Philadelphia Union II coach Marlon LeBlanc has come a long way since we shared a field together at Penn State in 2001.
Whether breaking into a Carlton Banks dance or joining in shuttle sprints at the end of a training session, he was genuine and supportive, the type of coach a young player could turn to during times of need. After over a decade at PSU and another 14 years as the head coach at West Virginia University, LeBlanc returned to the Philadelphia area when he joined the Union Academy staff in 2020, and he remains a role model for development, focused and demanding yet honest and endearing in helping players reach their goals.
Last August, when the Union parted ways with Sven Gartung, Ernst Tanner and Richie Graham turned to LeBlanc to take over the second team. The task of leading a young group against the mashup that was the USL Championship had its challenges, among them the age and experience gaps between his team and its opponents.
However, in LeBlanc’s first game on August 5 the Union beat the New York Red Bulls II 3-2 for its first win of the season. The Red Bulls had beaten the Union 5-1 two weeks prior, and early season 6-0 and 4-0 losses to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds may have sparked concerns about the team’s progress, but an ensuing win against Loudon United, a draw and one-goal loss to division winners Hartford Athletic, and a one-goal loss to Pittsburgh at the end of the season proved the team was maturing against older opposition. And that was something the Union valued more than results as it sought to promote players into the first team to defend its 2020 Supporters’ Shield.
LeBlanc’s coaching journey started before his involvement in Penn State’s program. Growing up in East Windsor, New Jersey, he was an All-State player out of Hightstown High School and a member of the New Jersey ODP program before playing for the Nittany Lions. But when his college career ended, he stayed in the game by finding coaching opportunities wherever he could.
“Coaches have humble beginnings,” he said in a recent interview, “packing bags, doing laundry, driving long distances, building programs.” In 1996, LeBlanc took over the Penn State women’s club team and led them to back-to-back national finals in 1997 and 1998. While organizing trainings, schedules, travel arrangements, fundraising, even on-campus recruiting, LeBlanc turned a group of motivated women hoping to prolong their competitive careers into a national powerhouse. “I needed to fill a fix,” he said about coaching the club team. “It was about wanting to run a program as professional as you can, and I saw it as a learning opportunity.”
LeBlanc’s success led to another opportunity coaching the Nittany Quasars with Penn State men’s coach Barry Gorman, who hired him as an assistant in 2001. “Being an assistant is about being willing to grind and do what it takes,” he said. In his six years with Gorman, Penn State won the Big Ten tournament in 2002 and 2005 and reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 2002. During that 2002 season, back surgery sidelined Gorman for seven games and LeBlanc stepped in, leading the team through a tough Big Ten stretch that included victories over Northwestern and Ohio State and non-conference wins over Hartwick and Boston College, who was ranked in the top twenty. “The head coach wants guys to take on grunt work. I remember being a sponge and learning as much as I could.”
LeBlanc’s rise up the coaching ladder may have been something even he didn’t foresee, but he’d always been drawn to the learning aspects of the job. “I didn’t plan on being at the pro level. I do it because I love it.” Picking up ideas with every coach he meets, LeBlanc recalled distant conversations he had with Walt Bahr and recent ones with Gregg Berhalter as examples of his many coaching influences.
“We had a coaching group at the academy last week,” he said, “sharing our methods and sessions, and we realized nothing here is new. We take from each other and put our own spin on it. With Barry, I learned how to do things, and how to make it my own. He was strong in coaching education and Xs and Os, but I’m a smorgasbord of different coaches.”
With the Union, LeBlanc is still soaking up knowledge from his contemporaries, even Jim Curtin. “After the Union beat Toronto, I went back and watched their session the day before, and we did the exact same exercises, and it helped us start scoring goals.” On the day of the Toronto game, the Union II lost a 3-1 friendly to NESL amateur side FC Christos, then followed up with lopsided wins over West Chester and VE on either end of a big win over the Red Bulls II.
