North Carolina FC is taking a unique approach in its bid to distinguish itself from other MLS expansion candidates.
The Cary-based organization, which currently plays in the North American Soccer League, announced that it has joined forces with two area youth clubs, Capitol Area Soccer League (CASL) and the Triangle Futbol Club Alliance (TFCA).
The result is what NCFC calls is the largest youth-to-professional soccer club in the United States, with more than 13,500 youth players now affiliated with NCFC.
"We've had strong youth soccer in this area for over 40 years. To marry that up with a pro team resources and create a youth-to-pro pyramid that goes all the way up with a really wide funnel of youth players, that's a pretty big asset," North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik told ESPN FC.
"You're going to see us do all kinds of things from enhancing programs around coaching and playing and refereeing, but also field access. I think we're going to have some great opportunities to grow."
CASL has long been one of the top youth clubs in the country, with five Development Academy youth championships since 2013 and 20 players invited to U.S. youth national team camps since 2014.
TFCA has rich history as well, and its alumni include Sporting Kansas City defender Ike Opara and former New England Revolution defender Darrius Barnes. But the landscape is changing.
The youth-to-pro pathway is one that is now standard for MLS clubs, and CASL CEO Gary Buete said that the merger was done in part to keep pace with such a development.
Buete indicated that there had been previous partnerships with the Carolina RailHawks, the forerunner to NCFC, but this is "a partnership on steroids."
He added: "What it came down to for me, is: How do we stay on the leading edge of player development? You do that by combining resources with the pro group and the other largest youth program in the area. It's paramount for development, it's great for the area, it's great for growing the game. And it's great to see soccer leaders coming together for the benefit of kids.
"Our goal is the same as the MLS academies, to compete at the highest level, to create great players that are one day going to be professionals and represent our country. So we're definitely trying to keep up with Joneses of MLS, and we're excited for the opportunities that it brings when we put all these resources together."
Yet for all the talk about development, the MLS expansion aspect of the merger still looms large. Malik insisted that the fusion of the three entities would have taken place regardless of what NCFC's ambitions were with regard to MLS, and that talks about the merger have been years in the making.
But he added: "I think that it's absolutely one of the things that we feel like differentiates us, and we had that conversation with MLS."
Given the fierceness of the competition, anything a club can do to stand out will help. North Carolina FC is one of 12 expansion candidates with the others being Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Two will be chosen by the end of the year, with another two to be selected at a later date.
To be clear, NCFC isn't alone in trying to address the issue of a youth-to-pro pathway. Sacramento, for example, has a fully funded youth setup affiliated with U.S. Soccer's Development Academy.
Now NCFC can boast the same, while drawing from a significantly larger pool of players.
"I don't think anyone else has anything like that who is in expansion candidate mode," said Malik.
Malik also expects both the youth clubs and the pro team to benefit economically from the partnership. The built-in season ticket base will certainly help NCFC's cause.
"We've put together an A-to-Z program that encompasses sponsorship, merchandise, and certainly there's financial elements of that going both ways," Malik said.
"The ability to have say, a jersey sponsorship that reaches 20,000 people and up, that has that many kids, and also has benefits for professionals, the Development Academy, and all those varying aspects, that's a pretty strong offering."
The extent to which the merger will catapult NCFC's bid is still to be determined. The three primary criteria for expansion candidates remain having a viable market, a stadium plan, and a deep-pocketed ownership group. Malik said he was "working like crazy" on coming up with a site for a stadium, and hopes to make an announcement in the coming weeks.
He's also talking to individuals interested in investing in the team. But every pyramid needs a foundation, and Malik thinks the merger is one step in that direction.
"With this many youth playing, it's a big part of what this area is," said Malik. "If you're a parent with a 4-to-18-year-old in this area, you're kid is probably playing soccer. Those are the folks who are most likely to come to our games and be supportive of what we're doing.
"I think it's very important to us, and part of being successful in a community is giving back and we're just starting here."