Scouting and an Academy as the Foundation
(Photo: U-16/17 Championship/Marc Nicholls' Twitter)
by Zach Hall
Without an official statement from the club about the likely front office hire of Marc Nicholls, it might be too early to really expand upon what it might mean for Charlotte in 2020 and beyond. The same cannot be said about hiring European super agent Zoran Krneta as the team's first ever sporting director.
In tandem, though, fans and analysts can start to see a glimpse of the soccer club David Tepper and president Tom Glick have been dreaming up for the past year.
You can read about Krneta's experience and pedigree elsewhere (like in the article above), so instead, let's focus here on what his history as "the guy to broker deals between club and player" means when he goes to work club-side, especially in light of the Nicholls signing.
Existing Scouting Network
Possibly the hardest part of putting together a soccer organization is building a network of scouts that informs the team on players around the world.
This is not a new problem here in the States, with both U.S. Soccer and individual MLS clubs struggling to identify young, worthwhile talent. For every Josef Martinez winning league MVP, there's five Denilsons, ten Gilbertos, and countless other teenagers that never even break into the starting 11.
Krneta brings established relationships with scouts and players to help him (and any additional soccer ops staff) identify the right talent for Charlotte.
The fact that he comes mainly from a European background is also a tell – MLS teams have spent the past several years eschewing unproven players from the European block, instead opting for young players making waves in places like Argentina, Columbia, and Brazil.
Several of the highlighted players that Krneta has worked with are from small countries, but they're in central or eastern Europe: Croatia, Serbia, Hungary. Being able to mine those existing connections to an as-of-yet untapped resource like Eastern Europe could be a great boon a new organization like Charlotte.
With the added bonus of those players holding EU passports, developing and selling talent to big money clubs in Europe becomes a real path of revenue as well.
Identifying Young Talent
Ask any clued-in American soccer fan, pundit, or writer about the college soccer system and the MLS SuperDraft and 90% of them will tell you that our system is of the reasons why U.S. Soccer and MLS have been slow to develop generational talents.
The reality is that by the time a player graduates college at age 21-23, most of his "development" is over. The U.S. might consider a 22-year-old rookie a young talent with potential, but around the rest of the world, that player has probably already spent close to a decade inside of a club's academy and played meaningful professional minutes, either through loans or by playing for the club they have a contract with.
This is a problem for the U.S. National Team, for MLS clubs, and specifically for Charlotte.
Krneta said all the right things to the team's website (shoutout to the fantastic Ryan Bailey, great hire that), pointing out North and South Carolina create a similar landmass as the Netherlands, a country that sits in the Top 15 in the world, and eight spots higher then the U.S. in the FIFA rankings.
He uses phrases like "produce (a top star)," "building the academy process," and even dares to draw comparison's to England's Chelsea, whose roster is full of academy products (partly because of a transfer ban and high manager turnover, but I digress).
Krneta even publicly states his academy intentions: “Ideally, we would like to get to a place where our academy produces two players every year for the first team.”
If you pair all of this with the hire of Marc Nicholls, a man who spent years right here in North Carolina coaching the Carolina Dynamo and as technical director of the N.C. Fusion before becoming the Seattle Sounders Academy TD in 2014, it is obvious that Krneta isn't just spouting talking points handpicked by folks on Reddit.
With only two hires, Tepper has declared his intent: Mix a robust scouting pool looking for hidden gems with a high-quality academy program.
Money, Money, and also Money
MLS roster rules are, to put it nicely, complicated. The league is structured as a single entity, which means players are actually contracted to the league and not necessarily to a specific team. We can argue the pros and cons of this structure later (or you can just head to the dark corners of Twitter now), but what you need to know here is that MLS retains a percentage of any transfer fee if a club sells a player outside of the league.
The only exception to this? Homegrown players – players who spend at least a year in a club's academy. While they might not grab headlines, MLS clubs get to retain 100% of the transfer fee when they sell players like Ballou Tabla (to Barcelona's B side) and Joe Scally (to Borussia Monchengladbach). This makes the return on investment much higher for academy players than purchasing that 20-year-old Argentinean winger with a highlight reel set to bad dubstep.
We haven't had a club for a month yet and we're all already dreaming about the first home match at Bank of America Stadium in 2021. There are a lot of steps between now and then, but Tepper has done a great job with the first step: creating a roster philosophy.
And he's obviously a smart guy, because that philosophy is one that has proven a consistent winner – create an academy as your long-term foundation and utilize under-valued resources to fill out key positions.
I think Charlotte fans already have reasons to be excited for what the club is going to build this year.