Crown Legacy FC started their inaugural season with a well-attended home opener at Mecklenburg County Sportsplex against Huntsville City FC. The match featured the only two teams in the Eastern Conference of MLS NEXT Pro with different brand identities from their parent clubs – Charlotte FC and Nashville SC, respectively.
Both clubs are trying something different in the league with an effort to build a culture around their teams and affinity with their fans that goes beyond the “development side” label. The second-year third division league is uncharted territory for nearly everyone involved, and those that innovate in new spaces typically reap the largest reward.
Still, off-field innovation must be paired with performance on the pitch. That first game may have sent alarm bells ringing for some, as Crown Legacy fell in a penalty shootout to an experienced Huntsville team despite a last-minute equalizer. However, Head Coach Jose Tavares’s team then immediately rattled off seven straight wins to take the top spot in the Eastern Conference, a position they have never relinquished en route to clinching a playoff berth with six games remaining.
The team has captured the affection of Charlotte’s soccer fans as they merge player development with an attractive, winning style. Although there are still achievements to chase as the playoffs grow closer on the horizon, it is clear a special culture is taking hold at Crown Legacy FC.
The initial task faced by Legacy Head Coach José Tavares was to establish a unified culture within a team comprising players and coaches who had not previously collaborated. Central to this effort was fostering a culture that prioritized the players as humans first, along with a strong emphasis on unwavering mentality. It didn't take long for these qualities to materialize on the pitch.
Following that penalty shootout loss to Huntsville City, the team channeled their frustration into an impressive seven-match winning streak. During this run, they dominated their opponents but also, even more remarkably, showed resilience in overcoming deficits. The seeds sown during preseason were flourishing into a team that wholeheartedly supported one another and confronted challenges head on.
“Winning mentality is something that we need to feel every single day,” said Tavares. “From the people that work in the cafeteria, to the people on the business side, and everybody that is working with the players on the teams.
“It's about bringing to the Club people that have that feeling of inner power to put forth in service of the Club and the teams in every single moment. This type of culture is not looking for success at all costs but finding the right criteria for success for us.”
Regardless of success, though, humility is what has kept the team grounded. Tavares places paramount significance on staying humble, as he feels the team's purpose should extend beyond individual interests.
“We defend values, we play for values, we play for something bigger than us,” he said. “We play for our fans, for our club, for the people that like us, and that want to belong to something that's special.”
Fittingly, Crown Legacy just clinched their playoff berth with a 1-0 win against none other than Huntsville City, who they hadn’t yet beaten this year. The team can now place their focus on maintaining their position in the table to secure the rewards on the line – a first-round bye for the #1 Eastern Conference seed and hosting priority for a potential final as the #1 overall seed.
“Making playoffs shows the drive and ambition that the Club has,” said Crown Legacy FC President Darrius Barnes. “We want to build a winning culture from the top in the first team, to Crown Legacy FC, to our academy, to even on the business side. Legacy making playoffs in the first year shows that ambition that we have and will continue to have.”
However, winning cannot be everything for a team in MLS NEXT Pro. At the end of the day, the other primary objective is still to develop players on their way to the first team. Crown Legacy, so far, has done an excellent job of balancing these two objectives.
The average age of that starting lineup in the playoff-clincher against Huntsville was 20.73 years old. Three 18-year-olds (Erik Pena, Jack Neeley, and Tate Johnson) started the match and 15-year-old Nimfasha Berchimas came in off the bench to create the game-winning goal for 22-year-old Iuri Tavares.
Crown Legacy are winning game after game, and they’re doing it by trusting and playing their young talents.
One player who wasn’t with the team that day: Patrick Agyemang. Charlotte FC drafted the 22-year-old 13th overall in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft, and he has become the most recent standout example of the developmental pathway from the second team to the first team.
Agyemang's journey from the ranks of Crown Legacy to the grand stage of the first team is a testament to the club's holistic approach to talent development. The forward needed more time following preseason, and so honed his skills and matured his game under the watchful eyes of Legacy’s coaching staff. He had five starts before he scored his first goal for Legacy.
Those MLS NEXT Pro games, along with training sessions and appearances off the bench for Charlotte FC, brought his development along. He finally broke out with a clutch equalizer against Seattle Sounders FC for the first team, then went on an absolute tear for Crown Legacy with six goals in five games to be crowned MLS NEXT Pro Player of the Month. Leagues Cup then rolled around, and Agyemang bagged two goals and a successful penalty in the shootout versus FC Dallas, now looking like he fully belongs at the MLS level.
The same can be said about other youngsters. Homegrowns Jack Neeley, Brian Romero, and Nimfasha Berchimas are getting valuable professional minutes, and the team’s other SuperDraft selections are doing the same while also providing key contributions to the first team. Who can forget Brandon Cambridge’s match-winning brace against Chicago Fire FC, or Andrew Privett’s ascendancy to a starting center back role during the Leagues Cup run?
Their smooth assimilation into the first team setting can be credited to the knowledge and guidance acquired during their tenure with Crown Legacy. These initial achievements have further solidified confidence in the trajectory of player development here in Charlotte.
“From day one we wanted to be able to clearly show the pro player pathway and that Crown Legacy is a platform and opportunity for players to showcase themselves with the ultimate goal of contributing to the first team,” said Barnes. “This is also an opportunity for us as a Club to provide an opportunity to young players domestically and internationally.”
As Crown Legacy's journey continues to unfold, their focus remains fixed on the upcoming regular season fixtures and, ultimately, the impending playoffs. In these playoffs, they aim to build upon their already impactful inaugural season and make an even stronger statement.
“I spoke with the team about our achievements, but we have yet to win anything,” said Tavares. “So, we know that every single day we come to work and give our best in that moment. Life keeps going and we still have so many more things to achieve, so many things to learn, and so many talented players to continue developing.”
Crown Legacy FC have only six games remaining in the regular season, with three chances to see the team in action at home at Matthews Sportsplex. The first round of the single-elimination playoffs will take place on September 29th through October 1st, with the knockout bracket running through mid-October.
The success of Crown Legacy extends beyond individual player development. It reflects the culmination of a collective effort, with coaching staff, management, and players working in synergy to achieve greatness. As of right now, it appears that the legacy they are building is on a promising trajectory.