WILMINGTON – For the first time in two decades, soccer fans in the area will be without a professional club moving into the spring. However, that doesn’t mean supporters will be without a quality product on the pitch.
On Wednesday, Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC rolled out plans to extend its umbrella with top level college talent under its crest as part of the Premier Development League (PDL).
“There’s a lot of excitement building as we put things into place moving into the PDL season,” said Wilmington Hammerheads Youth FC Executive Director Carson Porter. “It’s time to hit the reset button. Our club is in a good place and with the addition of a PDL club we are giving fans something new. We’re continuing our mission in providing our youth players something to aspire to.”
The Hammerheads FC name has been synonymous with the Port City since it was founded in 1996, but growth inside the United Soccer League (USL) left Wilmington behind as USL’s smallest market. That led to the decision to pull its USL status following the conclusion of last season.
In Sept. 2016, the PDL awarded a franchise to Wilmington Hammerheads FC, becoming the third PDL team in North Carolina. The league has over 75 teams, split into 10 regional divisions across the United States and Canada.
Unofficially, it is considered to be the fourth-tier of competition, behind Major League Soccer (MLS), the North American Soccer League (NASL) and USL. Many MLS franchises are also beginning to develop their PDL branch, including the Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire.
Moving into the 15-game schedule, which runs from May through July, Wilmington Hammerheads FC is beginning to piece together its roster. PDL rules allow up to five players from one university. The local club is expected to feature a combination from hometown UNC-Wilmington, North Carolina-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State. Talks are also underway to bring in talent from as far away as Stanford and Penn, according to Porter.
“North Carolina is home to some of best soccer talent in the country,” Porter added. “Our PDL club will also allow for some of our top high-schoolers to train with the team as sort of an apprenticeship or internship. With four PDL teams now in North Carolina (Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham) and a club in Myrtle Beach, it’s going to be competitive for all of us to build the roster, which will create natural rivalries.”
Wilmington Hammerheads FC will compete on the campus of UNC-Wilmington this year. The youth club is currently working with the university to get housing sorted out for its players. The PDL club will practice at Cape Fear Regional Soccer Park off Highway 421.
Kevin Johnson, who joined the youth club as Director of Soccer Operations in October 2016, is set to coach the PDL team. Ashley High School alumni and former UNC-Wilmington player Shawn Guderian has been named General Manager.
“Kevin has over 20 years in the coaching profession both inside the state and beyond,” Porter said. “KJ’s most recent role prior to joining our club was as one of three staff coaches for the U.S. Development Academy teams at the highly regarded IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He will be a great coaching tool for our other youth coaches to follow and learn from. Shawn has taken on a new role as general manager and it’s a great opportunity for him.”
While some think the PDL club won’t bring the same type of play once seen through the now defunct professional sports organization in Wilmington, Porter believes the renewed focus on bringing quality college talent to the forefront is beneficial to its 3,000 youth members in addition to soccer loyalists.
“The club has worked hard to improve all aspects of our organization,” Porter said. “With the PDL club, it’ll still bring fans a high level of soccer. The players are just in a different point in their career. They’re aspiring to be professionals. They want to live that dream. We’re here to foster that and fill a gap between final exams in college and the start of fall training.”
Recently retired Justin Moose is just one example of a sound performer who moved up the ranks after first playing in the PDL. Porter himself competed in the league during his days at Wake Forest University. A total of 31 PDL alums were selected in the first two rounds of the 2017 MLS Draft. Since 2010, 325 players with PDL experience have been MLS SuperDraft picks.