By Jacob Born | April 6, 2021

It’s one thing to say your club will build through an academy and create a steady pipeline of talent to the professional ranks. It’s entirely something different to successfully follow through on that mission. 

In late March, ECNL Boys member North Carolina FC showed an unprecedented commitment and unique ability to build a pathway to professional soccer in a historic ceremony, where the club signed 15 ECNL players to USL League One contracts.  Importantly, each contract is an amateur contract, which means that while every player can play in professional matches with the club, every player also still maintains their eligibility to play collegiate soccer, if they choose that route. 

The 15 players who signed a contract range from just 15 years old to members of NCFC’s U18/19 squad who will be heading to college in the fall. By signing these contracts, the players have the opportunity to train alongside professional players on the first team and be eligible for selection on match days. 

“These guys are in different circumstances where some of them will be featured on the professional stage early while a handful will go off to college in the fall. When this happens, it will deliver new opportunities for more players to be selected,” said John Bradford, NCFC’s Boys Academy Director and USL Head Coach. “It’s a large, fluid situation of how we make sure we’re providing the best opportunities for these players to achieve their potential.”

This signing event was the largest single signing event in NCFC history, tripling the previous benchmark of five, and marked an important milestone for the club. It expands a model the NCFC brass had established at the creation of the club, one that has seen more than 10 players sign MLS contracts during the life of the organization. 

CEO Gary Buete joined the organization in 2014, when NCFC was created through the merging of three area clubs. From the start, he knew that the organization wanted a distinct and direct player pathway from the youngest ages through to the first team. 

“The players in our club don’t just dream of being professional players, they know there is real potential to get there,” Buete said. “When you talk about development, it’s putting players with and against the best players possible in the best environment possible. Having this structure within our program is massive for the kids in our organization.”

NCFC continued that mission in January 2021, when the organization moved its first team from USL Championship to USL League One to gain added roster flexibility regarding which players can be eligible for selection each match day. 

“In USL Championship, as a league, you can’t have more than seven amateur contracts on your roster, whereas, in League One, you can have an unlimited number of amateur or academy contracts,” Bradford said. “So from a club standpoint, we feel League One is the best place for us to be in terms of player development and opportunity.”

Signing their players to amateur contracts is vitally important to NCFC for two reasons: it reinforces the player developmental pathway for the future generation and it gives each athlete the chance to develop and showcase their talents for future opportunities. 

“There’s no replacement for being able to step into the professional environment,” Bradford said. “That’s going to be something from an experiential and developmental standpoint that they can’t get anywhere else. And we’re super excited to see how they do in that environment.

The key though isn’t just to have them playing at the professional level, but seeing success at that level.  In order to do that, NCFC players have to be properly developed, and Buete said ECNL has played a major role in allowing their players to be challenged enough to rise to the top levels of soccer. 

“ECNL has been great for us,” Buete said. “We have a unique pathway and the ECNL has allowed us to do what we think is best for the kids in our area. We want our kids playing with and against the best competition we can, and the ECNL provides the highest level of competition in the country.”

“NCFC has been an excellent example of player development in ECNL and it’s been encouraging to watch from the outside,” added ECNL Boys Commissioner Jason Kutney. “NCFC continues to provide an impressive overall setup for all involved with the club and their future looks extremely bright.  It’s extremely exciting to see an event of this magnitude for NCFC and it reinforces to other clubs the potential of what can be done.” 

These 15 academy signings will get their first chance to be selected for a match Monday night April 5th, when NCFC plays the Richmond Kickers in the first of four preseason contests. 

For Buete, it’s been a process that has taken seven years, but will leave an impact on the organization and soccer in North Carolina as a whole for years to come. 

“We’ve been talking about it for years; this didn’t happen overnight,” Buete said. “We have a commitment to the process, it’s just not words. We’re committing to our youth players, we’re putting them in that environment and we’re committed to get them on the fields and giving them minutes. That is a massive step in our organization. What you’re seeing now is the fruits of our labor from the past seven years.”