How Charlotte FC's Academy Is Raising the Level of Play as It Grows
CHARLOTTE - As Charlotte FC's first team squad gears up for its inaugural season, the Academy program is flourishing in its sophomore campaign.
In 2021-22, the Academy introduced a full-time U14 team to complement the existing U15 and U17 full-time teams, and the part-time Discovery Program for U12 and U13 age groups.
The program has increased from 38 full-time players last season, to 56 competing in the current campaign.
"It's been really good so far this season," says Academy Manager Dan Lock. "We've extended our Homestay Program and the new players have settled in really well. It's competitive, and the level of play is higher across all age groups."
"The addition of a third full-time team has allowed for more vertical promotion of players who are doing well, which means younger players can train and 'play up' an age group. This has increased the overall level of competition and training standards through the Academy."
The three age groups have also benefited from a wider array of opponents through 2020-21, with road games at MLS Next opponents including DC United and Nashville SC already in the books.
This season, the teams will travel as far as Toronto and Montreal for MLS Next matches, while qualification for the prestigious Generation adidas Cup tournament will bring the U15 and U17 sides to Southern California in December.
"There's a lot of travel at this level, and we did quite a few long-distance trips last season," says Lock. "The travel is great for the players: they are treated in the same manner as a first team, which prepares them for the realities of a professional environment.
"This year, we're going to be able to play against a greater variety of teams across the east coast and beyond, so the scope of competition will be much better."
Qualification for the Generation adidas Cup, the leading Pro-Academy tournament in North America, which features top international Academy opponents from around the world, will take place in California in the coming weeks.
The tournament is one in which Charlotte FC's technical staff already have impressive pedigree: Lock coached the Seattle Sounders U15 team at the 2019 edition, and along with Technical Director Marc Nicholls, was part of Sounders Academy staff as the Sounders' U17 side became the first MLS side to win the championship game in 2019, when they beat Spanish side Valencia.
"Our U15s have drawn FC Dallas, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders in Generation adidas Cup qualifying, while the U17s will face Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo and NYCFC," says Lock. "In terms of competitive games, those are really good draws for us, and gives us the experience of playing MLS Academies from all parts of the country."
Coach Lock notes that the program has been buoyed by the presence of first-team coaches Miguel Angel Ramirez and Christian Lattanzio, who regularly observe Academy training and games.
"Having Miguel and Christian here is very exciting for our players," says Lock. "They observe and assess talent, and have sat in on Academy staff meetings, too. It's very collaborative, and it's great that they are so involved in the process."
The Academy program has long been the sole representative of Charlotte FC on the field. Soon, however, the young athletes will be inspired by the arrival of Ramirez's first-team players.
"The first team is now a tangible reality for the players," says Lock, whose U15 and U17 teams will host Atlanta United on the day of Charlotte FC's inaugural home match against LA Galaxy.
"The boys will act as ball retrievers for home matches, and will watch the team in Bank of America Stadium. They will be able to see the opportunity in front of them: some of them will get to train with the first team and be in the first team pre-season. So, the dynamic of the program has changed, as the path to a professional career has become clearer."
Academy players also experienced a taste of a professional environment when the U15 and U17 sides hosted the New York Red Bulls at Memorial Stadium in October.
"Playing in front of fans with full matchday production at a stadium in Charlotte gave the boys professional experience, some pressure (in a good way) and a bit of buzz and excitement," says Lock. "They really enjoyed the experience, and it was great to make a connection with our fans and the community. I really want to thank Charlotte FC's excellent marketing team, including Jessica O'Neill and Denny Smythe, who put in so much hard work to make that day possible."
Much like first-team recruitment, the process of youth talent identification is a year-round process. Led by Head of Recruitment Abdul Chisah, the Academy scouting team has compiled a database of over 1,700 players across the territory.
"We have been hosting more Talent ID events, and have expanded our scouting network," says Lock. "We're looking in all corners of our region: big clubs, small clubs, and communities of all sizes. It doesn't matter where you come from. It's about your talent and potential."
The part-time Discovery Program-where young talents train with Charlotte FC while playing games with their respective clubs-is also thriving.
"We restarted the Discovery Program for the U12s and U13s in September 2021, and are now entering Phase 2," says lock. "Coaches Patrick Daka and Alex Martinez have done a great job in selecting and training the players, and creating a wonderful environment. Having a pathway from five age groups, from U12-U17, in the Academy in only its second year is very good progress."
For a fledgling Academy program to continue to prosper, Lock stresses the importance of looking ahead, and laying the foundations for a professional pathway.
"It's always important for us to plan in the short, medium and long term," says Lock. "The biggest change that will come into play in year three is the arrival of the first team, and the addition of a reserve team in January 2023.
"This will fully complete the pathway from Academy through to the first team."
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