By Ryan Bailey

The program, which brings U12 and U13 players from regional clubs into the Academy, will see its first group of players graduate into full-time training this September

CHARLOTTE—As part of its commitment to develop a sustainable soccer community within the Carolinas, Charlotte FC launched the Discovery Program in its inaugural 2020-21 Academy season.

The program, for U12 and U13 age groups, brings in players from local clubs to train twice weekly in Rock Hill, S.C., with the Academy. The players continue to train and participate in games with their respective club teams.

A selection of the very best talent from the U13 age group will graduate into a brand-new full-time U14 program for the 2021-22 season, beginning in September. At that time, a new class of U12 players will also be welcomed into the club.

“We’ve been really happy with the quality of players we’ve seen in the Charlotte area,” says Academy Manager Dan Lock. “It’s a true testament to the local clubs and reflects very well on the quality of talent in the region.”

In the inaugural season, the Discovery Program recruited players from clubs in Charlotte and beyond, including Charlotte Soccer Academy, Barca Academy Charlotte, NC Fusion, Charlotte Eagles, Charlotte Independence, South Carolina Utd FC, Carolina Elite Soccer Academy (Greenville) and the Queen City Mutiny.

“One of the biggest successes of the program in its first year was the collaboration with local clubs,” says Lock. “It was really helpful to be able to share players with those clubs, and we extend a massive thanks to the local directors and coaches who made it possible to run this program.”

Lock also credits the success of the program to its player-to-coach ratio: at least two coaches are present for each training session of 20 players. Head of Discovery Program Patrick Daka has run the program with fellow coaches Jorge Herrera, Alex Martinez and Brian Edwards.

“The first year has been really successful,” says Daka. “We have seen over 30 players born in 2008 and 29 players born in 2009 come through, either as full-time participants or trialists.

“We have successfully collaborated with clubs within a 90-minute radius of Charlotte, and received tremendous support from clubs farther out, with whom we have collaborated via Talent ID sessions and scouting reports.”

Coach Daka notes that a unique approach is required for players who return to play for their respective home clubs each weekend.

“We recognize players are coming in from different clubs, with different philosophies and playing identities,” says Daka. “The trick is to train them in such a way that complements what their clubs are doing. After all, they must return to their clubs for weekend games and be able to execute.

“We also challenge the players to think beyond the current play, using cognitive teaching methodology. This engages their brains to read game cues and prescribe solutions quickly using technical skills we are developing.”

Not only does the program benefit from elite level coaching, but Technical Director Marc Nicholls attends training sessions every week.

“Our first-team Technical Director regularly attends Discovery Program sessions” says Lock. “This represents fantastic oversight from the club, from top-to-bottom. It shows a real investment and interest in younger players, and a commitment to ensuring we’re making the right selections.”

In September, 13 players from the U13 Discovery Program will graduate into the new full-time U14 squad. Those players will already possess an understanding of the club’s playing philosophy and work ethic.

“We use a curriculum that strikes a balance between technical development and implementing tactical principles—and we’ve laid the foundation for that in the Discovery Program,” says Lock. “We have ensured the players are used to the demands and standards of training, and have provided consistency between all age groups.”

For Coach Daka, the change in the standard and behaviors of Discovery Program players—on and off the field—has been noticeable.

“It has been positive to see how all the players have progressed,” says Daka. “When we go and observe them in their games, it is evident how much progress they have made. You start seeing little things, like how often they scan the field, how often they change angles to receive on a half-turn, and how comfortable and intentional they are about playing between the lines and making different runs to threaten the goal.

“We also emphasize other behaviors and habits like greeting coaches, saying ‘thank you’ to coaches and officials, and cleaning up after themselves. These may seem little details, but they are huge in our program. We want to develop good players, good teams, and good people. So far, these first groups have learned quickly.”

For the 2020-21 season, the Discovery Program will be extended to run for four eight-week phases, with evaluations and recruitment taking place between each phase. The Academy Recruitment team, led by Martinez, will also broaden its scope as the season progresses.

Additionally, the program will seek to send its players to a national or international tournament event to further enhance development.

“Our objective is to find and develop the very best players from the region,” says Lock. “We have a really strong group of players graduating, who have a solid foundation for success in the Academy. Ultimately, we will see the success of the program next season when the boys go full-time in the U14 squad. For now, it’s truly exciting to see the quality of younger players in the area.”