From Seattle and Europe to Charlotte
(Photo: Charlotte MLS)
by Johnny Wakefield, Brendan Wilhide, and Russell Varner
Soccer fans in the Mint City rejoiced just a few weeks ago when MLS announced it was coming to Charlotte. But fans around the league (and some of us here too) were surprised to hear that the team had jumped St. Louis and Sacramento in the order for expansion. The team will start play in 2021, just 13 months from today.
Other expansion teams have had years to build the foundation for their club before their first kick. Charlotte has one.
That means moves need to be made quickly. Just days after the formal announcement, two names popped up on the radar: Marc Nicholls and Zoran Krneta.
Who are these two men tasked with shaping the foundation of our MLS club? For today's Chronicle, we asked Collective members Brendan Wilhide and Russell Varner to give us a brief look at the two moves.
"A Focus on the Academy," by Brendan Wilhede
Our Charlotte MLS club has hired a well-decorated former Seattle Sounders man, Marc Nicholls, to oversee its academy and youth development programs, according to Athletic reporters Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal. It is the first hire for the young franchise, though the team has yet to make any formal announcement.
The club could have gone in several directions with its first hire, but the decision to hire someone to oversee its academy is an important one, and it seems the folks in charge made a great hire.
Nicholls, a two-time U.S. Academy Coach of the Year, has plenty of experience and a solid track record in Seattle. He was most recently the Seattle Sounders Academy Director and Director of Player Development, a position he held since 2014.
He also has success developing young players at Seattle. He led the Sounders U-17 team to the 2019 Generation Adidas Cup title earlier this year, beating youth sides from Valencia, West Ham, and River Plate, among others. And, he has developed current first team players like Danny Leyva and Handwalla Bwana while there.
As an added bonus, Nicholls knows North Carolina well already. He has ties to the area dating back to his years leading the Greensboro-based Carolina Dynamo to consecutive division titles from 2011-2013.
By hiring Nicholls to run the Academy in month one, David Tepper and his team are showing that they’re thinking of the entire organization now, not just concentrating on the glamour of the first team.
Charlotte’s relationship with local youth soccer will be vital to the franchise’s long-term success, both at Bank of America Stadium and on the development pitches at the future Eastland team headquarters.
The decision to start at the grassroots level of the academy, where future players and fans are cultivated, is an important first step toward Charlotte 2021.
"What does Zoran Krneta bring to Charlotte?" by Russell Varner
While 2021 may seem far away to Charlotte’s MLS fans waiting for that first game, it is really right around the corner for those in charge of making the game happen. As a result, David Tepper and company have wasted no time in finding someone to lead the technical staff, someone that has to make sure the team has the best starting 11 to take the field come the start of the next MLS season.
Earlier this week, the club announced the appointment of their first Sporting Director (essentially the soccer equivalent of a General Manager) in Zoran Krneta. A former soccer agent from Serbia with 15 years of experience in Europe's top leagues, Krneta is the team’s first technical staff hiring.
All those years of experience mean that Krneta has had some pretty high-profile discoveries: Manchester City’s John Stones, Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic, and Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić play in Europe, and New York City FC’s Héber and 2017 Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic of the Chicago Fire play in MLS.
He has well-established roots around the globe, which made the following quote from him so interesting:
“If the Carolinas can produce Michael Jordan, I don’t see why we can’t produce one of the top stars in soccer.”
He also told Ryan Bailey of Charlotte MLS that his goal is to have multiple Carolina natives starting for the team and to establish a pipeline from the academy to the first team early on, something the aforementioned Marc Nicholls will clearly have a hand in.
He also mentions a few other ideas on the types of players he is looking for in a sit-down interview with Bailey, which can be found here. It is a highly recommended watch.
From the sound of that interview, and from reviews and recommendations from around the soccer internet, it sounds like the hiring of Zoran Krneta is a home run by Tepper and Tom Glick, an outside-the-box sort of hire, and a major first step in the right direction for this young club.