Commentary

North Carolina FC's Curt Johnson on building a sustainable youth-to-pro club, U.S. Soccer's opportunity and slowing the youth train down

Curt Johnson played at N.C. State in 1987-90 when it was one of the most exciting teams in college soccer before embarking on a career as a soccer executive that has taken him to adidas, the Richmond Kickers, Kansas City Wizards, U.S. Club Soccer, and his current job as president of North Carolina FC.

Last year, NCFC purchased NWSL operating rights to the Western New York Flash and renamed it North Carolina Courage. The club recently formed an extensive partnership with local youth clubs Capital Area Soccer Leagues (CASL) and Triangle Futbol Club Alliance (TFCA).

Representing Raleigh-Durham, NCFC submitted an expansion bid to MLS, which on Wednesday announced a list of four finalists for the next two expansion slots. Raleigh-Durham was not one of the four finalists and remains in contention for the next phase of expansion by which two more teams will added. The club is working on a downtown entertainment project that includes a stadium to house an MLS team.

North Carolina FC is moving from the NASL to the USL and in light of on-going litigation involving U.S. Soccer and the NASL, he declined comment on any aspect of the NASL, its operations or the legal disputes. Johnson, 48, was born in Raleigh and played as a youth for CASL teams.


 
SOCCER AMERICA: What were the driving forces behind the partnership with two youth clubs and what benefits do you see?

CURT JOHNSON: We kind of mirror a lot of the country. I experienced it in Kansas City and Richmond. In many of these markets, youth soccer is the most stable, long-term entity in the marketplace. When we all started to plop teams into the marketplaces, especially in the early 2000s when a lot of these clubs like CASL were highly successful and functioning very well, there’s just a natural rub that takes place.

There have been a lot of different methods to how that is resolved. Some of it has been by force and some of it has been collaborative. We’ve been working very hard for a number of years to figure out how to pool the resources and build upon the best practices and how we create the strongest possible club we can possibly have.

We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to execute the collaboration after many years of discussion. We have a multi-decade, ongoing agreement and the largest youth-to-pro soccer club in the country. Even with that, we’re just scratching the surface of the sport.
 
SA: Two years ago, Steve Malik took over ownership of the Carolina RailHawks and started this transformation. How did he sow the seeds of this collaboration that includes the men’s and women’s pro teams as well thousands of youth players?

CURT JOHNSON: When Steve came in, he said, ‘Let’s go to the community, let’s hear what they have to say.’ As you would imagine everybody wants the highest level of soccer and they want a club that’s stable and they can be proud of.

So we re-branded [as] North Carolina FC. The colors are all about the state of North Carolina. We went after NWSL very aggressively and that happened much faster than we thought it would with the purchase of the Western New York Flash, which has been fantastic. You can’t have a true soccer club, a cradle-to-grave club, without a pro women’s team.

You also can’t have a true soccer club without a strong youth component. CASL is one of the most respected brand and leagues and clubs in the country. And yet they were just scratching the surface of what they could do from a participation standpoint, from the standpoint of resources for financially challenged families and from an elite player development standpoint.

We’ve got one of the largest academies in the country both male and female. We have 13,500 youth players under the North Carolina FC brand. The adult teams have a couple of thousand players and are building their own facility
 
SA: Why did you decide to form this partnership rather than start up your own youth component?

CURT JOHNSON: In this market there was no reason for us to start our own, when you have one of the most built-out youth clubs in the country.

So fortunately we were able to do that. In some markets, it hasn’t been possible and I totally get that. But I think that’s one of the things that’s holding back our country. We don’t have an across-the-board, buy-in to do what’s best for soccer in the communities, because of a very important reason; a lot of people’s livelihoods depend on it, and they haven’t figured out a way to protect their livelihoods.
 
SA: That is a very important issue, given all the money that flows through the big clubs and the state associations. How did you address it?

CURT JOHNSON: One of the fundamental pieces we did -- and I think [CASL CEO] Gary Buete did a fantastic job -- was in the merger and collaboration. All the talented guys at TFCA like Henry Gutierrez and Pete Sadin -- who's been with TFC for decades -- and Marlow Campbell, all former players who were coaching and help run the clubs, they all had jobs as well in this new order.

That was the only way it was going to get done. Fortunately, it worked out for us, but I completely understand that in certain communities that has just not been possible.
 
SA: In most cases it has been hard if not impossible for pro clubs in the U.S. to form strong alliances with local youth and adult leagues and clubs. What factors have inhibited this process?

CURT JOHNSON: It was difficult and part of the reason it was difficult is that people like me weren’t going with the right message. It wasn’t nefarious or malicious, it was just that we went with our hand out too much. “How can you help us sell tickets and we’ll do some player appearances,” instead of, “How do we grow the game? How do we help you get more fields built?”

Some other things had to happen. We in professional soccer had to become stable, and some of us still aren’t. We had to show we were in it for the long haul and had owners who were in it for the long haul and shared a vision. These are the key things that have helped us get over the hump and truly work together.

There had to be a permanence around pro soccer, a seriousness, a professionalism. We had to prove that was real. Kansas City went through the same thing and so did Richmond. Some of it is just a natural process that had to happen and we tried to force it for many years. We had pockets of success, certainly, where there were good stories and partnerships. We had over 20 youth soccer partnerships in some way, shape or form.

But to truly reach our potential -- to win a World Cup, to have an FC Dallas model where they’re developing a lot of young players -- you’ve got to have a youth-to-pro model.


 Photo courtesy of Miami FC.

