As the calendar turns to 2021, the Philadelphia Union are showing that they are the model of what an MLS club should look like. The Union persevered through the uncertainty and risks associated with the 2020 season and won their first-ever trophy. Their supporter’s shield win showed that they can hang with the best teams in the league, but they don’t go about their business the same way as others in the league; the Union’s formula is different.
There’s a clear step-by-step process the Union has followed that lead to their first-ever trophy. It’s been a long game and one that has been frustrating for fans of the club, as it is unorthodox. This formula is setting the standard of what an MLS club should be in the realm of global soccer. So what is this formula?
The Union’s Formula
This formula is a four-step process. first, invest heavily in the club’s academy; second, give playing time to those homegrown kids who were developed in the academy; thrid, sell those homegrown players to European clubs that can elevate those players’ careers; fourth, repeat this process.
Now the club heads into its twelfth year of existence, and this process is finally starting to show significant returns!
Step One: Invest in the academy
The first part of the formula is to invest in the academy system. For the Union, this process began in the early days of the team’s existence. Union owners Jay Sugarman and Richie Graham found out the hardships of running a sports team frugally. They needed to find a different way to operate that would hopefully produce a sound foundation from their academy on up to the first team.
This process started back in 2013, three years after the Union came into existence. It was a huge gamble, but now it is paying off as the Union is selling homegrown standouts Brenden Aaronson, and Mark McKenzie to Europe for millions of dollars each. The investment in the academy has created some great prospects, but that means little if those prospects can’t find playing time with the first team.
Step Two: Play your kids
Over the last few seasons, the Union’s pipeline from the academy to the first team has been strengthened thanks to standout youngsters. This lead to the Union having seven homegrown players on their 2020 Supporters Shield winning side. These players all played roles that helped the Union the best team in MLS in 2020.
Whether it was as consistent starters, super subs or as depth players, the kids developed in the academy were given their chances to play for the first team. They not only carried the team to their first trophy, but they also elevated their chances for bigger and better soccer careers.
Step Three: Sell homegrown’s for a huge profit
The Union’s academy has now produced first-team players, but before 2020, those players were not able to move on from the Union and make it to a larger club. Now after the success of 2020, the Union is jumping over that hurdle. The Union is set to make at least $13 million for selling just two of the seven homegrowns they had on their 2020 roster.
This is a huge deal. Both Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are moving on from the Union to European clubs know for continuing development in Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and KRC Genk in Belgium. While the Union will soon get that $13 million upfront, there will also be more money sent to the Union should these players be sold to even bigger clubs in the future!
Union Sporting Director, Ernst Tanner, has helped with this third step to the Union’s formula. This should just be the first of many times we see this formula play out for Philadelphia, as there are even more talented youngsters moving up the Union’s pipeline.
Step Four: Repeat
The Union is adding five more homegrowns for the 2021 season. This added to the five others already rostered for the upcoming season means that the Union’s formula will look to work in the same way as it did in 2020.
The future of the Philadelphia Union is bright. This is thanks to a formula that was put in place by ownership, manifested in an academy-to-first-team pipeline, and a sporting director with a knack for good business deals.
Now as the Union gear up for the 2021 season, they have shown the rest of MLS what the standard looks like for a team that can have success developing, playing, winning, and selling young talented players.
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Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire
Philadelphia Union Editor of Soccer Content
A passion for the beautiful game drives me.