Former Charlotte Independence and current North Carolina – Greensboro defender Joey Skinner was recently named the ECNL Boys U18/19 Player of the Year. In 2020-21, his Charlotte Independence team was one of the best in the Mid-Atlantic Conference and eventually claimed the first-ever ECNL Boys U18/19 National Championship, which they won in Greensboro, N.C. Now in the heart of his freshman season, Skinner sat down with Breaking The Line podcast host Dean Linke to discuss his success in the ECNL, his relationships with his coaches at Charlotte Independence and UNC-Greensboro, and his message to current ECNL players.
Dean Linke: Let’s start with the honor of being named the ECNL National Player of the Year. Obviously you made some great memories with the Charlotte Independence this past year. What does this award mean to you?
Joey Skinner: It means a lot to me, because it shows all the work that I put in throughout the years. And it’s been a lot of work. Three years ago, I wasn’t getting much playing time on my team. And to now see that I’m Player of the Year, it’s kind of crazy. Just a lot of hard work, every day and night.
DL: You’re not too far removed from winning that ECNL National Championship with the Charlotte Independence. What was the road like, reaching the playoffs and then ultimately raising the trophy?
JS: Yeah, it was a crazy start. For the U19s, it was four games, single-elimination. Our first game was against PDA, and we end up tying them 4-4 and went to penalties. Our goalkeeper came up big and made a couple big saves at the end. He got us that win. Then we went on to play Real So Cal, who was one of the top seeds and we end up beating them 1-0. That was a really great defensive performance by us. In the semifinals, we played FSA from Connecticut. We had a strong start, we went up 3-0 at the half and ended up winning that game 5-1. Really dominating performance for a semifinal on a national level. And in the final, we played San Diego Surf; they were a great team. They were definitely the best team we played. And we ended up beating them 1-0 on a goal right before halftime. I’ll never forget those moments after the final whistle, just hugging my teammates, hugging my coaches. It was great to celebrate after all the work we’ve been putting in over the years, because our goal was to win a national championship that year and that’s what we did, so I’m just really proud of the guys.
DL: Taking a step back, when did you start playing soccer? Has soccer always been your favorite sport?
JS: I started playing soccer since before I can remember, I had to be three or four. I’ve grown to really love this game. When I first found out I really loved the game, it was when I was a sophomore in high school. That year, I was not playing. I played maybe 40 minutes for the first half of the season. I didn’t want to play anymore; I was thinking about quitting. But then I just decided to start working outside of practices and games, and because of that, I started getting a little more minutes. Then I became a starter and started playing every game, for the whole game. I started falling in love with the sport because of the competitiveness and just wanting to win and be with my teammates. Once that happened, I started falling in love with the game.
DL: Your story is one of resilience. You thought about quitting and stepping away from the game. What was the tipping point that sparked the fire again and made you stick with it?
JS: Honestly, it was my dad. He asked me, “Do you want to go down a level? Do you want to just play club?” And I said, “Honestly, I don’t know.” But eventually, I said no because I still thought that I could do it, that I could get better. And he always told me, “Stay hungry and humble.” And I just try to live by that every day. Because there’s always room for improvement. And so I won ECNL National Player of the Year, but I still can get better every single day. And to stay humble because I know what it’s like not to play.
DL: What was the recruiting process like for you? You had this breakout season in the ECNL last year, did you commit before the year started?
JS: My recruitment process was very quick. I committed my junior year in September. My brother was already here at UNCG and my thing was, I just really wanted to play with him. For my whole life, I’ve always wanted to play competitively with him. And then Chris Rich, he was named the head coach a month or two before I committed. And he was just telling me, “I’m going lead this program and we’re gonna make it something very special. You’re gonna help me do this.” I bought into it and so far, it’s been exactly what he said. I’m very happy where I ended up.
DL: What was the ECNL structure and competition level like? How did ECNL help you get to where you are today?
JS: The ECNL is a really competitive league day in and day out. Every weekend, we played tough teams, ones you have to grind it out to get a win. There’s a lot of competition, especially at playoffs. Just those four games at playoffs, I gained so much experience playing against all those great players. In the ECNL, that’s where you’re going to find the best competition. And you’re just going to become a better player by playing all these great teams and their players and coaches.
DL: What about your coaches, how did they play a role in your development?
JS: My high school coach, he always believed in me, and he told me that too. He always told me to wait for my opportunity, and whenever I get my chance, to take full advantage of it. That’s exactly what I did when he gave me the chance. When I committed, he told me, “I’m really proud of you. The way you came up through this team, it’s inspiring, especially for the younger players.”
And then our coach this past year when we won the championship with Charlotte, Jeff Bilyk. The guy’s class; I love Jeff Bilyk. I feel like he truly believes in every single one of the players on his team. I loved his training sessions. A lot of coaches’ training sessions are real tactical, but he just let us play most of the time. Honestly, I think it made me and my teammates better by playing against each other, because you’re playing against your friends. You don’t want to lose, because if you do, they’re going to talk trash to you and you don’t want that happening. It just made us all better. I owe a lot to him for making me a better player over the last two years, making all of us better players. He’s a great coach.
DL: Your mentioned Chris Rich earlier, and I’m a huge fan of his. I know he’s proud of you winning the ECNL National Player of the Year. He said to me, and this is a direct quote, “Joey is very deserving of this award. He had an incredible senior year with Charlotte Independence, which was capped off by winning a National Championship. We are extremely excited to have a player of Joey’s caliber here at UNC-Greensboro. He’s off to a great start. And we’re very excited to see what he can accomplish here in Greensboro.” When you hear a guy like Chris Rich talk about you like that, what’s going through your head?
JS: It’s a real honor to have a coach of his caliber say something like that to me. But he’s been saying things like that since I started the recruiting process. He’s told me, “I really believe in you. I believe you can do great things here. Just keep grinding.” Winning a national championship, that was crazy for our team, for Charlotte Independence. But I just kept on going to my goal, which was getting to UNC-Greensboro. And he’d always tell me, “I’m going to bring this program back to where it should be.” And now, we’re bringing in all these great players, and everything he’s said so far has come true. Our team just knocked off the No. 2 in the country in Clemson. We have a lot of great players around us and I think this team is really starting to shine. It’s great to be playing under a head coach like Chris Rich. He’s awesome.
DL: Finally, what is your message to the younger ECNL players, particularly knowing what you went through during your youth career?
JS: My message is to never give up. No matter how hard it may seem sometimes, like if you were like me and not playing at all, just never give up and stay determined to get better. I wanted to quit. But there was something inside me, saying never give up, never be doubtful. My dad helped me too and told me, “You want to get better? You have to go out and do it by yourself.” And he was right. Training sessions from coaches will make you better, but if you really want to get to the next level, you have to go out, when there’s no one else out there, and you have to do the work. I started doing that my junior and senior years, and it helped me for the better. That’s my message for future ECNL players.