In 1989, the book on Nick Sakiewicz's professional soccer career shut tight. With no solvent American professional league in which to play and no outlet to continue his career, Sakiewicz hung up his boots and headed off into the corporate world.
That feeling always stuck with Sakiewicz. After stepping out of the non-MLS world for stints in the front offices of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Metrostars, he got in on the ground floor of the Union's new venture in 2007 as the club's CEO.
It was more than just an opportunity to be at the rudder of a professional team for Sakiewicz. It was finally a window to begin implementing a holistic player development model that reached up into the overhanging branches of the surrounding community and plucked out the ripest fruit.
When the ribbon snapped on the Union's YSC Academy's front steps on Sept. 3, Sakiewicz couldn't help but look back on a journey that began the second he retired. By opening its own school in an effort to develop its own players – a model no other MLS franchise has yet attempted – Sakiewicz felt as though the Union had taken another step toward something big.
"It was a great day," Sakiewicz said. "I felt like we had delivered on a promise that was made years and years ago when we started Major League Soccer. We started it by bringing back many of the American players that were still able to play. I felt like Tuesday was kind of a fulfillment of a promise that we are a league for American players and the development of American players."
The YSC Academy in Wayne, Pa. opened its doors for the first time last week to 34 students in grades 8-11, with a 12th grade opening for the first time next year. Of the school's student body, 22 pepper the Union's U14, U16 and U18 Development Academy teams. The remaining players populating the academy's rosters were scouted by the Union's development team and culled from surrounding teams.
In 2011, the Union announced a unique model that allowed for partnerships with affiliate schools in the area, which included Development Academy staples like PDA, FC Delco (now Continental FC) and PA Classics. The Union allowed elite players to stay at those clubs through the academy season, with the best in the pool available to be called up to train with the Union academy teams at different points in the year.
Then, the Union's U16 and U18 academy teams only trained at certain times and played sporadically in events like the Generation adidas Cup. Now, the Union have three dedicated teams playing in the Development Academy year-round, and producing more players like Zach Pfeffer, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union at 15, is the goal.
And while the Union now have their own U14, U16 and U18 Development Academy squads, they haven't broken off contact with the some 100 area clubs with whom they've built affiliations. With their dearth of resources, the Union can now act as a refreshing agent to the tree of Eastern Pennsylvania youth soccer development. That includes advising clubs on curriculums, providing free clinics and helping to identify players who might be ready to make the jump to the Union academy.
"That's the first stepping stone into the professional ranks," Sakiewicz said.
Word spread like wildfire among players of area club teams when news of YSC Academy's impending opening got out. Current YSC junior Will Campbell is one of those players. As a sophomore at Strath Haven High School in nearby Wallingford, Campbell played his club soccer at Nether United when he heard from YSC youth director Iain Munro that the school was cranking up. After responding that he was interested, the school asked Campbell to set up a Powerpoint presentation to describe himself and his interests as part of the application process.
After an interview process Campbell was accepted, and he now features at the back for a Union U18 team that's off to a roaring 2-0 start in the Development Academy after a pair of 6-0 wins. That's been a theme so far. The U14 and U16 teams are both off to similarly dominant 2-0 starts in the Eastern Conference. Combined, the three teams have outscored opponents 30-2 through six games.
"Everything has to be a lot quicker and a lot sharper," Campbell said. "The speed of play is a lot faster. The talent is a lot better. Everybody is just that little bit better. All around it's better, so you have to be switched on the whole time."
The private school costs $15,000 a year in tuition for players who aren't offered scholarships, and it's funded partially by Union part-owner Richie Graham's YSC Sports. That entity owns a facility that runs leagues and rents out space to paying customers for what Graham calls "Will Ferrell leagues." Every dime of that money goes toward the school. It's also funded through capital campaigns, Union-specific fundraising efforts and pay-to-play camps and programs run by the club.
The amount of institutional control the school provides is arguably the most exciting piece of the puzzle for its organizers. Graham and Sakiewicz briefly mulled partnering with another school, but their scouting trips to academies in South America and Europe injected them with the desire to start their own school entirely from scratch. Unlike the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which partners with a school and releases them for a chunk of the day, the Union wanted full control of their players' curriculum from the morning until twilight.
"For me the most significant thing about this has been the unity of the club from top to bottom," said Union U16 coach Jeff Cook, who left his post as the Dartmouth men's coach in April to join the project. "From the ownership level to our first-team manager to all the technical staff, everyone is united in this idea that we want to try and produce homegrown players. That's I think in and of itself unique.”
Daily life for a YSC Academy student begins with an hour-long training session at 7:30 a.m. that can vacillate from a technical skills session to yoga. School runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at which time the 12 players not on a Union academy squad are released to train with their particular teams. For the 22 who stay, the teams train from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., which gives each player a full three hours of training on site every day.
Much of this was born from Sakiewicz and Graham's travels to Germany. They observed the average youth player in Germany trains anywhere from nine to 12 times a week, plus a competitive match. The average in America is between two and three times a week. The Union's answer to this is to lavish its players with 10 training sessions a week for a total of 15 hours. That's easily in the upper echelon of the country's Development Academy squads from the jump.
"If we're a country that wants to be the very best, we're already behind the eight ball to Germany by 60 percent," Sakiewicz said. "Our players are getting 60 percent less of the training units the Germans are. If we really want to be on par with the players that are coming out of that country or any other country, we've got to up our game."
Cook left a Division I coaching gig to join the Union because he felt strongly about its mission. He had a previous connection with Graham, who played at Dartmouth, and he knew academy director Tommy Wilson from getting his UEFA coaching badges through the Scottish FA.
With those bonds in tow, Cook packed up for the Union's new model like so many other players and coaches in the area. Sakiewicz and Cook are both reticent to speak in grandiose terms just yet with the school just getting off the ground, but the excitement is certainly there.
"I think for us we feel it's a work in progress," Cook said. "I don't think any of us could have hoped for a better start. But we realize we need to keep our feet on the ground and stay humble and keep working towards it. I think we're learning every day as we go what's working well and maybe what needs to be adjusted. But as we progress, it's certainly very exciting to be here. On a personal level, I just feel when we look back on this period of time 10 years from now, I think it's a really historic moment. There's an opportunity here that could be really changing the face of the game in this country."