Several times a week, you could find Cary resident Abby Hugo on the field working on technical passing and sequencing drills with her North Carolina Football Club U19 NC Courage Academy teammates and coaches. This fall, she’ll head to Columbia, South Carolina, to play at the collegiate level with the University of South Carolina.
“I’ve been playing soccer since I was 4 or 5 years old and have played with NCFC for almost 14 years,” Abby says. “We have some of the best coaches in the country. NCFC feels like a family since we have the opportunity to interact with players at all levels of play.”
NCFC Youth has shaped soccer players from across the Triangle, like Abby, since the early 1970s. Today, it is the largest soccer club in the area, with more than 13,000 players and 800 coaches. NCFC Youth offers recreation, youth academy, challenge, classic, Elite Clubs National League, U.S. Development Academy and community outreach programs.
“We’re a full-service soccer club with programs for all levels,” says Gary Buete, CEO of NCFC Youth. “We’re unique in the country and what most soccer programs aspire to be: a full pathway from youth recreation to elite professionals.”
That pathway creates unique opportunities for the young players to be mentored and encouraged by some of the best players in the nation, Gary says.
“We have professional players who show up to our recreation practices to assist in drills or talk to the kids,” he says. “We even have some of our top youth players regularly practice alongside our professional teams.”
“We had a lot of pros come to our practices, and NC Courage players McCall Zerboni and Jaelene Hinkle have invested their time in speaking to our program,” Abby says. “They’re always happy to answer any questions we have about soccer or life, and it’s great to get the chance to train with some professionals at the highest level of the game.”
Steven Miller has seen the effect of those relationships firsthand. Not only is he a midfielder for the NCFC men’s professional team, but he has also coached an NCFC Classic girls’ team since 2017.
“Our professional players stop by the youth fields at least once a week to say hi to the kids, sign autographs and watch them play,” Steven says. “It really helps give our young players an idea of where they could go if they keep working toward their goals.”
As part of their NCFC Youth membership benefits, all players and coaches have the opportunity to attend one professional game for free to watch the NCFC or NC Courage teams compete. Youth players can participate in on-field experiences during the professional games, such as scrimmaging on the field during halftime or serving as a player companion to escort an NCFC or NC Courage player to the field.
Steven says his experience coaching an NCFC Youth squad has helped him as a player himself.
“Coaching helps me remember what it felt like playing when I was younger,” he says. “Kids live in the present and put everything they have into each game. It helps keep me focused on the present, too.”
Rethinking Coach Education
NCFC Youth offers benefits to more than just its players. The program relies heavily on its coaches, and NCFC is committed to ensuring they are among the best in the nation. While the more elite levels of play have paid professional coaches, NCFC Youth’s recreation program relies on volunteers.
“We work with our coaches to develop specialized practice plans to create the best environment for our players,” Gary says. “NCFC offers coaching courses with our professional staff, both online and in person, that cater specifically to their players’ age groups. We bring in professional educators and also send our coaches out to get state and national coaching licenses. We spend countless hours and money investing in our coaches.”
To Gary, NCFC Youth’s commitment to coaches helps strengthen the entire community.
“Soccer provides so many life lessons in terms of setting goals, working through adversity, learning how to be coachable and more,” he says. “We really focus on these players having more than just soccer skills; we’re teaching them how to be people who make a positive impact on society.”
A Commitment to the Community
The Triangle Business Journal recently honored NCFC Youth with its Corporate Philanthropy award for the organization’s ongoing community support. In the 2017-2018 season alone, NCFC Youth distributed nearly $400,000 in financial aid to families who demonstrated a clear financial need.
Additionally, NCFC Youth partnered with the Durham Police Athletic League as part of an outreach initiative to provide soccer opportunities to underserved populations in the local community. DPAL serves elementary-aged students in the Durham area using sports as a means to promote healthy relationships between children and their community. NCFC Youth provided jerseys, equipment and curriculum support to the Durham Police Department.
Other popular community programs include an after-school program for kids at PAVE and Creech Elementary schools in southeast Raleigh—a historically underserved area of the county—along with TOPSoccer, which is designed to meet the needs of athletes up to age 18 who have physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities. TOPSoccer pairs athletes up with a “buddy” to ensure each athlete learns the game while having fun. Buddies are often NCFC Youth high school players.
“It’s part of our mission to be a valuable community partner, and that is incredibly important to us,” Gary says. “We put our money where our mouth is. We’re truly committed to bringing the game of soccer to everyone who has a desire to play.”