Building a Club, Making Dreams Come True
(Photo: Penka Antista)
by Shawn Flynn
“It is very exciting and I'm looking forward to the opportunity. It is one of my dreams to play for an MLS team,” said Emmanuel Livingston.
Emmanuel is one of the 32 players signed so far by the Charlotte MLS Academy team. His short and long-term goals are clear.
“Being able to take advantage of this opportunity to develop my soccer skills and abilities,” said Emmanuel. He adds that his long-term goal is to head over to the German Bundesliga to play for perennial powerhouses Bayern Munich or Dortmund (BVB).
His parents are proud of Emmanuel taking this first step towards his eventual goals.
“We are proud and enthused that Emmanuel is an active participant in making history as one of the first candidates of the Charlotte MLS Academy. It's an experience that he will remember the rest of his life and it’s a stepping-stone to where he sees himself in the future,” said Sharon and Eddie Livingston.
The new “academy” structure
The U.S. Soccer Federation terminated its development academy in March. Since then, MLS has added 95 clubs to its own elite academy program. There are several other professional development programs, including one started by the United Soccer League (USL), the league where the Charlotte Independence plays. Charlotte MLS is the only club to play in the MLS academy program in the Carolinas.
(Graphic courtesy of MLS. This is the list of clubs participating in the MLS Youth Elite Development Platform. Graphic designers apparently struggled with the location of Charlotte.)
Charlotte MLS is fielding two full time teams. A U-14 team will be filled with the “very best” players born in 2007-2008. Players born between 2004-2006 will fill the U-17 elite team.
These teams will train four nights a week and represent Charlotte MLS Academy on weekend games in Major League Soccer’s Elite Player Development Platform (EPDP).
Additionally, the U-17 team will also compete in the MLS Generation Adidas Cup. This lauded competition is exclusive to MLS academies in the US and includes professional international opponents.
The Charlotte Discovery Program allows select players from U-12 and U-13 to train two days a week with the MLS Academy and then return to their club teams for training and games.
“USDA was a great platform for many years,” said Charlotte MLS Academy Manager Dan Lock. “MLS had to really stand up and take over in that field. They’ve done a tremendous job in a short amount of time. It’s going to provide the top teams and top clubs with a high level of competition.”
Lock moved to Charlotte and started his new position in March. He’s excited about building this club from scratch.
“To start building our culture, it’s a unique situation. How often do you get to start a club from nothing?” said Lock. “Look at all the other clubs in the world. They have hundreds of years of history. We’re in an incredibly unique situation starting fan groups and an academy before we even have a team.”
That’s one of the reasons fans are seeing signings of these youth academy players on the Charlotte MLS social media channels.
“It’s important for us to involve the young players in that. They’re part of this history. For the fans to see that and know that. Some of the messages from the fans on the announcements have been excited. We felt it was important to do that to get that excitement going.”
Lock says the goal of the Academy is to get two homegrown players on the first team roster each year from 2022 onwards.
“Friendly” competition for the region’s best players
“We’re excited about MLS being in town,” said Brad Wylde, Executive Director of Charlotte Soccer Academy. “We want them to use us and be a resource for us. We will 100% support the program.”
After the collapse of the USDA earlier this year, soccer programs scrambled to find a league, including CSA.
“For them to throw that our way was a real kick in the teeth and a real PR issue for them. Our girls’ teams are already picked,” said Wylde. “All of the sudden, the worst kept secret is out there, the Federation sent us the ‘Dear John’ letter and it was like a grenade in the lap.”
Leagues basically had a two to three-day period to find a choose a new high-level competitive league.
“It put us in a spiral,” said Wylde. “Since we’re as large as we are, we had a large number of invitations, including the MLS and ECNL (Elite Clubs National League).”
CSA chose to bring both its girls’ and boys’ programs to the ECNL.
“It was an easier move for us knowing we had a league in place already. On the girls’ side it’s very formidable. We know what these leagues are about. Let’s just move the programs full-time into there (ECNL) as opposed to going into an unknown with the MLS league.”
Wylde believes joining the ECNL will be even better for the teams and players as they compete for national championships. The competition level will remain high, but it involves much less traveling, especially on planes.
Just because they’re not playing in the same elite league does not mean there’s not a very close connection between CSA and the Charlotte MLS Academy. More than a third of the players signed by the MLS Academy team come from CSA.
“100% pride,” exclaimed Wylde. “We would never stop and hold a player back. If there’s an opportunity for them to go to the Charlotte MLS club, then go for that. We’re developing players the right way and the MLS team sees that. I know we’re the most represented club on their roster. I know it’s a bit of a pain losing some of our good players, but hopefully one or two of those guys move on to bigger and better things.”
Still, just because CSA is developing some of the younger talent for the MLS squad, it doesn’t mean there’s not some competition there.
“We’ve got some very, very good players in our program. We think we can compete for national championships. Yeah, we want to play them. We probably don’t want to beat them because they’ll take more of our players,” joked Wylde.
A Carolinas “national” team
Lock and his colleagues have deep roots in European soccer and see some similarities in terms of the region.
“If you’re talking the Carolinas, it’s 16 million people. Land mass the size of England. Bigger than many European countries. It’s almost like a national team from the Carolinas. It’s crazy,” Lock said.
While land mass of the Carolinas is equivalent to England, the Brits population is about four times as big. Still, England supports 92 professional soccer clubs. That’s why Lock expects there to be more than enough elite players for all of these clubs to succeed.
“The help we’ve had from all those clubs so far has been fantastic,” said Lock. “We’ll look to play friendly games with other local teams.”
Another one of those CSA players selected to the MLS squad is Alec Antista, who will suit up for the U14 team.
“It is exciting to have been selected and I am looking forward to the first season,” said Alec. “I am mostly looking forward to the coaching experience and being able to play with the new team."
Being selected for the team is not just about the player, but his entire family who made many sacrifices, time and monetary, to help them make it to this level.
“We were super excited for Alec and very proud that he was selected,” said his parents, Bob and Penka Antista. “He loves the game and has worked hard to improve his skills to the point that he was among those considered for the Charlotte MLS Academy Team.”
For the new MLS Academy teams, it's not only about scoring goals on the pitch, but achieving life-long goals as well.
“First and foremost, we encourage Alec to grow as a person as he continues to pursue his dreams and interest. We would love to see him achieve his dream and play for our Charlotte MLS First team or even abroad,” said the Antistas.
Just six months in, Charlotte MLS is already helping young athletes build their dreams for the future while developing its young squad.