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Youth soccer academies and opportunities mushroom in region
MLS and USL sides expand field for youngsters
 
Published Monday, May 25, 2020 6:00 pm
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

The youth soccer landscape in Charlotte is changing.


Offerings have expanded over the last five years at every level. With the addition of a Major League Soccer franchise that starts play in 2021 comes a club-connected academy. Charlotte Soccer Academy has grown from roughly 200 players to over 6,500 through multiple mergers and a name change from South Charlotte Soccer Association. The Charlotte Independence Soccer Club celebrated a year since Carolina Rapids, Lake Norman and Discoveries SC merged to form a mega club under the USL Championship side’s umbrella. Youth soccer is exploding as quickly as the region’s population.


“Statistics show there’s more children between the age of 6-16 playing now than any other sport in the country,” said CSA Executive Director Brad Wylde, a Catawba alumnus who played professionally with the Charlotte Eagles.


“Now there’s a pipeline where players can start playing soccer in Charlotte at 4 years old and look all the way through to the pros rather than having to go elsewhere to get that,” Wylde said. “We hope in the next couple of years to see a former CSA player putting a Charlotte MLS shirt on and playing in [Bank of America] Stadium. That would be a great thing for us to see and hope we’ve been a part of their development to do that.”

CSA begins play in September. The MLS side will have two full-time teams at no cost to players. The academy will include the Charlotte Discovery Program, in addition to the two full-time teams in the under-14 and U-17 age groups. They will train four nights a week and compete on weekends. They will also have a Charlotte Discovery Program open to U-12 and U-13 players as a means of identifying talent for the permanent academy teams. Discover program players will train with the Charlotte MLS academy twice a week in addition to training and competing with their parent clubs. Charlotte MLS intends to spread the program across the Carolinas.

“[The Discovery Program] provides us and the players in the area an opportunity for that next level of training and it gives us a chance to monitor those players over a one or two-year process before they come in full-time,” Charlotte MLS academy manager Dan Lock said. “That’s another avenue of identifying players and another step up in the pathway.”

Lock left Seattle Sounders for Charlotte MLS based on the organization’s design to integrate its academy with the first team.

“The main reason I came here was because of the vision of the club in terms of that,” Lock said. “The message from [Charlotte MLS sporting director] Zoran Krneta, [president] Tom Glick and [technical director] Marc Nicholls on creating that relationship between first team and academy—it’s essential. That’s one of the things that attracted me to making the move. We want to produce players who play for the first team.”

Charlotte has another professional pathway system in the Independence. The USL Academy League model allows players between U15-19 to play on a team targeted to the area’s best players. Established as a pre-professional league, it is designed to give young players access to their local first team, such as the Charlotte Independence. The Independence has already filtered players through their system, with five youth players participating in preseason with the USL Championship first team. Two signed amateur contracts with the club: 16-year-olds Owen Barber and Joey Skinner.

“The structure is already there,” Independence SC CEO Thomas Finlay said. “Now it’s just challenging them in that daily environment to be the best of the best.”

Youth soccer has shifted gears since U.S. Soccer terminated its development academy. In addition to USL announcing their own academy, MLS added 65 clubs which previously participated in the now-defunct league to create a player development program of over 8,000 athletes across the United States and Canada. Charlotte MLS is the only Carolinas representative.

“This is something USL talked about a year ago,” Finlay said. “The timing of it is not a knee-jerk reaction. When you look at the USL Academy, they’re saying why don’t we pick a few players from each age group and really challenge them.”

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