By Keiran Fleming
NE98 Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming has been speaking with Northern Virginia United assistant coach Chris Jennings to discuss their new strategic partnership with Scottish Premier League side Dundee United.
Northern Virginia United were founded in 2018 by Arab legend Brian Welsh who is also the current Head Coach. The team from Leesburg, Virginia currently play in the National Premier Soccer League which is considered to be the fourth tier of the US Soccer.
Chris told Keiran that the reason behind the creation of Northern Virginia United was to help develop the US Soccer stars of the future:
“We (Brian Welsh) came together coaching at this youth club and just realised in our area, in our Country, they’re not giving enough youth players a chance. So we wanted to come up with a way to provide opportunities in our community for the players to either go to Europe at a younger age or give them professional opportunities they didn’t currently have.
“We started researching local leagues, adult leagues and we just took a chance. We wanted to start something that was unique to our area and build something from the ground up providing opportunities to the youth that they currently weren’t getting.
“It’s different in Europe. Kids are 16 or 17, decisions are being made, they are signing contracts, your future is laid out. Over here they encourage everyone to go to college and it isn’t until 20, 21, 22 where they get their start. We’re hoping to accelerate the opportunities for youth in our area.”
Although the link between Dundee United and Northern Virginia United was only announced in March, Chris revealed that the partnership has always been on the cards:
“It’s been in the works for a while. Brian had been over to receive entry into the hall of fame years ago and he still kept some connections with the staff there. We’ve been contacted by a few people looking to expand into the US market and we wanted to give players opportunities in Europe as well.
“Over the years we’ve sent players to Chelsea’s academy just for trial, one of our 2002s is a goalkeeper who plays for Salford City, so we’ve been trying to send as many players to Europe as we could over the last couple of seasons.
“Obviously they (Dundee United) have an American owner, they invest in the youth, the academy, Brian’s connection to the hall of fame, it was just a simple match. We share so many commonalities and values.”
Although Brian Welsh has an obvious connection to the club, Chris also had somewhat of a connection to the Arabs:
“Ian Harkes comes from our area. I’ve coached against him since he was a kid. When he was very young he played at the youth club that Brian and I run the boys programme at. I also worked with his father at DC United. It’s interesting that we have all these weird crazy connections.”
The assistant coach believes this relationship to be one that will be extremely beneficial for both clubs on each side of the pond:
“They (Dundee United) view it as a pathway into the US market, a way to expand their brand. We view it as a direct opportunity to send players to Europe at a younger age to see if they can make it or get a chance. We’re also hoping to exchange players our way for the Summers. Maybe that will be younger boys that are going to be out of contract, we can help them be showcased in the United States for College or MLS. If they have a player who’s 18 years old and is interested in the American College system that they aren’t going to sign we can showcase him in the US.
“We’re going to also share resources in terms of our youth setup. Our coaches are going to go over and spend some time at St Andrews with the Dundee United staff
“We’re going to bring over some teams of players as well and they’re going to mix in with the academy, probably play some other local matches. You never know, maybe Dundee United will come over here for a pre-season tour.”
Chris has also been extremely impressed by the way Dundee United’s youth academy has been able to continue to develop players during the pandemic. He hopes Northern Virginia United will be able to take something away from the Arabs success:
“Their videos and how they’ve interacted with their players and families has been incredible. They are going to share all that stuff with us. The way they deal with mental health is impressive. We are hoping to have a few of their players speak to our youth.
“There are different things that they can provide us that we can’t provide ourselves right now and there are things we can provide them by helping them get into the US market. A lot of it is if they see something they think is an opportunity we are open to all types of suggestions, it’s an evolving relationship as we go along as well.”
Chris finally touched on the long-term goals of both Northern Virginia United and the young relationship that has just been formed with Dundee United:
“Our aim is to work ourselves up to a higher level in terms of our league and exposure, we think Dundee United can help us with that. We would love to send over a handful of players each year to Dundee United to see if it opens up opportunities for them. We’d love to be a feeder to a European club like Dundee United or who knows they might want to follow the City group model or the Red Bull group.
“Dundee United have such an incredible history of bringing forward youth players, being successful at European level and stuff like that. There are so many ties to their area that are unique to us. I grew up in New Jersey and football came to New Jersey because of Scottish immigration into the US. In a lot of areas in the North-East of the United States Scotish people played a huge role in developing football in our area. This is a really authentic, unique relationship. It’s not one of those relationships where you slap a badge on a shirt to make money.
“I mean if we had a Northern Virginia United Youth player go over to Dundee United and he plays a role in helping Dundee United win the Premiership or stay up or whatever that would be an incredible story.”
NE98 would like to thank Northern Virginia United Assistant Coach Chris Jennings for taking the time to sit down with Keiran. We wish both him and his club all the best for the future.