Ahead of move to USL Championship, North Carolina goes all-in on youth development and a European pathway
November 02, 2023
THE MODERN ERA of professional soccer across the globe has trended younger over the past two decades. More clubs than ever before are giving first-team minutes to teenagers. For most clubs, the end goal is to eventually sell these players for a profit. Some clubs have made this a core part of their identity and business model. Here in the United States, North Carolina FC is taking such an approach.
It is easy to see why the club is heading in this direction.
First, North Carolina FC has been inconsistent with its its identity for years. They began in 2006 as the North Carolina Railhawks and initially played in the United Soccer League, better known as the USL. But in 2010 they switched leagues to the NASL. Then in 2016, the club rebranded as North Carolina FC and returned to USL. In 2021, it dropped down to the recently created USL League One (third tier). In 2024, NCFC is slated to return to the USL Championship.
Second, the club also plays in Raleigh-Durham, which has historically been one of the better areas of the country for youth participation and development.
Combining the need for a consistent identity with the surrounding community's high participation in youth soccer, it only made sense the club would try to make youth development a hallmark of the club’s philosophy and future.
Among the people implementing this vision is John Bradford, who holds two key jobs at the club. He is in the midst of his third season as the team’s head coach (having previously been an assistant at NCFC under former USMNT coach Dave Sarachan). But perhaps just as importantly, he is also in his 10th year as the director of the North Carolina FC Youth Academy.
Even before this recent shift, NCFC has typically been strong with youth development. In 2021, the club signed 15 NCFC academy players to USL Academy contracts with the first team. In 2022, the club signed eight players. Thus far in 2023, the number is at 12 players. In total, over 15 players from within the academy have made their first team professional debuts over the past three seasons. Since 2013, NCFC Youth Academy has produced 39 different Youth National Team players that have represented the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Israel, and Puerto Rico.
But what has now changed for NCFC is an approach to going outside of its own youth academy to welcome young players across the country who are at youth national team levels. Most notably, players from within MLS academies who have not yet signed homegrown deals, have begun seeing the value in the pathway that NCFC have developed.
In July, the club came to terms with Kyrome Lumsden who had previously been with LAFC's academy. Later, the club signed Adrian Pelayo, 17, who was previously with the Portland Timbers' academy and Portland Timbers II of MLSNext Pro. Pelayo had also previously played with the U.S. U-17 national team but is set to play for Mexico at the 2023 U-17 World Cup. Recently the club acquired Julian Placias who was previously with the LA Galaxy's academy.
"Kyrome is a top young player in his age group in the United States, and his signing gives credibility to the development opportunity we provide young players,” Bradford told ASN. “It speaks to the club's mission to provide opportunities on the field as a professional, as well as placing players. We want players to understand that we don't want them to be at North Carolina FC for 15 years. We view ourselves as an opportunity to develop young guys, give them tangible opportunities, and help them follow their aspirations of playing at higher levels."
"We have a highly competitive training environment and connections with clubs, both domestically and abroad, allows us to attract elite young talent like Adrian," Bradford later added on Pelayo. "His trust in us as the launching pad for his professional career is a huge validation of the success and potential of our global strategy."
Another detail that is attracting such players to NCFC is that the club will actively pursue sending young players on trials in Europe. Less than a week after signing, Lumsden went to Europe for several trials.
"My goal is to obviously get to Europe and I feel like North Carolina FC was the team to get me there and get me ready for the next step - and that's Europe,” Lumsden said. “That is one of things I hope, for sure, will happen."
For Pelayo, the feeling is similar.
“From my first day here, I really enjoyed the environment and the club’s transparency about their intentions and the vision that they have for their younger players," Pelayo said. "I don’t like thinking too much about the future, but my goal is to play in a top league and be able to live that experience and make my family proud."
