John Bradford has been coaching and working on the technical side of various team levels at NCFC for 16 seasons. He has experienced the pathway for coaching development USL can provide individuals to grow, in addition to the pathway for players. With the movement from USL Championship to League One, NCFC has opened the door to give opportunities to young players at the professional level.
USL Academy sat down with Bradford to discuss his path to coaching at the pro level, and what NCFC has in store to further its development programs.
Question (Q): What's it like being the head coach of the USL League One team, the U-23 League Two technical director and the Academy director?
John Bradford (JB): It’s busy, but I think it's positive in the sense that our club vision and goal is to be able to connect [the academy and senior team] as seamlessly as possible. For us to be able to have my ability to oversee the Academy, talk with staff, see trainings, see games, see how players are performing, and then connect that with a pathway of opportunity for them in terms of our pro environment, I think is ideal. It's as simple as being able to see how players are doing and when a player does well, they come into the pro environment, whether it's gameplay or an amateur contract, or just consistent training opportunities.
Q: How has becoming the head coach of the senior team allowed you to promote the academy and the pathway?
JB: It goes hand in hand with what our club vision is. When we're recruiting professional players outside of our club and putting a roster together, it is important to explain what they are getting themselves into, and knowing that they were going to be immersed and surrounded by a connection with our academy players and younger players and that kind of model. Being able to speak to our players and families from the academy standpoint, [we] let them know that there's a true pathway and an opportunity. And that's continuously evolving.
Comparing when we started this in January - with the announcement of what we were doing with signing 15 Academy guys and moving to USL League One to provide more youth development - to where we are now - having given nine players their professional debuts, and a couple of different guys that have started and done well - and all the statistics that come with it ... [we’re] moving towards signing our first Academy players to real professional contracts. In terms of that pathway, it's evolving, but it's allowing us to promote the academy and have them see the tangible kind of connection that we have.
Q: How has NCFC U-23 team helped the pathway further develop?
JB: It’s another testing ground and an evaluation atmosphere for players. It's a certain block of time that gives you a certain amount of games that you can see these players in. The way that our players are competing in youth league play overlaps in terms of USL League Two, which overlaps in terms of USL League One. Managing where players are going becomes tricky, especially in an environment where we're still dealing with COVID. USL League Two has been a great tool for us to give opportunities because it puts the academy players in an environment, which is predominantly surrounded by college players, [who are] many years older and more experienced. So definitely a good challenging environment for them.
Q: What are the plans for integrating youth players into the First Team environments?
JB: The players have to be evaluated within their own environment first at the academy level. We can use USL League Two as a further kind of evaluation point. This year, in January, when we made the move, we had already identified which players we felt would be capable of coming into the First Team environment and contributing, and who could be on a pro pathway. We bring them into training, treat them just like another member of the team, and they form a teammate relationship with the pro guys. They're totally immersed, they do everything together. There are opportunities in terms of match play where they are treated just like another member of the 18-man roster on any given day.
Q: Is there going to be staff integration from the academy side to the First Team?
JB: Yeah, there already is. I've got a dual role, or triple role if you count USL League Two, but I’m involved in all terms of the youth development on the boys’ side of our club from top to bottom. But our academy staff is also coming into the First Team environment and seeing how our academy players are doing and seeing what the expected standards are for the First Team. They need to be able to be knowledgeable, just know what it looks like, and what it feels like and how players are doing playing so that when they're in the Academy environment, they know what standard we're trying to uphold, and they know what level the players need to be able to be evaluated at.
Specifically, we've got Tom Harris, who's our Assistant Academy Director, Head Coach of the U-23’s (USL2), U-17, and U-16 teams, and Assistant Coach of the League One team. He's coming in a couple of times a week and for home games. For the First Team, Michael Milazzo is doing the same. He coaches our U-19 and U-13 teams. So, there's a definite overlap and blend of all the different levels that we have for staff as well.
Q: How did it feel for you to go through that pathway yourself at the coaching level?
JB: It's a positive and enormous amount of responsibility. I’m a North Carolina guy, for the most part, and have been with this club for 16 years and I’ve had various roles all along the way. It's always been something where I've tried to take full advantage of whatever role I have in front of me and whatever comes next and have an open mind as to what can happen. Our club has evolved so much. We've gone from having an academy program to begin with, that being the first step in connecting with professional clubs overseas and having relationships with them, and connecting to our own pro team that was here in town, and now we're fully integrated. I think in many ways, it probably made sense for me to be able to take the role as it is. But I certainly appreciate it and take it very seriously.
Q: Do you think having this USL Academy platform will help see more coaches go through the pathway themselves?
JB: For our specific club, coaches that are in our academy get exposed. It's not just the academy coaches, they're coming out to pro team trainings, too. We have an open door policy that we want any NCFC Youth coach to be able to come in and observe, discuss, and get feedback - because I know, being a young coach, at one stage of my life, and now being a little bit more experienced - I think it's important that coaches have opportunities to be around and ultimately form whatever they think is going to be their pathway. We have some guys that come into the pro thing and they say, “okay, this is where I want to be in years to come and this is how I'm gonna work towards to get there.” We have other guys that say, “it's good to know the level and what this environment looks like, but I think I'm more inclined to be a youth development piece.” It kind of reiterates their feeling of being in the youth game. I think for all clubs that are using the USL Academy platform, it's just one more opportunity for them to see a higher level of soccer and formulate their own coaching pathway of what they want to do.
Q: What is your goal with North Carolina with regards to the Academy in the path to pro?
JB: I think for us, it's to continue to cement that [path to pro]. There's an ability to put a press release out and take a bunch of pictures and say, “this is what we're going to do.” Then there's an ability to actually do it. I think that not only in our own community, but nationwide and globally, we're showing what we intend to do in terms of actually providing young players with minutes, connecting them with our First Team and committing to a pathway that goes from a young age all the way to a professional environment.
My goal is to make it as clear and positive as possible for our community to see that this is a great opportunity for them to [make that pathway]. I use the word pathways and outcomes a lot because not every player is on a pro track. Not every player is on a college track. There's a lot of blend between the two. We try to talk about exposing players and developing players to the highest level of whatever that means for them. Whatever outcome, whatever pathway that is, we want to continue to support that.
Q: How do you see USL Academy helping the North Carolina Academy and senior team?
JB: It's going to continue to give us a platform of competition [through which] we can continue to evaluate our players. It's gonna give opportunities to bring players from different age groups together, that you wouldn't normally see if everyone's playing just within their own age group. That blend of team and opportunity of players across age groups, it's something that's key to our whole structure. Having young players that come into the First Team are coming to USL Academy to play up a year. They might be at a 15 age group, but they're playing with the 16’s on a certain day. Putting players in challenging opportunities is something that USL Academy does and it goes hand in hand with what we do.
Q: How do you see USL Academy helping grow American soccer as a whole?
JB: It's another positive, competitive platform and opportunity for players to come together and play. It provides many ways for these clubs that do have a professional program at the top of it, to then be thinking about how they're using the USL Academy to challenge players and evaluate players ultimately to see if they're the right fit to move into the professional environment. I think that the platform itself is going to accelerate opportunities and the soccer development in this country.