Over the past 25 years, the American minor league soccer landscape has changed countless times, and the Carolina Dynamo has been through it all.
In 1993, the Dynamo, based in Greensboro, N.C., won the USISL championship in the club’s first season. Founded by Neil Macpherson, a British transplant with a life-long love of Nottingham Forest, the Dynamo proceeded on a quarter-century journey through the grassroots level of pro soccer in the U.S.
That first team in ’93 was built around former UNC Greensboro players, and over the years, several Dynamo players have advanced up the ladder. Sam Cronin played for the club 39 times before a Major League Soccer career that’s still going after 250 games. So did Scott Garlick before a 10-year MLS career. Stern John played there before joining the Columbus Crew and ending up in the English Premier League.
But the bulk of Dynamo players over the years have come from the high-quality Division I college programs in North Carolina – Wake Forest, the University of North Carolina, NC State, UNC Greensboro, UNC Wilmington, High Point University, Elon University and others.
For the past 14 years, the team has played in the Premier Development League (PDL), the first rung on the United Soccer Leagues (USL) ladder. The PDL features 72 franchises in four conferences throughout the United States and Canada, and has become an outstanding summer training option for college players with professional aspirations.
“I think the PDL is a perfect niche,” said Scott Zapko, in his 17th year as Dynamo General Manager. “I don’t see the PDL going anywhere, just continuing to grow. We are at 72 teams right now. I would expect us to be above 80 last year.
“A lot of people see it as a solid business model, and it can also be an extension of a youth club.”
In 2016, the Dynamo entered into an agreement with Greensboro United Soccer Association and is now an extension of the local youth club, which consists of roughly 4,500 members. The Dynamo play in Macpherson Stadium at the Bryan Park Soccer complex.
While the Dynamo has found its niche in the American soccer landscape, keeping up with the changes to that landscape has offered challenges.
“We’ve been in divisions with New Jersey all the way down to Florida,” said Zapko. “We have been in the northern division to the most southern division, which is kind of bizarre.”
This season, the South Atlantic Division of the PDL’s Eastern Conference consisted of five North Carolina clubs – the Dynamo, the Charlotte Eagles, the Wilmington Hammerheads, North Carolina FC Under-23s in Raleigh, and Durham-based Tobacco Road FC – along with teams in Myrtle Beach, Columbia, S.C., Atlanta, South Georgia, Nashville, and West Virginia.
“Obviously with more clubs in USL and the PDL and in North Carolina particularly, getting players has become a lot more difficult,” admits Zapko. “At one point, we were the only PDL team in the state. Now we are looking at asking guys to drive an hour and a half to come play for us as opposed to playing for a team 10 minutes up the road.”
The majority of the Dynamo roster – and the rosters of its opponents – is made up of former Development Academy players.
“In the pyramid, the PDL is the next level up,” said Zapko. “For a college kid, if they have any interest in playing professionally, this is perfect proving ground.”
Nineteen PDL clubs are owned and operated by a professional club, or hold a partnership with a professional club. The Dynamo are not one of them.
“We don’t have any specific affiliation,” Zapko said. “Guys aren’t coming to play for us to maintain their (MLS) homegrown status. We have to go out and recruit players. But we have great facilities and some good things to offer.”
Building and retaining relationships with college coaches is perhaps the most important aspect in getting players to spend their summers in Greensboro. For the past two seasons, that responsibility has fallen to Tony Falvino, a well-respected coach at Greensboro College.
“We want to make sure the players have improved and we that we return them to their teams fit and healthy,” said Falvino.
After winning the division championship in 2016, the Dynamo finished the club’s 25th anniversary season with a 2-10-2 record in 2017.
So work has begun for year 26.