Tommy Wilson left a life of soccer in Scotland for the United States because he was sold on Richie Graham’s vision for the Philadelphia Union Academy.
Graham is the founder of YSC, which is a multi-faceted youth soccer development program, and what he showed Wilson were his plans to implement a school and academy program that he believed would alter the development game for the Union.
Wilson couldn’t pass on the chance.
“It was just an opportunity to make a difference,” said Wilson, who has been the Philadelphia Union Academy director since 2013. “He convinced me it was a great opportunity to develop players. I saw a unique model, and I agreed with him. I had a good job with Rangers and I had a good job in Scotland. I wanted to make a difference, and I think we’re doing that.”
That difference is largely being made through YSC Academy, a fully accredited private academic school in Wayne, Pennsylvania for soccer players in grades 8-12. Academics and soccer are woven through the student-athletes’ day. Some students are also part of the residential program and live with other students in provided housing.
Wilson said YSC Academy had only 4-5 students when it first began. It now has 66 students, and 24 of them are in the residency program. The students take part in nine soccer training units per week, which are often before and after school, video analysis sessions and games. YSC Academy is adjacent to the soccer facility, so little time is spent traveling between the two locations.
What it all means to Wilson and his Union Academy staff is they get a lot of time with the players. They’ve already seen that pay dividends in three years.
“I think they develop physically,” Wilson said. “They develop mentally. They develop technically and tactically because of the training we give them. If we get to them in all those aspects, we’re accelerating development immediately.
“We’re not where we need to be, but we’re getting there. We’ve come a long way in three years, and we’re farther along the path than I thought we would be. Our aim is to develop players for our first team and then for our international team. We want to start developing world-class players that will attract clubs from across the world.”
Students from around the country are part of YSC Academy. According to Union head of academy operation Maura Ryan, students originate from Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Philadelphia and elsewhere. She said about 95 percent of the students receive financial support.
The school’s curriculum is overseen by Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee and the school has 15 teachers. The classroom sizes are 6-10 kids. The school recently graduated its second class of seniors.
YCA Academy also ensures student-athletes are keeping up with their studies while traveling to play soccer.
“When we’re away for trips, we take a teacher with us and they have an online portion and assignments on the road,” Ryan said. “Teachers know when the trips are coming and adjust their schedules. They make sure they’re not drowning while they’re away and give them enough stuff to stay on top of their schoolwork. We get a lot of feedback from parents about how it can be really hard on students if they’re missing school for tournaments. But with our residency program, they don’t have that pressure.”
The Union have yet to move a player from academy to the first team, but Wilson believes they’re nearing that. He thought Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty, two players who came through the Union Academy and are now playing in the USL, had a lot of promise. The Union Academy has sent a number of players onto college, USL and youth international teams.
In the bigger picture, Wilson would like U.S. Soccer also to benefit from the Union Academy program.
“We make sure we invest in American coaches, invest in American players,” Wilson said. “Coming from a Scottish man that may sound strange, but that’s true.”