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Charlotte FC's Academy solidifies the foundation of the pro-pathway in year four

By Brian Maurer

Nimfasha Berchimas (left) made his MLS debut against NYCFC (Photo courtesy of Cisco's Art/TopBin90)

Most of the talk surrounding Charlotte FC has been about the hiring of Dean Smith and what his game planning and management have done for the First Team, especially their defense. What has gotten overlooked this year has been the strides the youth academy has made in its fourth season as a pro pathway.

The growth the academy has made will be capped off with the MLS NEXT Cup which starts this weekend. Both of Charlotte’s pro pathway teams (U15 and U17) qualified for the tournament which kicks off on Saturday, June 15. They are one of only 14 MLS clubs to have both teams qualify for the event.

This is also the first year that the academy spent the entire season in one facility. The opening of the Atrium Health Performance Park and the cohesion of having a home base for the entire organization is paying dividends for the academy. 

“Everybody moved here last August, when that happened the daily training environment went through the roof. The number of contact hours we could have the kids, they were going to school here, they’re having breakfast and lunch here, they’re jumping into Crown Legacy, they’re jumping into first team training sessions” explains Charlotte FC Academy Director Bryan Scales. “We now have more guys that are able to get into these environments because everything is proximate, and it's much more aligned than it was before, it’s just what a facility does to club” Scales continues.

The U15s

Charlotte’s U15s have had a really strong season. They qualified for the knockout stages of the Generation Adidas Cup, making them the first group to qualify for the knockout rounds at that level in Charlotte’s young history.

“The U15s, and I’ve seen all the other MLS teams, are one of the best U15 teams, I believe, in MLS NEXT this year,” says Charlotte FC Academy Director Bryan Scales. “They’ve done very very well from a results standpoint, but from a style of play, and how they compete, and the cohesion, and the ideas…they’ve made a ton of progress, it’s been fun to watch that group.”

Against MLS opponents the U15s are 15-3-8 this year. According to Scales, what typically happens is the MLS Academy teams beat up on each other throughout the year. This group only lost eight times to MLS opponents, so from a results standpoint, there are indicators that this group is advanced amongst their MLS peers.

The U15s' first match-up will be a difficult one as they play the LA Galaxy who generally have a strong group. That game is scheduled for later tonight.

“The Southern California market’s probably the top market in the country,” says Scales. The bigger markets tend to have advantages in academy recruiting because of their size. Charlotte’s U15s will have a good test of their growth as a group in a knockout round match-up tomorrow.

The U17s

The U17 season has been a bit more up and down. This is a bit expected as several of their squad have been getting call-ups to the MLS NEXT Pro team, Crown Legacy FC, which can make cohesiveness a bit more challenging at this level. The group has shown perseverance this year, which is also exemplified by qualifying for the NEXT Cup playoffs.

Their First Round match-up is against the Barca Residency Academy tomorrow.

“They started the season pretty well, competitive, gritty…it took a little while for them to get on the same page, from a game model standpoint, and then they started to get it,” says Bryan Scales.

One of the differences between the U15 and U17 groups is that the U17s tend to lose a bit of cohesion throughout the season. This happens because in the springtime U17 players are being brought up to Crown Legacy and First Team training sessions and games more often than the U15s, who typically stay together more giving them a more aligned and consistent environment throughout the year.

“This group…they have the talent, it’s just a matter of what their ceiling is,” says Scales. “Add to that the fact that you’ve got a pretty good ‘09 generation that’s coming through in behind these ‘07s and ‘08s and it's gonna really push those guys.”

The U20s

Charlotte’s U20 team qualified for the UPSL Spring season playoffs and will be playing AC Raleigh later today. This level was added last year as a bridge between the U17 pro pathway and the professional level.

The academy-to-Pro pathway is solidifying

Charlotte’s academy growth this year is most evident in how many players are getting opportunities at the NEXT Pro level with Crown Legacy FC.

So far, eight players from Charlotte’s academy have earned MLS NEXT Pro minutes in 2024 (2,260 total minutes played by academy players with nine-goal contributions). Midfielder, Aron John, currently leads Crown Legacy in goals (4) and goal contributions (7). John was Charlotte FC’s inaugural Academy Player of the Year last season.

“We’ve seen him for the last two and a half years,” says Scales “[John]’s one of those guys that you have to watch him every single day to realize that his strength is the consistency of his performances, he showed every single day.”

“He’s a smart player, number one, he’s not physically overpowering, he’s not super athletic, but he’s got a really good soccer brain, and he’s very very competitive with terrific training habits” continues Scales. “He reminds me a lot of this kid Scott Caldwell that came out of our academy in New England, that played for the Revolution and played in MLS for like 12 years. He’s just one of those guys that's there every single day that you can count on and helps make the team better.”

In February, Nimfasha Berchimas became the first Charlotte academy homegrown to earn MLS minutes. He has been getting regular playing time with Crown Legacy and recently got his first call-up to the USYNT U19s where he provided an assist in a friendly against Argentina.

Here is a list of all eight Charlotte FC academy players who have either signed pro contracts or are prospects who have earned minutes with Crown Legacy:

Looking ahead to season five

The Charlotte pro pathway will have a few changes next year. The U20 team will become the U18 team and will be integrated into the MLS NEXT system rather than the UPSL. The U17 level will become a U16 team. The rest of the pathway system should remain the same.

Charlotte’s discovery program U13 team also made it to the finals of the Patterson Cup where they lost on PKs to FC Dallas U13. Charlotte’s U13 team was undefeated in the tournament up to that point.

This U13 group had a successful run, and many of these players will become the 2024/25 U14 group and begin their journeys in Charlotte FCs Academy.

Year-over-year growth

Charlotte FC’s academy has found new levels of success at every level during the 2023/24 season. They have also seen a tremendous increase in the number of prospects given an opportunity at the professional level.

This sets the pathway up for an even greater increase in production in 24/25. The needle that looks set to move the most during year five is the potential for more academy players to earn First Team minutes. An exciting proposition for fans who are eager to shout “He’s one of our own!”