By Ryan Bailey

With the release of the latest round of fixtures, the club’s youth program is on course for progress on and off the field

CHARLOTTE—As the first-ever teams to represent Charlotte FC, the U14 and U17 Academy sides have made history during their respective inaugural seasons. Following a festive break, the 2020-21 Academy campaigns will resume this month with a series of friendlies and matches within the MLS Next development platform.

“We’ve really started to see an identity come through in the performances,” Academy manager Dan Lock said. “Winning games is important, but ultimately, it’s the performances and the playing identity that we want to see evolve at this stage.”

Looking back at the opening half of the Academy season, Lock cites several instances in which he has seen growth and resolve in his youth players. He notes a road game against Inter Miami in which the U17 side came back from 0-2 down to win 3-2, and the highly impressive U15 performance against Atlanta Utd at Bank of America Stadium.

“There’s always room for improvement, but we’ve been really pleased with the performances of youth teams that are still very much in their infancy,” Lock said.

The season resumes at the end of January in West Virginia, with a double-header against the Academy sides of MLS rivals FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew.

In normal circumstances, MLS youth teams would stay in a hotel the night before an away match and fly if necessary—in the same manner as a professional first team. Due to the pandemic, however, the teams are traveling by bus on the day of play and meeting out-of-state opponents at neutral venues.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to travel and meet teams halfway,” Lock said. “In many states it has not been possible to play Academy matches this season. Right now, it’s about getting games, so we’re delighted to be playing other MLS Academies.”

Matches against familiar foes Inter Miami and Atlanta await, but the Academy teams are savoring the kick-off games with new opponents Cincinnati and Columbus.

“Our players are really excited about the double-header in West Virginia,” Lock said. “Good players want to play against the best and be challenged.”

In February, the Academy will provide some variety in the schedule with a closed-door in-house futsal tournament, which will help promote dribbling skills, close control and creativity.

“It’s something a bit different and fun, but we want to use futsal as part of our training regime in the long term,” Lock said. “For younger players, it’s fundamental to try and replicate a street soccer vibe.”

Beyond the fixtures currently announced, Lock and his staff have laid out a prospective schedule for the remainder of the 2020-21 season, with contingencies and flexibilities depending on future travel restrictions. The Academy sides will also compete in the prestigious Generation adidas Cup, if it is viable to stage the competition.

“Despite the uncertainty and unusual season, our players have been brilliant,” Lock said. “I’m really proud of them and our staff.

“In the past year, kids have had their normal lives taken away. We’ve been really lucky to be able to provide a safe Academy environment, where our players can have a sense of normalcy while learning, developing and growing. From a mental perspective, it’s been really good to provide this environment for them.”

Lock notes that the response of his players to the unusual circumstances has been resoundingly positive.

“During this time, our players have shown so much resilience,” he said. “They’ve adapted, and they’ve shown discipline and respect. I really couldn’t have asked any more of them—they have really represented the club well.”

In addition to facing new challenges and opposition, Charlotte FC’s Academy program will grow in line with its ambitions in 2021.

Recent staff hires include Sara Smith, who supports the players’ academic and emotional wellbeing in her role as Academy Education and Welfare Coordinator. Former Sporting Kansas City and Charlotte midfielder Alex Martinez, meanwhile, is taking the lead in identifying new talent as Academy Head of Recruitment.

The program will also be welcoming more player age groups to the fold. In February, the U13 Discovery Program will be supplemented by an U12 age group. A third full-time team will be added in the summer at U15 level.

“We aim for a ‘front foot’ approach in everything we do,” Lock said. “We want to be on the front foot in terms of playing style, hiring an exceptional staff and providing the best infrastructure. We have kicked off the new year with new staff members and we will continue to grow the program.

“It’s about being ambitious; we won’t stand still.”