This new approach from NCFC stems from what they see as an opening to compete with MLS clubs in the youth market and provide an alternative. Some MLS clubs, like Philadelphia, have given top young players minutes while also having sold them to top European teams. But not all MLS clubs are the same. Some organizations have been slow to promote young players - and in these situations it might not make sense for players to sign homegrown deals. This is likely what opened the door to sign Lumsden and Pelayo.
“There's a growing interest of players of MLS academies that maybe don't see that as the as the right pathway for them,” Bradford said. “Maybe the contract length that's being offered is too long. Maybe there's not a realistic situation. They don’t see themselves becoming a mainstay or a focal point of a first team in MLS.”
“We aren’t actively recruiting players from MLS academies," he added. "We have players that see the value and alternative that our club provides and these players are reaching out to us either directly, or through their agents. I absolutely caution players to stay at their academies, unless they are absolutely sure that this is a move that they want to make. Obviously we are open to top players, but a jump to the professional environment in a different town away from family and being sent on trials at top clubs, is a decision that a player must be completely ready for.”
Then there was Nicholas Holliday, who was the team’s goalkeeper at the start of the season before he broke his tibia. In 2021 and 2022, Holliday also spent time with the U.S. U-17 national team.
“Probably the biggest profile of the ones that came from our club was Nicholas Holliday, whose was having a great season with us this year, having played all 13 pro games before he broke his leg,” Bradford said. “In the off season, Nicholas has been on trial at Bayer Leverkusen, Hertha Berlin, and Fortuna Dusseldorf and these places have been raising his European profile.”
But that also raises the question about winning. For NCFC, how does this youth philosophy coexist with the strive to win?
If a young player is finding success on the first team of NCFC, will the club delay trials to keep him playing first team games or will it still look to send the player away on a trial during key junctures of the season – when doing so would put the team at a disadvantage? Immediately after the big announcement of Lumsden’s signing, he left for Europe. So it raises the question of how his signing benefits the first team?
Bradford admits it is a difficult question. He has seen the club struggle in recent years with too many young players but now with a better balance that includes more experienced players, they are doing well – and will play in the League One final this Saturday against instate rivals, the Charlotte Independence. But starting next year, the club will move back into the USL Championship and the competition will be stronger. On the field, Bradford indicates that he is willing to stick with a roster that heavily includes young players to help in their development even if it means accepting a level of mistakes that naturally happen with inexperience.
“Having taken the temperature of our fan base throughout the last couple of years, from a youth club perspective where we have 16,000 members - a massive amount of people think it's fantastic that we're giving top players in the club opportunities at the professional level to develop," Bradford said. "They know that comes with maybe taking your hits and your losses here and there. I think there are more of those than fans who think we should not be doing youth development. We should just be worried about winning and all that.”
There is another issue. What is the relationship with the top-tier MLS in such a system? Is it a rival? Is it a potential buyer of players? Is it a combination?
"I think we are seeing a bit of a culture shift in the United States landscape of soccer,” Bradford said. “In the past, MLS clubs overall haven’t shown that they find value in the USL player. I think that’s going to be shifting, where a young player that might have been developed and played in League One, or Championship, for a couple of years has value to an MLS club."
“I do think there's going to be opportunities to work with MLS as MLS clubs recognize that they can get good young talent from USL and it doesn't have to either be a homegrown, or a player from a non-MLS academy that they pick up at a young age and sign themselves,” Bradford added.
North Carolina FC has created momentum in 2023. It’s defined who it wants to be, and the club has a winning foundation.
But that only sets a nice stage for 2024. Real success will be determined in finding the balance in winning and in development. Can it be competitive in Championship and move young players abroad or to MLS to ensure that the developmental pipeline will be a steady flow? The future is unwritten, but for now there is optimism.
“To be fair, it's a moment to re-address our fan group and community,” Bradford said. “We try to be extremely clear as to what our goals are, that we want to be highly competitive in USL Championship next year and that we are going to have young players... So I think we're going to attract more fans. I think we're going to attract new fans and they are going to look at our club in a different and unique way. And I think the hope is to have clear messaging in that and then get positive support.”