By Brian Maurer
Nimfasha Berchimas (Photo courtesy of Shots On Frame)
Charlotte FC's Academy just recently began its fourth season. Year three was easily the biggest jump the new program has made. In the last 12 months, the Crown's Academy has had three homegrown signings (Brian Romero, Nimfasha Berchimas, and Jack Neeley). All three have contributed to Charlotte's second team Crown Legacy FC during their inaugural season.
This year also saw six other Academy prospects make their professional debuts with Crown Legacy. This list includes Brando Bedolla, Aron John, Eric Peña-Boardman, Aryeh Miller, Erwin Cruz-Garcia, and Sam Sery.
"It's been huge...our job in the Academy is to prepare these guys to get into the Crown Legacy environment, and Jose [Tavares] and his staff have done a terrific job getting those guys ready for the rigors of professional football," says Academy Director, Bryan Scales, on the addition of Crown Legacy FC to the Charlotte FC pathway.
Graphic courtesy of Charlotte FC
Highlights from 2023
Neeley has been a week-in-week-out starter for Crown Legacy FC all season. He has been the most regularly contributing center back for the MLS NEXT Pro side (19 starts).
This past year has also included Romero helping the USYNT U-17s qualify for the World Cup. The 2023 U-17 World Cup will be held in Indonesia from November 10th to December 2nd. Berchimas joined Romero on a pre-World Cup training camp this past April. Romero appears to be poised to make the World Cup roster later this year.
Brian Romero (Photo courtesy of Shots On Frame)
Nyandjo was given a USYNT U-16 call-up at the beginning of 2023. The young defender was also selected to represent Charlotte FC at the Second Annual MLS NEXT All-Star Game.
"James has been with us for three years now. He has grown, his body's grown, he's a great kid, great personality, loves to defend...He's been with the second team pretty consistently as a 15, 16-year-old kid...it's a huge opportunity for him. He's really taking to it and he's learning, just like all those other guys, what's needed to make it at the next level" says Scales on Nyandjo's rise through the Academy.
James Nyandjo (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC)
To end the 2023 season, the U-17s qualified for the MLS NEXT Cup. This is the tournament to conclude the season. Charlotte beat Toronto in the Round of 32 before losing on penalties against Orlando City in the Round of 16. John stood out as a top performer during the tournament with a highlight reel free kick. He was also given Charlotte FC's inaugural Academy Player of the Year. He had six goals and six assists this past season playing primarily as a box-to-box midfielder.
You can watch John's free kick in this highlight reel, as well as Berchimas' goal.
Looking ahead to 2024
As the 2024 season gets underway, some more improvements have been made to support the program. The biggest change is that Charlotte FC's new training facilities have opened and the Academy players will be getting the opportunity to train in the same place as both pro teams. This will make training more efficient for the Academy kids to get chances with the first and second teams. "It's been a real challenge keeping all of those buckets connected. Crown Legacy's down at Matthews, first team's up here, academy guys were in a building downtown. Our operation will become much more efficient" says Scales. "Now Jose [Tavares] can grab guys if they need...it just pulls guys through the system."
Some of the Academy players live together now as Charlotte FC provides residential housing to help the players grow and build camaraderie together. 15 Academy players use Charlotte FC's residency program. Seven are utilizing the Homestay Program, and eight are using the Residency Houses.
"The club, Zoran [Krneta], Joe [Labue], [David Tepper]...they really put some resources in...including renting two residency houses. So we have two residency houses now that we are able to put players in. Supervised, have them live together, eat together, and train" says Scales. "We put more resources into scouting...the groups we have coming in this year we feel really good about...we've increased our footprint quite a bit over the last 12 months."
The Academy has also had another year to lay the groundwork with the surrounding communities and other local programs. Since Charlotte signed multiple academy players to homegrown contracts the academies that Charlotte recruited these players from receive $10,000 for their help in developing the player as part of the Academy's "Carolina Homegrown Commitment".
Charlotte FC is the only MLS Academy providing this incentive to other local academies.
Academies are areas of soccer whose immediate impact is difficult to recognize by fans. Mostly because academies cannot have an immediate impact. Academy players require years to develop from their youth into professionals. "The first team, they're the iceberg that's above the water, they're seen every week, every day, they're covered. Below the waterline...the Crown Legacy guys, and the Academy, and the scouting, the recruiting, the infrastructure, all of that stuff that is going on behind the scenes to kind of position ourselves for the next three to five years is a really big deal. It's not sexy sometimes to talk about because it's not instantaneous" said Scales.
The investment in the Academy is also challenging to see. One of the better metrics to use for this is homegrown signings. With three homegrown players signed in the past year, Charlotte FC has been one of the most productive academies in MLS during the 2022/23 campaign.
Jack Neeley (Photo courtesy of Shots On Frame)
The next step will be to see if these players can start to contribute regularly at the professional level. These future contributions will help fans see the investments the club has made over the past several years and the impact that that investment can have on the long-term health and stability of a club's roster.
"Brian [Romero], Nimfasha [Berchimas], are in contention to go to the U17 World Cup. That's a big deal. I think right now [Romero] is trying to conquer his world with the second team. And then when Christian [Lattanzio] is ready and Jose [Tavares] is ready, boom, okay now you start getting more chances. I hope in the next year that's going to be the case for a few of these guys." says Scales.
Aidan Morris signed a homegrown contract with the Columbus Crew back in 2020. Now, he is a perennial starter for the Crew and an MLS All-Star. Morris has also earned multiple USMNT call-ups.
If Charlotte sees similar impacts from their homegrown signings then the major investment that has been made will provide long-term promise. Scales believes that the Charlotte FC Academy foundation has been set and the production of the pathway will follow. "If we are doing our job as an Academy, we are developing players of value that can be used at the MLS NEXT Pro level and the MLS level. I think over the next two to five years you're going to see players, very strong players, that are starting to make a real impact at the professional level, from the Carolinas. We want to be a destination for all the top players across the country...We want to be one of the best, and we are just getting off the ground."