North Carolina FC see new youth partnership as leg up in MLS expansion race

Carolina RailHawks/North Carolina FC celebrate - For NCFC expansion piece

MLS expansion hopeful North Carolina FC made a move on Friday that they hope will give them a leg up in the chase to become one of MLS’s newest teams, announcing that they’ve partnered with Raleigh-area youth clubs Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) and Triangle Futbol Club Alliance (TFCA) to become what they claim is the largest youth-to-professional soccer club in the US.

As part of the partnership, both CASL and TFCA will re-brand as North Carolina FC Youth. All 13,500 players in the CASL and TFCA systems and every coach at both of the clubs will automatically become a member of North Carolina FC, growing the club’s membership to over 20,000.

North Carolina FC, which re-branded from their old Carolina RailHawks moniker in December and currently play in the NASL, was one of 12 groups to submit an expansion application to MLS at the end of January. The league will eventually select four new expansion teams from the group of 12 candidates, with two expansion teams scheduled to be announced later in 2017.

“We’re the only expansion candidate that can boast anything near this,” North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview ahead of Friday’s announcement. “It’s critical to the long-term success of a franchise to be able to have that community support and also the youth development [aspect]. To have both of those come together, I absolutely think it differentiates us.”

Both CASL and TFCA offer programs for players of all ages and skill levels, starting with recreational leagues for 4- and 5-year-olds and building up to teams that compete in the US Soccer Development Academy, the highest level of youth soccer in the country. The clubs, which have 61 years of combined history, are both entrenched in the Triangle and have each produced several MLS players.

Malik said that NCFC, CASL and TFCA plan on leveraging their partnership to build new soccer facilities in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metro area and to improve player identification and development. He’s also anticipating the partnership will lead to increased awareness for NCFC, which averaged 5,058 fans per match last year, and its newly relocated NWSL team, North Carolina Courage.

“We think that it’s going to be a boon to our club,” he said. “You go out to any of these fields and the complexes in the area and you’ll see hundreds, thousands, literally thousands, of kids wearing our jersey and being part of the club. We’re planning on doing everything we can to embrace those members and their parents.”

Of course, in order for North Carolina FC to fulfill its MLS expansion dreams, the youth partnership will eventually need to be coupled with a plan for a new stadium.

The club currently plays at the 10,000-capacity WakeMed Soccer Park in suburban Cary, a venue that’s solid for NASL and NWSL, but one Malik knows won’t be suitable for MLS. He’s working to find NCFC a new home, hiring Gensler, an architectural firm based in Washington, D.C. that designed LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium, to design NCFC’s venue. They’ve already produced a rendering of the potential stadium, though it has not yet been publicly released.

Malik said that the building will seat 22,000 and will be expandable to 28,000. He plans on funding construction of the stadium with a group of potential partners, and will likely seek public funding for infrastructure like road improvements and parking.

The club is looking at three potential sites for the stadium. One is upgrading WakeMed. Malik would not reveal the other two alternatives, but reiterated past comments that the club is considering an urban option and another that is near a major highway.

“There are a lot of different municipalities and people that want to participate in this and I think [Friday’s announcement] will even further stoke those desires, but we’re not at a point where we’re ready to talk about specifics,” he said.

“I can tell you we’re working really hard at it and it’s nice to have options. We have put together a rendering and we absolutely have plans. I’ve said we’d have rolling thunder, we’d have a series of announcements, here’s another one. I do think this is one that’s so significant, that getting it out there is something we would certainly do prior to talking about the stadium.”