SA: Until the launch of MLS in 1996, the track record of pro teams and leagues in this country ranged from modest success to crashing failure, whereas youth soccer has been expanding for the past few decades. When did the pro divisions start to instill confidence rather than caution?

CURT JOHNSON: What was the tipping point? I think it’s been different in every marketplace, first of all, but I think somewhere when that third or fourth or fifth soccer-specific stadium was built, we could all -- whether we were in Raleigh or Kansas City -- turn to it and say, ‘Look, it’s not going away.’

The building of soccer-specific facilities in each of our markets was probably that moment when most rational people in the soccer world -- who were kind of protecting their fiefdoms and didn’t even want to enter into a discussion -- began to think, ‘Yeah, I’ve really got to figure out a way to work with them.’
 
SA: How can pro clubs help U.S. Soccer tackle that enormous problem of reaching deeper into the Hispanic communities that do not register their players and teams?

CURT JOHNSON: We need to be better listeners. We need some experts and possibly a separate arm or task force of the federation to go into the markets in collaboration with the clubs and have a dialogue about where the shortcomings are and why the Latino leagues don’t see positives of registering into the U.S. Soccer system.

I’m sure we’ve done that in pockets but we obviously haven’t solved the problem. We’ve got to listen first, understand it, and then address it. If we don’t address it, we can’t expect change to happen.
 
SA: So you think there needs to be U.S. Soccer committee or task force devoted exclusively to this issue?

CURT JOHNSON: Absolutely. I would advocate for more resources to be put into understanding the challenges, because the challenges may be different on the East Coast than they are on the West Coast. We have to make sure we understand where the problems exist. It’s a big country. Then we have to collaboratively solve the problems.

If the local [Latino] clubs aren’t able to do it with the governing body, it’s going to be hard to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Obviously, this is a big project, but it’s a worthwhile project and one of the key things. If you rank the top five to 10 ways we get better as a soccer country in every area, this is certainly a big part of that.
 
SA: The federation has a lot on is plate in the wake of failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and a presidential election coming up. What are the major issues Sunil Gulati or his successor need to address in the short-term?

CURT JOHNSON: An assessment of structure and priorities. We have a real opportunity over the next year, let’s say, to assess the structure of U.S. Soccer as well as how it impacts the other levels of soccer and decide whether that’s the way forward. That’s one of the first things that has to be done.

From that come the priorities. What are the priorities on the technical side, what are the priorities on the youth side, what are our priorities on the business side? It’s seems simplistic but it’s our opportunity to take a step back and -- like in the John Wooden phrase -- ‘Be quick but don’t hurry.’  This needs to be urgent but we can’t hurry through the process and sweep things under the rug.

Sunil and [CEO and secretary-general] Dan Flynn have done a fantastic job over many decades of service to soccer in this country, there’s no doubt about it. This is clearly a crossroads moment for how we as country maintain their best practices and maintain their positive influence while at the same time inserting new ideas into the equation.
  
SA: Regardless of changes in structure or personnel, what is the central theme for the federation going forward regarding youth soccer and player development?

CURT JOHNSON: Just the amount of games, of events, and who ultimately is in charge of overseeing all of this?

This is where the Development Academy has been right, I think, because it gives a lot of structure where it’s needed. That’s been really good. I think they have some challenges, obviously, with the amount of travel that needs to be done in certain regions. We can poke holes in it all we want but it was necessary.

We need to evolve and tweak it, that’s for sure. They’re executing a plan and it’s not perfect but it’s positive.

When you look at the players playing at a high level outside the Development Academy and in the more general landscape with USYS events, U.S. Club Events, Showcase events, you quickly realize again it’s out of control.

It’s out of control from a scheduling standpoint, it’s out of control from a financial standpoint for the families, and it’s not a good player-development model. So I think that the leaders of USYSA, the leaders of U.S. Club, and the leaders of the state associations have got to come together – under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer – and rein in the out-of-control nature of the soccer calendar.

[U.S. Soccer] in the past has let people and the organizations decide themselves. That’s been the mantra and we’ve got to start putting some controls in place that would have a ripple effect on cost, commitment, travel, and burden on the youth clubs, which are holding us back in this country.

We can be leaders in keeping costs low at the recreational level as well as making it more accessible for financially challenged families. We need to be better at that and make it a priority. Having said that, it can’t be just the clubs that are doing it. A lot of clubs don’t have the wherewithal to raise money to help lower costs.

We need U.S. Soccer to help regulate the events and the cash outlay, to put in some parameters to slow this train down, so that average-to-lower-income families can participate.

2 comments about "North Carolina FC's Curt Johnson on building a sustainable youth-to-pro club, U.S. Soccer's opportunity and slowing the youth train down".
  1. Ric Fonseca, December 4, 2017 at 10:13 p.m.

    Ay dios mio!!!  Wow and gee wilikers, and I do deeeclare!!!  So now we have Mr. R. Mahoney asking if US Soccer ought to have a committee to address the "Latino/Hispanic" issue on a national level!?!?!?!  Hijole, Batman, this is E-X-A-C-T-L-Y what many of us in our communities have been saying i.e. the unaffiliation factor. My answer to this is to provide the effing information IN Espanol, and speak of the virtues and benefits of affiliating, and if necessary have the same information in other languages!!! Jeez, know what people can bang their heads against the wall so many times before will say, a la fregada con todo esto!!!

  2. Craig Cummings, December 6, 2017 at 12:30 a.m.

    whats that mean in English Ric?.just asking for us Gringos.

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