In the last couple of years you may have noticed a culture shift at NCFC. North Carolina FC and NCFC Youth seemed to only be associated by name and the crest on the jersey. Fast forward to 2022 and you do not need to look far to find the integration between NCFC Youth: an organization built for teaching love for the beautiful game at all ages and skill levels and North Carolina FC, a team built for longterm competitiveness at the USL pro levels. This is the NCFC Pathway to the Pros concept at work.
I wanted to learn more about the details behind this huge momentum. To achieve this, I could not think of a better person to talk to than Michael Milazzo. Michael is an Assistant Coach with North Carolina FC, the coach of the NCFC U23 team competing in the USL2 league, and the coach of the NCFC U19 Academy team. During our conversation Michael talks about the C-D-E of soccer and we dream together about how the NCFC soccer culture can eventually lead to a full homegrown Starting XI.
On creating his soccer legacy by coaching
Michael was a collegiate player and talked to me about creating a legacy beyond being a player.
“We always grew up wanting to play the game at the highest level. Many coaches will say to you, we all get to a point where we realize that we’re just not gonna be able to fulfill that ambition—that dream for us to play professionally. And so what is our contribution? My contribution obviously is to give back to the players through coaching and I, early in my career, determined that was gonna be my legacy.
My legacy was always gonna be the players—to help guide and coach young men. If I could help them along the way, that would be my legacy. Like Britton Fischer, for example, seeing these guys come through the system and then achieve their goals and their dreams… Cole Frame, et etcetera, et cetera, et cetera. You know, that was my way of also achieving MY goals. I just did it from a different lens.”
“Seeing these guys come through the system and then achieve their goals and their dreams is my way of achieving my goals…”
The Transition from Academy Player to Pro Player
After spending a number of years at CASL coaching the U14, U16, and U18 Academy teams, Michael formed the Academy program in Richmond, Virginia for what is now known as Richmond United and then moved onto Columbus, Ohio where he became the Academy Director for the Columbus Crew of the MLS. He moved back to the area and re-joined NCFC in 2016. With all this experience at the Academy and professional levels, I asked Michael about the transition from Academy player to Pro player.
“I have bridged the gap between the academy and the professional team, no matter where I’ve been. That’s really important in my coaching pathway because I value the player development model. I really enjoy working with the young aspiring pro players to see if we can reach their goals and dreams.
I think the starting point is once you start to identify that these players have this opportunity and this trajectory to go from U19 youth football into senior football. So we’ll take that step, right? The demands at League Two for those players are greater than U19 at any level because they move into men’s football.
From my point of view, everything is related to time and space. Any good coach will tell you that. It’s a very broad stroke. To step into Sahlen’s Stadium and play at the League One level, no matter how many minutes it is—the adaptation that is necessary is purely psychological, the cognitive development of the player and, how we navigate that or how I’ve tried my best to navigate that is to get these guys thinking about football at a greater cognitive speed.
There are different speeds. You have physical speed, you have technical speed, and cognitive. If we just use those three to talk about, Caden (Tolentino) can use his quickness, right. But Caden maybe doesn’t have the same technical speed that Drew Kerr does. But what he does have is the ability to read the game.
It’s cognitive speed. Caden at the U19 level has to be challenged to be in the right place at the right time, ALWAYS. Because when he goes to Sahlen Stadium and John (Head Coach John Bradford) brings him on for the last 10 minutes against Chattanooga, he has to already know where to be before it even happens. Navigating that road is a challenge. It’s not linear—it’s a nonlinear path. This goal is the player’s ability to grasp concepts and to be huge students of the game.
Let’s talk about Jonathan Cisneros, for example. Here’s a young man that had a good U17 career last year and played all the time. He’s my utility knife. Jonathan can play in three or four different spots. Jonathan had a really solid and consistent under 19 season. Now he’s taking that next jump. He’s not part of that core academy contracted group so he doesn’t have the exposure that Caden and Drew have, for example. From a case study standpoint, you talk about a type of person who can go into a new environment and adapt immediately. You have this talent, but it’s your ability to adapt in relationship to reading of the game: this is the cognitive speed. Then it is recognizing I have less time on the ball and less space on the ball and I better be able to execute that decision.“
Evaluating soccer with C-D-E and the NCFC Soccer Culture.
I asked Michael how they evaluate players to determine their readiness to transition from Academy to Pro.
“There is the C, D, and E when you evaluate football:
“C” stands for communication. And that’s basically the player’s ability to read the game. Their football intelligence.
“D” stands for decision making. Can they make the decision at the right time and the right moment in the game, based on the information that they have taken on, which was capital C.
“E” stands for execution. The execution of that decision.
So what are the differences between the players that are ready and the ones that aren’t?
