The 2017 Premier Development League season proved to be a banner year for the Charlotte Eagles, as the club secured its first PDL Championship and its first league title overall since 2005.
The title-winning campaign was just rewards for head coach Dave Dixon, who's three years of work since taking the reigns for the Eagles' first PDL season in 2015 earned him and the club the ultimate prize in 2017. Dixon is no stranger to success, as he previously led the Mississippi Brilla FC to a 47-18-17 mark over his five years in charge, capturing three conference championships and earning honors as a finalist for the 2010 PDL Coach of the Year award. A former player for the 1998 Jackson Chargers in the PDL and he 1997 Charlotte Eagles, Dixon was a distinguished collegiate athlete in the NAIA with Houghton College from 1993-97, earning recognition as a two-time All-American.
After guiding the Eagles' to the PDL Championship, Dixon spoke with USLPDL.com on what the title meant to the club, how he guided the team to its current level of success and the satisfaction of guiding NCAA DII and NAIA players to professional success.
Read more from Dixon below in this week's Coach's Corner.
PDL: First of all, congratulations to you and the Charlotte Eagles for winning the 2017 PDL Championship. What did winning the first PDL title in team history mean to you?
Dave Dixon: “Obviously it was pretty cool. Winning a championship is difficult and this team really embodied that with our ups and downs this season. It has been a big transition going from the professional division, where we competed for so long and had a lot of success reaching a few finals and winning two of them, to the PDL. So it was great to continue our success with another in a long line of quality teams and people that have come through here. I think it was important for us; the last few years we’ve hit some hiccups in the playoffs. I thought we had two really good teams prior to this, but just didn’t have some luck and were missing some players. This year kind of went the opposite of that, we hit our bad stretch in the middle. So the timing was great for us because having our players play their best at the end of the season was massive. James Pyle, our goalkeeper, was unbelievable for the last few games of the regular season and through the playoffs. I felt like we were a hockey team where we could ride a hot goalkeeper all the way through to the title. It was fun to be able to do that. I’ve played for the Eagles and lost a championship game and then was an assistant coach when we lost to Orlando City in the championship game in 2013, so it meant a lot to get there and win one.”
PDL: In three years, you’ve won the South Atlantic Division twice and finished second in 2017, making the Conference Semifinals in 2015 and 2016 and winning the title in 2017. How do you keep up such a consistent level of success?
DD: “If you look at a model team in the PDL, for me the best example of success and stability is the Michigan Bucks. When you look at how they build their roster and organization, I think we try to do some similar things and use their best ideas. For us, a lot of it has been a bit of trial and error our first few seasons. I used to coach with the Mississippi Brilla FC for a long time, so I had an idea of what it was like having a fairly different team every year. I think the biggest thing for us is keeping a good culture and understanding the types of players that we want to bring in, who can be here for the entire summer. So it starts with the recruiting process for us and we focus on more of the small college guys. The PDL is a really great opportunity for the NCAA DII and NAIA players to come in the summer and get some great recognition as they play against some of the best players in the country from more recognized schools. So we’ve stuck to that model and it was a model we relied on as a professional team as well, since we couldn’t always compete with teams that could pay their players a ton of money. We had to rely on guys who are using this as a stepping stone and I think moving to the PDL helped take that concept a step forward. I think the PDL ultimately exists to provide opportunity. It’s a proving ground for college guys to come in and show everyone what they can do and prepare for the next level. We’ve tried to be consistent with the culture we’ve created here and that culture is to give players opportunities and help them take the next step in their career. I think those two ideas have melded together and have given us somewhat of an advantage as we moved into the PDL, because not much changed in terms of what we look for in our players and what kinds of people we want involved here. So it’s that, combined with our attempts to model ourselves after teams who have had extended success like the Bucks or Des Moines Menace. If you look at their rosters, most of the time they stay pretty much the same from the beginning to the end of the season, so we tried to replicate that the best that we could.”
PDL: When you begin constructing a roster prior to the start of a season, where do you start? What factors do you consider?
DD: “We start with our 2017 roster and spend time through the end of August evaluating the season and each player. We do that first to help the players and give them an idea of what we thought through the summer and encourage them as they go into the college season. It’s also important for our staff to be able to evaluate the players and where we see these guys a year from now based on what we think will happen in their college season and figure out which guys we want back. We always start there, we want to be loyal as best we can to the previous year’s roster. Afterwards, the process begins to start building on that. Every time you build a team, regardless of if you’re in the PDL or elsewhere, you do so with your end goal in mind of how you want the team to play, your philosophy and things like that. We go and watch college games, both in person and online. Some of it is watching the 2017 roster and their games and identifying players there, and some of it is identifying players through collegiate connections that we think will fit how we want to play and also with our culture. So developing that process was a bit of a journey from our first season to year three, but I think we’ve got a good little system set up to find the players we’re looking for in terms of ability, mentality and their desire to improve. The PDL is a grind, you come in and get a few practices in and then it’s time for your first game. A lot of the work is done on the fly, and some kids struggle in that environment. Some very talented players can struggle outside their comfort zone and we try to find kids who thrive with challenge. Some kids played every minute of their college season and then get here and might not dress the first game, so we need to know how they’ll react to that, how they’ll respond in training. So in recruiting, we do a lot of work to speak with their coaches and other teams in their conference. If there’s a player I like, I’ll call three or four of the coaches from teams they played against and ask their opinion of that player. So that’s the start of the process, and then during the winter and spring host local tryouts. We’ve been successful in that, finding two or three players each year who slip through the cracks and end up making the team. So meshing together all those moving parts helps us get our roster together and ready for the next season.”
