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Porter Leads Youth Soccer To New Turf

By Johanna F. Still, posted Mar 3, 2023
Carson Porter, director of Hammerheads Youth FC, uses his experience in the world of soccer to grow his organization and the availability of sports fields in Wilmington. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
He may no longer have a part to play in forging the finest soccer team the nation has to offer, but Carson Porter has found his favorite position yet.

The Hammerheads Youth FC director has seen the world, but still chooses Wilmington as home. “I’ve had a lot of great soccer jobs. This is the one that I think I’ve done my best work in and the one that I’ve been able to make the biggest contribution to,” he said of heading up the program, one of the area’s largest youth sports organizations. 

Growing up in Charlotte, Porter was scouted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University to play soccer at the collegiate level and chose the Tar Heels. While donning Carolina blue, Porter’s team won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 2000. 

After ruling out a post-graduation pro career, Porter took his first and last non-soccer-related full-time job working in finance in New York City. It didn’t last long. “I just wasn’t done with soccer,” he said. “It was the dot-com boom. I was constantly looking at soccer websites.” 

He then linked up with the same Wake Forest coaching staff that had tried to recruit him out of high school and landed a gig as the team’s assistant coach, a role he held from 2004 to 2009. “It felt right,” he said. “I was still young enough where I could play with the guys.” 

That team made three consecutive Final Four appearances and won a national championship in 2007 when Porter was also named NCAA national assistant coach of the year. “We were ridiculously good,” he said. 

In 2010, Porter took a role with the U.S. Soccer Federation, working on the coaching staff for the U.S. Youth National Team, which consists of feeder teams for the group that ends up representing the nation in the World Cup. 

“Eight players in the World Cup last summer, I worked with when they were 15 years old,” Porter said. He said he knew the captain of the U.S. team, Tyler Adams, would end up in the leadership role among the collection of the nation’s best players. “I was dealing with a 14-year-old that had the maturity of a 22-year-old,” Porter said of Adams.

In this role, Porter was jet-setting about five months a year. “I feel like I got a Ph.D. in soccer,” he said.

After meeting his wife, Jenna – also a North Carolina native – Porter was ready to hop off the plane. “We wanted to come home,” he said.

So in 2014, he accepted an offer to lead as head coach and director of the Wilmington Hammerheads, the city’s then-USL Championship men’s semi-professional soccer team. He finished the 2014 season and guided the team through 2015, a low performing year. “That was a tough spell,” he said. “I kind of found out that professional sports wasn’t for me.”

The experience helped cement Porter’s philosophy toward the sport, shaped by his earlier role shepherding stars on the U.S. Youth National Team. There, rather than winning, what mattered most was fostering the technique and character of young players to prepare them for a chance to compete in the World Cup. 

“If you’re in the world of professional sports, everything that you do is about wins and losses,” he said. “That measure of success is so sharp on every other aspect of your life. So you win a game, and you feel good for a week. Then you play another game, and you lose that one, and you feel bad for a week. The roller coaster of that is not something that was good for me. 

"I don’t put a big measurement on results, even now,” he said.

In 2015, Porter stepped back from the professional team and instead solely focused on leading the Hammerheads’ youth programming. After 20 years in Wilmington, the professional team hosted its last home season in 2016 and dissolved by 2017. “The landscape of soccer was changing, and I wasn’t surprised by it,” Porter said of the team’s exit.

Keeping the Hammerheads’ spirit alive, Porter has spent the past sever-al years growing the youth program, which has 55 teams. In 2019, he helped guide a partnership between the club and the YMCA’s recreation-al soccer organization, merging the programs to help clear pathways for families interested in the sport. “In some ways we were competitors,” he said. “There is no reason why we should be competing for kids’ choices when they’re 5 years old. That’s crazy.”

Through the YMCA, Porter has taken on another leadership role: volunteer coach to his twin 7-year-old daughters’ team. About 1,200 players participate in the Hammerheads Youth FC, and 3,000 play through the YMCA partnership. 

Since most players don’t end up playing professionally, Porter said he prioritizes character-building skills. “What I care about is that we’ve got kids who are learning the life lessons of being a part of a sports team,” he said. “Are they learning how to be a teammate? Are they learning how to win humbly? Are they learning how to lose graciously? Are they willing to put the team ahead of themselves?”

In January, crews began work on what may be the Hammerheads’ magnum opus – the nCino Sports Park. Located off U.S. 421, the former landfill is being turned into an 11-field multi-purpose sports complex. Spearheaded by the Hammerheads, the organization donated the property to the city, which is funding the nearly $17 million project.

“I just think it was the final piece for what we need as an organization, but also the final piece for what our community needs,” he said. 

The Hammerheads have used the Cape Fear Regional Soccer Park’s five fields for years. “We’ve got a ton of blood, sweat and tears in that place,” Porter said. “We sell our tournaments out in spite of our soccer park, not because of our cur-rent soccer park.”

Officials estimate the overhauled facility, projected to open in spring 2024, will draw more than 140,000 visitors annually. Porter’s team has been tasked with managing the park, a task they are up for but still learning how to navigate. “We’re building the plane while we fly it right now,” he said. 

Porter said a big part of what makes him and his family so proud of the park project and club organization is gratefulness for the community’s embrace. 

“That’s something that’s really important to me, and it’s something that I never had in my other lives,” he said. “This is home, and I love this place.”
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