“All these boys can execute the decision. Why? Because they have more time and space. Do they have the capacity? Are they students of the game? Can they read the game? (Capital C). Those of them that are the U19s that are transitioned well into the 23s and League One, have the capacity to take on information with their eyes. They are communicating with their surroundings, and then they’re able to go back to that cognitive speed process, process that information as quick as possible, and then decide what they want to do in that moment of the game. This is based on their position, the direction, the speed in which the ball is being played, or they’re gonna receive the ball and then they execute and everything I just described to you, is in a split second.”
Michael went on to explain that even though the U23s do not train together, they play cohesively due to the foundation of C-D-E that was established when they were in the Academy.
“…the college guys, Colton Pleasants, Dylan Lane and Robert Screen. Those references that we’re using now were created three years ago when they were training with their academy teams. They come back every summer and they immerse themselves in the NCFC football culture. All coaches have individual styles but for us, the foundation is still the same. The foundation is the C D and E: the foundation is the football actions and the training throughout the years within the academy infrastructure, which allows them to come together now and be successful.”
On Nico Rincon and the importance of Pecka
Newcomer to the club, Nico Rincon, plays on the NCFC Academy U19, the U23, AND has seen some minutes in the USL1 team. While his talent is very apparent on the field, Michael also gives credit to another NCFC player for Nico’s early success.
“Nico Rincon is an anomaly. Because he’s just a footballer. But you have to put the right people around him. Pecka has been instrumental to Nico Rincon. Because of his influence with him on the everyday environment at the Pro Team level. And then when Nico comes in and plays games with the 19s or 23s, the personal relationship that they’ve built: the player to player relationship. And now the coach player relationship. All you have to do with Nico is you just have to put him in a situation on the field where he can express himself. But most importantly, you have to put the right people around him.”
The Athletic Bilbao Model
I asked Michael about the dream of eventually putting an entire Starting XI made up of homegrown talent on the pitch of Sahlen’s Stadium. He immediately made reference to another club’s mission.
“That’s the dream, right? I think in a romantic viewpoint, clubs that have put so much emphasis into their youth to pro pathway and put so much stock in the academy, that’s the dream. Two examples come to mind. Obviously Barcelona is an amazing example, but the other example that we’ve talk about as a starting point, is Athletic Bilbao. They won’t bring in any players outside the Basque region because they want them to understand their culture. And what it means to play for Bilbao. And we have a small version of that going on right now.”
“I think we have the ability to do it. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take. It’s very difficult to put your finger on. Is it a three year project? A five year project? The kids take so many different paths. I think they’re gonna intersect at some point in time. Could we have 11 guys on the field that have all come through the academy? Yeah. “
If you haven’t made it out to a U23 game yet, you are missing out. This core group of guys are the future of the club and the foundation that is building and strengthening because of this system is palpable.
“I came back here and Cristian (Note: Michael’s son and current NCFC Academy Player) at the time was 12 years old. I know, you know, these guys: Caden Tolentino, Sam Terranova, Drew Kerr, John McDowell, Cristian Milazzo, Brendan Lambe who’s with Atlanta United, all those guys were in the U12 academy team that year. I had an amazing year one. And we had a great time.
This has been such a rewarding year because every single one of these guys that are stepping foot on the pitch for the League Two games have come through the academy program and I’ve been so fortunate enough to have a chance to interact with them and work with them and develop that player/coach relationship.
We’ve got a core group of U19s that are the foundation. They all play together. They know each other inside and out. I referenced six boys that have played together since they were 12. I think that’s an also real important variable. And then you begin to plug in these special players, Colton Pleasants is a special player. Jake Shannon is a special player and he just came in a year and a half ago. And so you begin to build this foundation over time.
The average age consistently from game one to whatever game we’re on now for the U23s is 18.38. Other coaches identify and recognize that we’ve not only have been competitive on the field, but they’ve identified that we were the better side in the way we play the game.
Playing for 2 things: your fans and 3 points.
I asked Michael about balancing the ability to give Academy players important professional experience and winning with the most senior team on the roster.
“Let’s say John rolls out eight academy guys and supplements it with three senior pros and we lose four-nil. If you put your academy hat on, or your romantic rose-colored glasses, and you think, man, isn’t this amazing? We are in a result oriented business. And we are also in the business of entertainment. You have to win and you have to play in an attractive way and in a way that is entertaining and then make sure that the fans are willing to come because they’re supporting a winning team while being entertained! Not just the first time, but the second time. So it is that balance. I think we can get there.
You play for two things, you play for your supporters and you play for three points. Three points isn’t tangible. You can’t feel it, you can’t touch it. What is three points? But when you start playing for people, the fans and the supporters that could be a supporters group? Now that’s tangible. You can actually reach out and high five them. You can see their emotion on their face and you can see the way they act when they score. So I think it’s important to win those supporters groups.
And you know what’s a real shame? Is the Cardinal Collective they’ve dissolved. When the Cardinal Collective were there? I was like, this is so cool. This is what we need. On the pitch with these academy and U23 players: they might not be household names, but they’re connected to the community. And these kids sacrifice so much. They put in just as much effort, if not more, they deserve all the credit too.“