LeBlanc is no stranger to adapting. West Virginia hired him on the first day of preseason in 2006 to take over the men’s soccer program after Mike Seabolt had been relieved following an NCAA investigation that later revealed numerous violations. LeBlanc was now running a Big East program with questions regarding the investigation’s outcome. “It was crazy and exciting,” he said about his transition to Morgantown. “There was guilt because I’d built such good relationships with the PSU team. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of nerves. I had to leave my wife and our daughter, who was thirteen months old at the time. But I was ready for it.”
In LeBlanc’s first season, West Virginia posted a school record 15 wins and went 9-0-1 in the Big East, the first team to go undefeated in conference play since it expanded to ten games. He was also named Big East and Soccer America Coach of the Year. But the fallout from the NCAA investigation banned West Virginia from competing or practicing in the spring of 2007, barred LeBlanc from recruiting international players for two years, and restricted the program’s paid official visits over the same period. “There were unknown challenges,” he said, “and I had to roll with the punches.”
Despite the sanctions, West Virginia followed up with a 14-6-2 season and reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, but after losing several seniors, the program faced a rebuilding phase, one that would include future Union players Ray Gaddis and Jack Elliott. “We had a major conference change. The Big East was one of the top soccer conferences in the country when we switched to the Big 12, but the Big 12 didn’t have men’s soccer.” Instead, the soccer team joined the MAC, where Akron was raising the college bar under Caleb Porter. “I had to try to explain to recruits that we’re going to a conference that doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer. With those years, I had to ask myself ‘what’s your ambition, what’s your goal?’ Moving forward, I wanted to cultivate a culture that players would want to be a part of.”
LeBlanc achieved that and more with the Mountaineers. During his tenure, West Virginia reached six NCAA tournaments, won three conference championships, produced five All-Americans (Gaddis in 2011), had a three-time Academic All-American (Elliott), and earned the United Soccer Coaches Association Team Academic Award twelve straight years. LeBlanc earned two more Coach of the Year Awards and established West Virginia as a program that prepared players for a professional career. “It took time to find a foothold, consistency. There were lots of things I did that I probably wouldn’t do again. Experience gets undervalued. I learned a lot from it and accomplished a lot more because of it. I left feeling proud when I left, that the program was as good as it’s ever been, maybe better.”
At West Virginia, LeBlanc also became a leader off the field. As the first and only black head coach in the school’s history of intercollegiate athletics, he served on the NCAA committee on Gender Diversity and Equity, WVU’s 2020 Strategic Planning Diversity and Inclusion sub-committee, and helped create OneWVU, an initiative to promote diversity among students, faculty, and staff through fellowship on all WVU campuses. “That was important to me. I saw it as an opportunity to open doors for other coaches.”
When LeBlanc’s son, Kellan LeBlanc, joined the YSC Academy in 2019, his wife, Jen, and their kids moved back to the Philadelphia area while he stayed in Morgantown fulfilling his coaching duties. After another conference championship and NCAA appearance, he resigned that December so he could be closer to his family, and the Union offered him a position in early 2020 with the Under 17s. “When I met with Ernst, he made it clear that I was getting the job because I was the best for the position, and it was important that he regarded me for my ability.”
In a new environment, LeBlanc felt at ease with the Union’s willingness to push for change. “There are a lot of old heads who don’t want to go out of their comfort zones to give opportunities,” he said, regarding the lack of coaching diversity in the college game. “I’m fortunate to be a part of an organization that values diversity.” The Union emerged as global leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, beginning with the tributes to the victims of police brutality worn on players’ jerseys in the MLS is Back tournament. In October, the club helped open Subaru Park for Delaware County voters to drop off absentee ballots or register to vote, and it has continuously strived to improve its footprint in the community. “It’s clear the organization has more to it than the old school philosophy. NCAA was not changing fast enough. I was comfortable at West Virginia, but I’m very comfortable here. They regarded me for the substance and not the external.”
