North Carolina FC U23 returned to the South Atlantic Division under the direction of head coach Tom Harris after the league-wide cancellation of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. This marked their fourth season in the USL League Two and was their eighteenth total season of play since the original founding in 2002 as the Raleigh CASL Elite. The 2021 season brought a lot of change to the team’s strategy and focus; but after a rocky start the team found themselves nestled between crosstown rivals Wake FC and Tobacco Road FC in sixth place.
At the start of the year it was announced that North Carolina FC would be self-relegating down to USL League One from the USL Championship, a move that saw a nearly complete roster wipe and separation with head coach Dave Sarachan. Shortly after, it was announced that the NCFC Academy Director John Bradford would be taking over the role. This move caused a cascading effect down the pipeline with an astonishing fifteen academy players being signed to academy contracts with the first team in 2021.
In tandem with the academy signings, the U23 team also adopted a new strategy to the roster. The squad would primarily rely on those fifteen academy contract players, current academy talent, and then a few academy alumni NCAA players. This roster shift was a mix of not being able to bring in college players for training alongside the first team due to the USL1 coronavirus protocols, and a shift to put more of a focus on developing players that the team believes could sign pro contracts with the first team in the future. The strategy was met with mixed results, tallying only ten points across the fourteen matches, but the U23s did show progress as the season went on.
In the long-term, bringing academy players up to the challenge of USL2 will likely pay off as younger players are gaining valuable experience against a difficult slate of competition. The challenge Harris faces heading into 2022 is finding the right balance of experienced college players and academy players.
2021 Highlight Players
Played five games for the U23s while pulling double duty with the first team, where he was featured twenty-six times. With the U23s he scored two goals and netted three with the first team. Quickly a fan favorite for his speed and vision, the team signed Frame to a pro contract in September 2021.
Another academy player that was signed to a pro contract this year after playing double duty with the U23s and first team. Fischer played in almost every game for the U23s this past summer while also featuring for the first team sixteen times, starting in thirteen of those. Fischer has been a standout defensive player, usually lining up in the left center back position.
Holliday rounds out the third of the academy signings and made his presence known to everyone who doesn’t follow the academy or U23s during his start against the Chattanooga Red Wolves with the first team. At only 15 years old at the time Holliday made 13 saves to keep NCFC in the game for as long as possible. Surprisingly Holliday featured for the U23s and the first team only five times for each.
Yeke featured mostly as a super-sub for the U23s in 2021, with a total of six games played and less than three-hundred minutes tallied. During that time he also went on to feature twice with the first team, but for only a few minutes each time. Subah turned a few heads during his brief appearances, which is why it was surprising when Real Monarchs announced in September they had signed him to a pro contract from their academy, having joined back in June.
Marks was one of the first academy contract players for NCFC back in 2016. Since then he has spent every summer with the U23s and training with the first team. George is a regular ACC award winner with the Clemson Tigers where he is set to graduate this month. As he makes his way into the professional ranks I just want to take this time to reflect on his love and dedication to North Carolina FC. Hopefully we will see him between the sticks wearing our badge again one day.