by Ryan Bailey

CHARLOTTE — Nine-figure transfer fees are becoming more common in soccer, but some of the biggest teams of the modern era have forged their success from their own academies. 

Manchester United’s famous ‘Class of ‘92’, for example, formed the backbone of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dynasty. The best team of this millennium, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, featured La Masia graduates like Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. And Bayern Munich’s academy has helped them dominate, thanks to homegrown World Cup-winning stars like Toni Kross, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller. 

Charlotte MLS’s newly appointed technical director Marc Nicholls believes the club’s future academy could be equally as fruitful.

“There’s a plethora of really talented players in the region and a great deal who are below the radar and untapped,” Nicholls said.

“And if they can bring through world-class players in Barcelona or Munich, why can’t we do it in Charlotte? We have just as much right as anyone to do that.”

Nicholls, who comes to Charlotte from his role as director of player development with the Seattle Sounders, is responsible for overseeing the inception and development of Charlotte MLS. The development of the academy will form a significant portion of his responsibilities. 

With more than 20 years of experience in player development, scouting, coaching and strategic planning for winning teams, Nicholls has the credentials for success. And he believes Charlotte MLS can create a winning formula through its youth program. 

“We’re all very passionate about producing homegrown players. It brings so many advantages to the club and the community as a whole,” Nicholls said.

“We’re not just having an academy for the sake of it. It will be an integral part of this club.”

The proof of Nicholls’ success during his five-year tenure in Seattle can be found in the conveyor belt of talent he spearheaded. Fifteen of his academy players transitioned to MLS and USL clubs over the past three seasons, while 20 of his players became U.S. youth internationals in the past 12 months alone. 

Nicholls also presided over the Sounders U-17 side that were crowned champions of the 2019 Generation Adidas Champions Division after beating Valencia U17s in the final. No other MLS side has ever reached the final of the international youth tournament.  

In a league where the majority of players are of domestic origin, the benefits of a thriving academy are clear. An academy can unearth a gem who can galvanize support of the fanbase.

“In Seattle, Jordan Morris sold more jerseys than Clint Dempsey,” Nicholls said. “Everyone loves a local player coming through and takes pride in it.” 

Charlotte MLS’s academy will work in conjunction with local youth clubs and will aim to make the most of the region’s burgeoning talent.  

“We’ll be a club of the Carolinas, for the Carolinas. Especially when it comes to building the academy program,” Nicholls said.

“All the ingredients to build a top academy are here. They just need to be mined and polished and put into an environment that gets the best out of them. That’s our goal.”

Nicholls will enjoy the benefit of an established network of contacts and familiarity with the region after spending eight years in senior technical roles in North Carolina. He was a two-time U.S. Soccer Coach of the Year with the North Carolina Fusion and served as technical director for Greensboro United and the Winston-Salem Twins.  

Nicholls’ intimate knowledge of the region increases his desire to make the talent pool as broad as possible. In addition to working with local youth clubs, he’ll look to recruit by less conventional means.

“A lot of the success we had in Seattle was with the Latino community,” Nicholls said. “I believe that those players exist here, too. But you have to go find them. You have to figure out where these players are playing, watch them, and make relationships with them. 

“To do that, you need a lot of tipsters. And I have a lot of contacts in the area already to help with that. Club relationships are important, but it’s also important that we develop our own network. It’ll be our job to see every single player that can play for our club. That’s a big area to cover, but that’s our ambition.”

Youth recruitment is high on Nicholls’ priority list, but he describes his role with Charlotte MLS as “connecting the club and people.” It’is his responsibility to ensure technical departments are aligned, to oversee parts of the hiring process, and to manage partnerships with other clubs.

To use an on-field analogy, Nicholls might be considered as a deep-lying playmaker. In the same way a regista connects defense and attack, advances the transition, and forms the beating heart of a team, Nicholls will ensure all technical departments are pulling in the same direction. He hopes to promote a culture and spirit of togetherness. The best way to do this, Nicholls said, is to develop a clear philosophy that reflects the club’s ambitions, values and environment. 

“It’s about finding the Charlotte way of doing things,” Nicholls continued. “We’ll have an academy and first team that look like Charlotte. 

“What is Charlotte? Well, it’s becoming a progressive, dynamic, fast-paced place of opportunity. The soccer should look reflect that. We want to build a modern club.” 

Not only will Charlotte MLS’s philosophy reflect the direction of the city, but it will also instill a set of values on the staff and players. 

“I want players on the first team who are humble, respectful and hard-working,” Nicholls said. “They should have a sense of community, and at the same time, be extremely ambitious and open to learning. 

“These qualities are important for an academy player, all the way through to a first-team player.” 

An expansion team offers a blank canvas for philosophy, leadership and all aspects of the technical setup. Nicholls relishes the prospect of creating something new, thanks in part to the leadership team that is already in place.   

“Having met David Tepper, Tom Glick and Zoran Krneta, it became apparent pretty quickly there are very good people involved, who have a strong vision in how they want the club to emerge and develop,” Nicholls said. “They have the appetite to succeed and build something special. That was enough for me to be very excited to be involved. 

“It’s a fascinating and unique opportunity for all of us. I’m really convinced that the spirit, togetherness and appetite that everyone has will make Charlotte MLS a success.”