a sustainable, successful club, and I thought this was one of the best ways to do it.”
The next generation
Sugarman knows that for traditional Philadelphia sports fans, the plan makes no sense. Fans would revolt if the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, and 76ers developed players to sell them to other teams. And the second-biggest demand after titles is spending big on free agents.
But soccer is different. Every team sells its best players, even big ones like Barcelona and Manchester United. Transfer fee revenue is as important in the global game as TV deals and ticket sales.
As strange as it may sound to non-soccer fans, selling more players will make the Union look better on the world stage. And there will be ample opportunities, because European scouts are flocking to America to find the next Aaronson.
"More and more clubs overseas are saying, ‘Hey, you know, America’s got talent, and there are players there, and there’s players of quality’, " Graham said. “The investment of MLS into the academy system is a critical mechanism. … If we are putting our players into the right environment, more times than not, we will be rewarded for that, financially.”
Though Aaronson and McKenzie will be gone soon, it won’t be long before fans have a new crop of prospects to admire. Five Union academy products will join the first team next year: Nathan Harriel, Brandan Craig, Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Paxten Aaronson — the last of whom is Brenden’s brother, and is just as skilled a playmaker.
And there’s another crop coming behind all of them. Last year, the Union’s under-13 team won the Concacaf Champions League for that age group. Some of those players will go on to YSC Academy, dreaming of following in the Aaronsons' footsteps.
“All these guys that have made the leap, they’re blazing the trail for the next group, and they’re helping to fuel that next group with a sense of belief,” Graham said. “More people [are] believing, both internally and externally, in our model. That really puts the wind in the sails for those young players, and I think it’s very motivating.”