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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
Move over, FC Dallas! There’s a new top academy in MLS.
SoccerWire, a site that publishes monthly rankings of the top 100 youth soccer teams in the United States, has named the Union’s academy system as the top youth development program in the country. This is the first time in the history of SoccerWire’s rankings that any club has overtaken Dallas’ number one spot since the list was first published in February 2020.
For a team that’s only been around for a little over a decade, they’ve produced two of the biggest success stories in MLS youth development—defender Mark McKenzie and forward Brenden Aaronson. McKenzie and Aaronson both featured in the 2020 MLS Best XI, with McKenzie finishing second in the race for 2020 Defensive Player of the Year. Following their impressive 2020 season, the pair garnered serious attention from, and subsequent moves to, clubs in Europe within two years of making their debuts for the Union’s senior team. Aaronson’s reported transfer fee of $6 million to Austrian club RB Salzburg is the most expensive fee of any homegrown transfer in MLS history.
“Player development is one of the three core areas we want to excel at to build our club into a consistent winner and giving players a chance to continually challenge themselves is part of that ideology,” Union principal owner Jay Sugarman said at the time of Aaronson’s transfer. “Brenden’s success will inspire everyone involved in developing our young talent and will be just one of many success stories we expect to see out of our academy in the coming years.”
“This has always been the goal of the club,” Union sporting director Ernst Tanner added. “We want to establish a unique identity of developing young players through our academy with an end goal of cultivating and developing their talent to the level that allows them to compete against the very best in the world.”
It should come as no surprise then that the Union’s academy sit at the top, seeing as the Boys In Blue are one of the few teams in MLS that emphasize youth development and give their young players real opportunities in the senior team. During the 2020 MLS season, the Union came in second for minutes played by players under the age of 22. Aaronson, McKenzie, Matt Real, Anthony Fontana, Jack De Vries, and Cole Turner accounted for 22.9% of the team’s total playing time that season.
After bringing in a new wave of Homegrown signings for the 2021 season, most notably Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan, the league will have to get used to seeing the Union at the top of lists like these for the foreseeable future. Would it be arrogant to start making comparisons to the academies of Ajax and Borussia Dortmund? Perhaps. However, if the Union keep producing legitimate, consistent, and internationally recognized talent at the rate that they have been in recent years, it’s safe to say that the MLS will have their very own youth development dynasty to boast about.