PDL: Some coaches primarily set their tactics based on the abilities of their players, while others seek out players who fit a certain style of play. Where do you fall on that spectrum and what is your preferred style of play?
DD: “My philosophy has changed a bit over time. In my early days with the Brilla, we went out and tried to find the most talented players we could and put them together in a way that worked. Then, towards the end of my time with the Brilla and start of my time in Charlotte, it was a bit different where we tried to slot in players to the roles that we wanted them to play. I think the best answer is a blend of both. I think you have a philosophy of how you want to play, but the crazy thing is that you can recruit that way and find the players that you feel fit exactly with that, and the PDL is such a short season that the ability of the players and coaches to adapt becomes paramount. You’re on the fly so often, and if you play in the U.S. Open Cup it’s even more compact, that you have to be adaptable. You may want to play a certain way, but maybe the guys you bring in from all over the country just aren’t meshing how you wanted. The best example is our team this season. Philosophically, I would love to keep the ball, I want to have it all the time; I feel that the best defense is having possession of the ball. But we weren’t great at keeping the ball, we were a much better quick-strike, counter-attacking team. It took us three or four weeks into the season to adapt to that and help players be successful. So I think you need to be flexible and adaptable, and coaches who aren’t will struggle in this league.”
PDL: You endured a small cold stretch this season, going 0-2-1 in late June, but bounced back with three straight wins to close the year. When the team is in a bad run, what do you do to break them out and get them back on winning track?
DD: “One of the things that we tried to ingrain with the group, not just for here in the summer but going into the fall and their general lives, is that life and development are a process and you can’t skip any of the steps along the way. We started that from the very beginning of the season from a team perspective. I always tell them, like I tell my son when I drop him at school, dominate the process. So many young players want to go from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ without any of the stuff in the middle, they want to go straight from a youth player to the pro and it often just doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you need to grind through the process and grind through places you don’t want to be and do things you don’t want to do. So we hit that part of the season, and we didn’t do anything extra tactically, maybe just made a few tweaks. It wasn’t anything significant that we as a coaching staff changed. It was more like, we know we’re not playing well, but we’re going to learn from these mistakes and we’re going to improve a few little things. At the end of the day, a lot of the mistakes that we were making and the things going wrong in the games were self-inflicted. It was a tough time, but we had a big team meeting on a Monday after the third result and basically said, ‘look guys, we’ve got to win each of our remaining games to get in the playoffs and control our destiny’. That wasn’t an easy task, but it was a mentality of the playoffs start now. That mentality shift I believe honestly helped us in the playoffs. We essentially played three ‘playoff’ games before the actual playoffs. The past few years we locked up the division earlier and coasted into the playoffs, so I really feel like this year there was a mentality shift of needing to take care of business. We fixed our defensive issues, finished our chances and played with a little more urgency.
PDL: The Eagles are frequently home to very successful collegiate talent, particularly at the DII and NAIA levels. How does the club routinely find high-quality talent that other teams may pass over?
DD: “I played and coached in the NAIA for a long time, so most of my friends that coached or still coach are at NAIA or NCAA DII schools. Combined with our Eagles network, which has around 45 to 50 coaches at all different levels of the game that played for the Eagles back in the day, gives us a strong network of people who understand the types of players we’re looking for. On top of that, we do a ton of scouting work. We work hard to make sure we follow through on every lead we get and that’s part of the process that we’ve really refined over the years. It lets us find players who would really value the opportunity. Every player is different in what they want to get out of their summer, and we spend a lot of time getting to know the players and make sure they align with us and what they want to get out of the summer. We look for guys who get excited about the training, competition level and playing and improving during the summer. Honestly, the training field is where I love being the most. I love trying to help guys get better and reach their goals, so finding players in NCAA DII or the NAIA who want to challenge themselves and expose themselves to higher levels of play is crucial. For example, we had several guys from Pfeiffer University in 2015 who won the National Championship and played with us and ended up getting drafted. A lot of the exposure those guys got was from the PDL playoffs, where coaches got to see them in those games. Things like the PDL Scouting Network that doesn’t exist at some of these schools and allows these players to get seen are a huge benefit. The guys who play at UNC or Stanford have a leg up because of the natural exposure. So we get guys like Ryan Williams, who might not get that level of collegiate exposure, who comes here and gets to line up against Jon Bakero or Cam Lindley, and really get a good measuring stick of how they compare for themselves and for coaches watching. We always look closely at guys from smaller schools who we can try and get some exposure for and hopefully get them to a professional team at the next level. Even at the mid-major level you get guys like Lalas Abubakar, who spent time with us and then won a PDL Championship with the Michigan Bucks. At the time he was with us, not many people had heard of him, but he was a freak athlete. It was fun to watch people take notice and realize, ‘yeah, that kid is pretty good’.