Carolina’s Solid Core

Meet Carolina Core – the first-year MLS NEXT Pros from High Point, North Carolina on a run in their debut Open Cup and led by a star-studded group of former MLS Legends.
By: Jonah Fontela

There might not be any household names on the Carolina Core roster (yet) but the team behind this team is fierce – one you wouldn’t want to meet in a five-a-side money game.

“I had a list and it was kind of growing in my head,” said Eddie Pope, the man pulling the strings as Sporting Director for the independent MLS NEXT Pro side out of High Point, North Carolina – which just so happens to be the former USMNT star’s hometown. “It’s important to get the right people in. From front to back, you want people who’ve been there and done it.”

Pope, an MLS Defender of the Year who lifted a trio of MLS Cups with D.C. United before being inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2011, took that particular job seriously.

Let’s do a quick roll call. Core Head Coach Roy Lassiter was a hero of the early years of MLS, a powerful striker whose reading of the game made him unplayable in his prime and who won an MLS Cup and a Concacaf Champions Cup as Pope’s United teammate in 1999. Goalkeeper coach Donovan Ricketts played in the World Cup (for his native Jamaica), scooped the 2011 MLS Cup with LA galaxy and was twice named the league’s best goalkeeper. In a scouting role is Andy Williams, among the most creative midfielders in MLS in the early 2000s who won both an Open Cup and an MLS Cup with Chicago Fire. And last but not least, Amado Guevara, the Honduran legend named MLS’ league MVP in 2004.

How to Get to the Top

“I’ve been direct and stern with my staff to make sure they let our players know who they are,” insisted Lassiter, 55, who moved to the first-year MLS NEXT Pro side from the youth system of Houston Dynamo, the two-time and defending Open Cup champions. “It can’t just be a matter of ‘hey this guy was MVP of MLS or played in a World Cup or the Premier League’ – I want them to know how they got there. They need to know the mud and the dirt and sweat and tears it took to get where they got.” 

“Our coaches are older and we didn’t get to see them play, but you look them up on the internet of course and you find out they’re legends,” said Papa Ndoye, the 24-year-old Senegal-born forward who followed Lassiter from Houston for a season in High Point despite interest from overseas. “You just try to soak it all in – to learn as much as you can from all the things they know.”

Both of Carolina Core’s wins as a club have come in the 2024 Open Cup

“As a forward I’m always listening to what Coach Roy [Lassiter] says – and he’s got all sorts of lessons to pass on,” added Ndoye. “Where to be on the field, the best way to position yourself to attack the backs.”

Pope, who works with the defenders when he’s not buried in the behind-the-scenes office business of a first-year developmental club, laughs a little when asked about the one-on-one attention a guy like Lassiter can give a young attacking player. “I mean, if you’re a striker I can’t think of a better guy to be teaching you lessons about how to approach it,” he said.

The lessons are coming thick and fast. And not just out on the training field and in the video review room. The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – a tournament that Pope won himself in 1996 and still holds among one of the highlights of his career – has lessons upon lessons to impart.

“It was a tough game,” smiled Ndoye, thinking back to the Second Rounder earlier in April.

That’s an understatement. The Core were down 1-0 nothing way up north in Burlington against the amateur USL League One darlings Vermont Green FC. “It was the first time some of these guys saw snow,” said Pope, who calls the Open Cup a “huge opportunity” for his young players. That snow was wet and heavy and lashing down in frozen sheets. It would have been the easiest game to lose. But the Core youngsters dug deep and pulled one back through Ndoye, from the penalty spot, before finding the winner in the 70th minute via Josuha Rodriguez.

The celebrations after the final whistle, smiles and the shared triumph of it all, are the kind of experiences you can’t buy. And they got another one when their flight back to North Carolina was canceled for heavy weather and the players had to endure a 19-hour bus ride home. While it’s a hassle by any measure, for a young player learning the bumps and bruises of life as a pro, it’s a lesson too.

“It was a long ride,” said Ndoye, smiling wide. “But it’s one of those experiences you get when you’re in a team – it’s one of those ones you’ll remember forever. You win together and you struggle together and we won the game, so the long ride could have been a lot worse.”

Carolina Core next face off with North Carolina FC of the USL Championship

The win came a week after the First Round victory over NoVa FC, the amateur powers from Leesburg, Virginia with ex-pro and Open Cup winner Bill Hamid (with D.C. United) in goal on the day. “In games like that you’re playing against older guys – guys with four years of college and a long time in the game in some cases. It’s never easy,” said Pope.

That game was a back-and-forth wide-open contest that ended 3-2 and must have driven a perfectionist of a head-coach like Roy Lassiter crazy. But even if it was a little loose, the win – allied to the one up in Vermont – makes the Core one of only three MLS NEXT Pro teams still alive in the Third Round of the competition. They’re the cream of that league’s crop in these wild and varied testings of the Open Cup.

Balancing Developing and Winning

“We’re a developmental club so that’s the focus, sure,” said the 50-year-old Pope of the side who’ve not had much luck yet in league play, winless from their first three games. “But they still want to win. No one wants to go through a season losing all the time. It’s in their blood. So it’s about balance.”

And you can’t take the competitor out of a guy like Lassiter, no matter what heavy equipment you use. “As a player, I always wanted to win so badly; I’m not good when I lose,” said the coach, who’s growing into the role he always knew he would pursue. “I would score a goal and then just race back to the midfield to try to get another one – as a coach I’m the same.”

Up next for the Core is a test against USL Championship pros North Carolina FC. The Core will be huge underdogs against the second-division side, but – as everyone behind the scenes in High Point knows – that’s precisely the stuff that opportunities are made of.

“We’re going to come up against a good team with a lot of experience,” said Lassiter, who takes his job of getting his players to the next phase of the game very seriously. “They’ll have strong, solid players and we’ll have to deal with that.

“It’s just another way of putting our guys in that position to prove what they’ve got, to go and show it,” added the coach, with bits of that ferocious competitor of old still lurking around the edges.

 Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.