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Philadelphia Union Academy A Key Asset For Penn State Men’s Soccer

Penn State men’s soccer made a statement when it hired Jeff Cook as its head coach in early 2018.

The 12th man to lead the Nittany Lions was perhaps the most impressive hire to date. At the time, Cook’s resume included five Ivy League titles with Dartmouth, as well as time with Cincinnati.

Despite an impressive collegiate history, Cook’s most important stop in relation to Penn State was directly before coming to Happy Valley — the Philadelphia Union.

Between 2013 and 2017, the Springfield native coached the Union’s youth teams and was the assistant for Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s lower-tier affiliate. Cook’s experience within the organization has been instrumental in recruitment to Penn State.

“[Philadelphia] has produced scores of top collegiate players as well,” Cook said. “Having worked with a lot of these guys, I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to attract a lot of them here.”

While the Union have not always been the top dog in Major League Soccer, the team has always taken pride in their academy. In the past few years, many youngsters have broken through on the first team in Philadelphia, including U.S. men’s national team midfielder Brendan Aaronson and defender Mark McKenzie.

In addition to the top graduates of the academy, Cook has noticed the sheer quantity of capable youngsters coming through the Union’s ranks. This has led Penn State and other Division I programs to take notice.

“It is an organization that made a huge commitment to youth development, and now you are starting to see the fruits of that labor,” Cook said. “I would never take credit directly for any one player’s progress or improvement, but the commitment from the club is pretty impressive and you’re seeing that now.”

There are five players on the current Penn State roster — Kris Shakes, Daniel Bloyou, Seth Kuhn, Tyger Evans, and Femi Awodesu — who came through the Union pipeline. Last year, former Union academy defender Will Campbell played as a graduate student for the Nittany Lions, and Sean Bettenhausen will join the team in 2021 after breaking through to the second team in Philadelphia.

Both Kuhn and Campbell began their collegiate careers in the ACC (Duke and UNC, respectively) before moving to State College while Cook became head coach.

“It was a coincidence that [Coach Cook] ended up being the coach of Penn State. I was familiar with him from the academy, what his coaching style was,” Campbell said. “When I was looking at the transfer portal, it was a no-brainer for me.”

Cook doesn’t expect to win every recruiting battle in the region, although he gets a leg up when it comes to knowing the Union kids.

“My knowledge of the system at the Union, my knowledge of the staff, and my relationship with the players has been important in attracting some of those top recruits to State College,” Cook said.

Additionally, Cook can show proof-of-concept to incoming prospects. In his two years in charge in Happy Valley, Penn State went from a basement-dwelling Big Ten program to a top 25 team in the nation with no signs of slowing down.

“It is a testament to how good of a coach Jeff is,” Campbell said. “He attracts people to him, and that’s the type of coach you want to be playing for.”

Despite a sucker punch in the NCAA Tournament, the 2019 campaign will be a big pull for recruitment.

“It’s a principal to keep the best in-state talent here, and the Union Academy is one of the top youth clubs in the state,” Cook said.

Cook also tabbed other Pennsylvania clubs such as Lehigh Valley United, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Christian Pulisic’s PA Classics as gold mines for in-state recruitment. The Union is a reliable pipeline, although it isn’t the only way to suit up for Penn State.

“We are having similar conversations around the Major League Soccer academies, and other youth clubs in the area,” Cook said. “We need to expand our network so we don’t unintentionally give the impression that the only way to play at Penn State is to come through the Union Academy.”

Between a strong 2019 season and Cook’s credibility, Penn State men’s soccer appears to have a long future as one of the premier Big Ten teams.

“Reputation is really big when it comes to recruiting,” Campbell said. “We had a really strong season last year and I’m sure Jeff will improve on that. Building that Penn State soccer reputation up again is going to be really big for them.”

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons


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