Last summer, while the academy teams dealt with new Covid restrictions, LeBlanc also navigated the challenge of teaching about the summer’s BLM protests as both a parent and as a coach. “I had a conversation with my twelve-year-old son about how to react to a police officer,” he said. He also organized Zoom calls with the 17s where Mark McKenzie and Ray Gaddis talked to the players as peers about influencing change.
“I’m invested as a coach, but also a parent,” LeBlanc said, “so it’s good to show what we’re supposed to be doing for them. We have an environment that’s honest. Putting players into settings where they talk to each other. Whether it’s school, training, the culture is more than race, it’s a brotherhood. I see it with my own son. He has a great relationship with the other boys. I saw it with the academy kids. They love each other. Even if the experiences aren’t happening day to day, they know it exists. I would not have put my kid in the environment if I didn’t believe in it. This place is a little bit different.”
With his new position, LeBlanc has been fortunate to spend more time with Kellan and has learned to balance the role of being both coach and dad. “There was a process of me giving feedback and him getting upset,” he said. “I’m passionate but also I’m his father. Now he knows, soccer is soccer, and dad is dad.” LeBlanc often goes in for training earlier than the younger academy players, but some mornings Kellan wants to come in with him and train. “I was probably a different coach than dad, but I’ve learned how to talk to a Gen Z kid. When I was a kid, I ran through a brick wall, now I’ve got to explain why to run through the wall and the consequences of running through the wall. I can talk to him the way I’d talk to my players. We watch film and clips, and I can point out things without criticizing. Now, I find myself saying ‘Go rest.’ He’s driven. It’s more him pushing me.”
As LeBlanc begins his second year with the Union, he’s found many similarities between his new role and the previous ones he’d been in for the past two decades. “As much as results are a part of the college game, for me the joy was seeing players matriculate to pro. My goal was development. I wasn’t driven by fear of winning and losing, I wanted to see them achieve a pro experience. It wasn’t my ambition to be the II coach, but this is perfect in what the vision is for this position. I’m still developing players for pro. Stepping into that mold was everything I would do but without the college rules.”
With the Union II playing a regionalized schedule against more experienced USL teams in 2020, the team took its lumps, but that did not discourage the players. “This project, results are a part of development,” LeBlanc said, “but last year we became significantly more competitive.” Some of the players who excelled last year have now made the jump to the next level. Paxton Aaronson, Brandon Craig, Quinn Sullivan, Nathan Harriel, and Jack McGlynn all signed Homegrown contracts with the first team in January, and LeBlanc said he’s proud to play a part in their growth. “It’s neat to see their evolution, and in many ways here I’m developing a finished product.”
With the Union academy gaining more notoriety for building elite MLS players like Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, who are now playing with Red Bull Salzburg and Genk respectively, LeBlanc said he doesn’t feel pressure to push the next player through. “The only pressure is to make sure that this environment is cultivating our principles of play, our methods, every day putting players in that experience. It’s about what’s best for them. They play a bigger part. I provide the environment and the platform. I believe we have players who will achieve similar success, maybe more. Our young players are very good.”
The competition format and schedule for the new MLS reserve league hasn’t been announced, but the team has been training and meeting since the new year and LeBlanc expects to see competitive action soon.
“There will be a transitional period with figuring out who’s in and who’s out,” he said. “We as Union II are going to move forward with the idea that we’ll be kicking off late spring, early summer. Until then, we’ll play exhibitions against other clubs and USL teams the way we would a preseason. In the coming weeks, we hope to have answers from the league.”
Though we may not yet have an exact date for when the Union II will take the field, we can be certain the team is in good hands. In LeBlanc, the Union have added an influential leader, experienced in preparing players for future cup finals and knockout games in college, MLS, or abroad. And in the Union, LeBlanc has found himself surrounded by family and friends, doing what he loves, inspiring others, back where he belongs.