Robert Kristo Celebrates

NCFC forward Robert Kristo celebrates a goal while wearing a supporter's mask on Saturday, Sept. 7 at WakeMed Soccer Park. Kristo scored two goals in the match that ended in a 3-3 draw.

North Carolina FC will play its first game in USL League One on Saturday, May 8, after moving from the USL Championship in 2020 with hopes of focusing more on youth development.

In addition to being NCFC’s first game in USL League One, the May 8 game against the Greenville Triumph will also mark head coach John Bradford’s first official game at the helm.

“For me to lead the team, it's a special moment,” Bradford said. “But, more importantly, I think it's a special moment for these players and an opportunity for the club to take a step forward in terms of what the new vision is, and try to tie in youth development with seasoned pros and put a good product on the field.”

While Bradford might be the new head coach of the first team, he is certainly no stranger to the club, with a decade and a half of experience within the youth ranks and as an assistant under former head coach Dave Sarachan.

“This is a big moment for the club, to have somebody like John that has developed as a young coach in the club, become a leader within the club, made his way as an academy coach, leading the academy, then assistant coach for the pro team while leading the Academy,” said club president and GM Curt Johnson. “Now to take the reins as the head coach for the club on the men's side, is a big moment. Excited for him, excited for the club. I think that's what we want to be about is developing talented people and then giving them the opportunity to do what they do best.”

Stemming from the club’s move, the roster saw a ton of turnover in the offseason, with many standouts from 2020 and previous years either retiring or moving on. The team’s overall young roster is bolstered by a core of veterans like Robert Kristo and club captain and NC State alumnus Nazmi Albadawi. 

“Robby and Naz specifically, have been huge in terms of setting what the culture is like in the locker room and trying to set a standard of what the training environment is, and just what it means to put on the jersey and all that.” Bradford said. “It's so important to have a balance of a veteran leadership. It also takes the right personality of those guys to have the desire to be that type of leader. ... It's great to have them kind of balance off the youthfulness of everything else.”

In a massive statement of its intent to focus on youth development, the club signed 15 academy players over the summer, many of whom will go on to play in the NCAA in the fall. All players who signed out of the academy will be able to play in first team matches while still maintaining college eligibility. While many of the academy players are college bound, some still have a few more years of high school in front of them.

“It's been a dream come true,” said Cole Frame, one of the academy signees. “Honestly, it's amazing. It's a massive step for me as a professional and to kind of get closer to my aspirations. I'm so thankful for this opportunity. It's been great to finally be surrounded by people who have the same type of aspirations as I do, who want to be pros, who everything they do is focused on being the best buyer they can on any given day.”

Included in the 15 is a pair of NC State-bound players, Caden Tolentino and Will Buete. Prior to joining up with NC State head coach George Kiefer and the Wolfpack in the fall, Tolentino and Buete will get the opportunity to learn from an NC State alumnus in Albadawi, who played for NC State between 2011-13.

In total, NCFC has 31 players on its roster for the upcoming season: 

Goalkeepers (4): Nicholas Holliday (Acad.), Damian Las (Loan), Jake McGuire, Samuel Terranova (Acad.) 

Defenders (6): Max Flick, Britton Fischer (Acad.), Malyk Hamilton, Malick Mbaye,  Parker O’Ferral (Acad.), Nelson Martinez 

Midfielders (15): Nazmi Albadawi, Luis Arriaga, Will Beute (Acad.), Curtis DeLeon (Acad.), Nelson Flores, Jay Tee Kamara (Loan), Drew Kerr (Acad.), Shermaine Martina,  Nata Martinez (Acad.), Collin McCamy (Acad.), Aaron Messer (Acad.), Selmir Miscic (Loan), Pecka, Peter Pearson, Caden Tolentino (Acad.) 

Forwards (6): Josh Coan, Cole Frame (Acad.), Marvin Mariche (Acad.), Robert Kristo, Yekeson Subah (Acad.), Rohit Thakur (Acad.)

Of the 31 players, four are returning from last year’s roster: Albadawi, Kristo, Pecka and Mbaye. The core of returning players will not only be crucial to help in the development of some of the younger players, but to also set the tone and integrate both the new and academy players into the culture.

“It takes on a different role, right, it takes a different pattern of leadership and that's on and off the field,” Kristo said. “It is something that me and Nazmi took to heart and we really want to get it going and kick it off in the right direction.”

Kristo, famous for his exuberant (and sometimes yellow card-worthy) celebrations that have endeared him to the fans, is looking forward to getting back in front of those fans on Saturday.

“As much as I love the club, a big part of the reason I stayed with North Carolina FC is the fans,” Kristo said. “They have helped me feel welcome. I mean, returning back to the States and, you know, getting me incorporated here was huge. That is what I've been waiting for for the last year and a half is to see those people back in those stands, see those masks, see those signs, see that energy. The energy they bring, that's what fuels us. That's what gets us going. I mean, playing in an empty stadium all last year was not easy. I think it's 25% capacity. That's amazing for us. We got some good new celebrations this year for them. So hopefully they're ready.”

NCFC will kick off its first game of the season on Saturday, May 8, taking on the Greenville Triumph at 7 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park.