Players from all ages gather at the NCFC Developmental Academy Kickoff Event. | Photo courtesy North Carolina FC
It wouldn’t be too difficult to convince even the casual soccer fan that North Carolina FC has one of the country’s most successful youth academies. The numbers speak for themselves: in the last five years, the program has produced 33 players called into U.S. youth national team camps, nine players signed professionally in Major League Soccer, the USL Championship, and across Europe, 18 players signed to academy contracts with NCFC's Championship side, and more than 100 players committed to play college soccer.
In a soccer hotbed like the Raleigh area, which is also home to numerous collegiate powerhouses and the organization's outstanding National Women's Soccer League side the North Carolina Courage, which itself is coming off back-to-back league titles, it may seem easy to build this kind of success. But those behind the scenes have built a top-notch professional pathway for local youth players using a strategy with one key element behind it: connectivity.
“We’re connected in every way,” said Curt Johnson, who serves as President of both North Carolina FC and the North Carolina Courage. “We’re connected from a coaching standpoint, so philosophy is obviously important. Our academy director is a full-time assistant with the pro team. Our U23 coach is also an academy coach within the NCFC youth academy system. Our Head Coach Dave Sarachan is aware and involved in the academy process.
“Every day in training, we have young academy players integrated into our training environment. We’re talking about the youth and connectivity 24/7, from playing style to the key attributes we want in certain positions.”
The process Johnson is describing is known as vertical integration, wherein a club treats its youth and pro environments not as separate entities, but as one organization with resources shared between multiple levels on a daily basis.
NCFC Academy goalkeeper Trace Alphin signed a USL Academy contract with North Carolina FC in the 2019 season and was named in the gameday squad on two occasions. | Photo courtesy North Carolina FC
There is no better example of this system than John Bradford, whose many roles with NCFC include Youth Boys Development Academy Director, Assistant Coach to Sarachan for North Carolina FC in the USL Championship, and Technical Director for the U23 team in USL League Two.
“I’m very fortunate to be involved with various roles at North Carolina FC, and I’m able to work with Head Coach Dave Sarachan and other staff members to help guide our players into the professional environment,” said Bradford. “This allows for positive and challenging exposure to higher levels and is aided by our first team players being open and supportive of young guys coming in.”
NCFC Academy product Manny Perez, who has appeared for the United States U-23 Men's National Team during the buildup to 2020 Olympic Qualifying this spring. | Photo courtesy North Carolina FC
The constant communication between members of the coaching and technical staff has helped North Carolina FC develop numerous top youth talents, many of whom can see a clear route to first team action in the USL Championship. Like many clubs, NCFC have a youth academy, a U23 side, and a professional first team. What sets North Carolina apart is that the club has actively worked to build a tangible structure between those levels.
“There’s multiple interactions between our professional coaching staff, our academy staff, and the players,” said Johnson. “There’s not one moment in time where you identify a player and you bring him directly into the pro team. You evaluate their process within the academy, you get a feel for a player and their readiness, you drip them into the professional environment with training sessions, and it’s a process. Players progress through the system.”
The latest prospect to progress through that system is 17-year-old defender Adam Armour. Armour has had opportunities to train with NCFC's Championship squad over the last two seasons, and has appeared at the senior level in friendlies versus Liga MX’s Necaxa and the U.S. U-20 men’s national team. He also played with the NCFC U23 team in USL League Two during the 2019 season, which helped him earn a spot on the U.S. U-17 World Cup roster last fall.
“Adam is one of the latest examples in a long list of players that we are fortunate to provide professional development exposure,” said Bradford. “He’s been a player who we have played up within the academy and steered toward our flexible schooling component.”
Though Armour is too old to compete at February’s USL Academy event, there are plenty of others ready to fill his shoes. Forward Luke Hille is expected to sign a USL Academy contract with NCFC this season and plays at the U19 level in the NCFC Academy, despite being just 16. The event will give Hille and his teammates a chance to test themselves against other top talents from USL Academy programs around the country.
“Our club is excited to be a part of the first year of the USL Academy event structure and measure our players against other top clubs in USL,” said Bradford. “This is a great additional event for our players to add to the competitive schedule.”
Adam Armour, whose performance with NCFC U-23 in USL League Two led to a spot on the U.S. U-17 World Cup roster. | Photo courtesy North Carolina FC