Philadelphia Union’s conveyor belt of MLS talent
Academy Director Tommy Wilson trained as an engineer before embarking on a career in soccer and has brought some of those principles to player production.
Philadelphia Union take on LAFC on Saturday evening in a rematch of the 2022 MLS Cup thriller. A star-studded LAFC won on penalties in last year’s showpiece final, beating a well-organised and hard-working Philadelphia team.
But despite that heart-breaking finale the 2022 season was a success for Philadelphia Union. They proved themselves the best team in the Eastern Conference and built upon their reputation as one of the United States’ top producers of talent.
Earlier this year US Soccer Collective ranked the Union Academy as the best in MLS and there are nine academy graduates currently signed for the first team.
Ahead of Saturday’s game AS USA spoke to Tommy Wilson, the team’s Director of Academy and Professional Development, about Philadelphia Union’s famed player production record.
Union Academy built from the ground up
Paisley-born Wilson had an extensive playing career in Scotland, moving on to coach in the academies of the Scottish national team and Glasgow giants Rangers. In 2013 he moved to the United States to become Academy Director for Philadelphia Union. The switch from Scotland to the States, he explains, was not an easy one.
“Emigrating can be overwhelming. After the first three months I thought ‘What have I done?’ But I liked Philadelphia, it’s a blue-collar city like Glasgow. The club didn’t really have any other option, we were committed to youth development. So I just got on with it.”
He certainly did. During a decade overseeing the club’s academy and youth development set-up Wilson has transformed Philadelphia Union into one the nation’s most prolific producers of talent. But when he first joined the Union the young club had none of the established structures and pristine facilities that he had enjoyed at Rangers.
“I left Rangers with their state-of-the-art training ground, a club that was 150 years old, to come to a club that was three years old,” he tells AS USA. “My focus initially was just to hire staff, recruit players and put out teams that could represent the club with a bit of pride.”
Union’s conveyor belt of talent
Before signing his first professional contract as a player, Wilson qualified as a mechanical and production engineer. That experience may seem far removed from the world of professional soccer academies, but he has taken those same engineering principles into the world of player development.
“There should always be a manufacturing process and the academy’s like a manufacturing plant. If you know what you’re trying to produce at the end of it, you know what type of raw materials you need to bring in,” he explains.
“We’ve got positional profiles so our scouts know what to look for. We then put [the players] through a development process, test them along the way and, at the end of that, off the conveyor belt pops a first team player. Hopefully.”
His carefully designed developmental process extends beyond the players. Members of staff in the academy are encouraged to improve, to develop themselves, and to push into the first team set-up.
“Around ten members of first team staff have come through the academy, that’s a big number for a professional club. We don’t just develop players, we develop people and staff. I take some pride in that, that there’s a continuity of message from the academy to the first team. Those guys carry it with them.”
Player development is the focus for Philadelphia Union
In recent years the club’s academy has hit the headlines with a number of graduates making moves to the top European leagues. Brenden Aaronson spent a season in the Premier League with Leeds United, before moving to Union Berlin of the German top flight. Two days before our conversation with Wilson, Aaronson played against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
His brother, Paxten Aaronson, moved from Philadelphia to Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt last year. Auston Trusty recently signed for Premier League team Sheffield United, while Mark McKenzie plays for Genk in Belgium.
“Most are locals,” Wilson explains, recalling the success stories of recent years. “We didn’t have to go out and find them, they were here.”
Under Wilson’s guidance the Union Academy has become a consistent producer of players, not just making it into the club’s first team but attracting the attention of clubs in the top European leagues. That success does not come easily and Wilson is willing to lose games if it means giving opportunities to young players that his coaches believe in.
“Sometimes you can feel like you’re being judged on your youth teams’ results, but you need to be a bit braver than that. You need to put in players who might not be ready, who are late developers, rather than just putting out the team with the best chance of winning today.”
The journey from youth player to first team regular is long and uncertain. Even with the best players at the biggest academies, results require patience. Wilson and first team head coach Jim Curtin have each spent a decade in their respective roles and that stability is paying dividends.
The famed Philadelphia production line will always be a work in process, with little tweaks and small adjustments to be made. But as the Union’s conveyor belt of talent rolls on, it’s not difficult to see the results of Tommy Wilson’s handiwork.