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Zoom Calls and MLS Introductions

by Matt Swift

The Mint City Collective has strived to organize, connect and collaborate to create something amazing here in Charlotte: helping to form what the fanbase for MLS will look like from the ground up. However, during the madness and uncertainty around COVID-19 and being quarantined, it’s been quite difficult to stay engaged. Team news has been but a slow, painful trickle, leaving us to simply speculate and wait.
During these trying times, we have all had to find new ways to connect with one another. And so, Zoom video conference calls were set up between the Collective and the Charlotte MLS staff allowing us to connect virtually. They provided a unique way to interact, and the fact that a professional front office took the time to meet with fans speaks volumes to their commitment to involve and collaborate with us.
Below are a few highlights from these three Zoom calls, all hosted by Tiffany Blackmon and Dustin Swinehart.
Coaching Update
Technical Director Marc Nicholls shared that hiring the head coach is perhaps the most important move they will make in 2020 and that they are still in the process of interviewing candidates. In fact, they were interviewing someone right after our call last Thursday. We had a few questions for both Nicholls and Director of Scouting Thomas Schaling around how they are scouting players and forming a playing style methodology without a head coach in place. Both alluded to the fact that they have a preference on how they want to play and are trying to select a coach that will fit that approach.

When we pressed Nicholls on the style preference, he said that they want a young, bright, high-pressing style where full-backs move up the field. Nicholls did say that the traits they are looking for in a coach include someone who has led a multicultural locker room and someone with great human qualities. Liverpool and manager Jürgen Klopp were brought up as examples multiple times when talking about coaching and style of play.
Schaling let us know that he and his team have looked at over 1,300 players so far. Because of COVID-19, they are also watching a lot of film of players in leagues they may have not watched previously. Schaling said that they have one scout in Serbia, covering Eastern Europe, and a scout in Holland. We asked him what other leagues they are targeting for players and he mentioned Argentina and Mexico, sharing he’d like to bring additional scouts in for the U.S. and Latin America.
Player Signings
Things may be moving soon! Nicholls said we could see the first player signing this summer during the transfer market, but of course, this could change depending on what happens with the global lockdowns. When asked about Designated Players, they said they want someone in their prime, someone with experience, and leadership. But what I really liked is when they said, "This is a real opportunity to create our own stars."

The expansion draft was brought up, and what moves the team might make during it. Schaling said that often it’s hard to find a starting 11 player there, so they may use the expansion draft as more of a chance to accumulate tradable assets.

Nicholls shared they are pitching Charlotte’s weather, education, family lifestyle, and how vibrant the city is as a selling point for players. He again emphasized that this is a unique opportunity for players to make a name for themselves on a brand new team.

One interesting question posed to Nicholls: “What lessons have you learned from other expansion teams?” He said that overall investments, such as the use of allocation money, were key. He pointed to LAFC and Atlanta as good examples of teams that have used resources well on foreign talent, whereas Nashville and Cincinnati have used theirs on bigger names like Walker Zimmerman and Fanendo Adi.
Nicholls also said that they would like to bring two players per year up to the first team from the Academy.
MLS Academy League
Academy Manager Dan Lock joined the call and said that they hope to have the Academy playing in July. They will be announcing 5-10 more players in the following week or so. We asked him about the style of play he wants to see out of the academy team, and he said more than likely a 4-3-3 formation, but he personally fancies three in the back. Again, Liverpool was brought up.
Joe LaBue spoke to us about ticketing on the first two calls. He said that more ticket information will be provided mid-to-late summer. It looks like there are around 7,450 deposits so far, which he estimates to equal about 24,000 seats. If they get the expected (and very probable) push when branding is announced, they'll probably cross 30,000. Their target is 34,000 in season tickets – a full lower bowl.

LaBue was asked about opening the upper deck for matches, and he said they would very much like to do that on a game-by-game basis. For opening day and rivalry games against Atlanta United, he could see the team doing that, but the emphasis is filling out the bottom levels.

PSLs were of course brought up, and LaBue mentioned a few times that they have not made a decision yet on that. He said they are certainly taking the survey feedback very seriously, but he did say that if there were PSLs, it wouldn’t be like what you see from NFL teams in terms of pricing. The supporters' section is unlikely to see PSLs, but again, no decision has been made. Affordability was stressed repeatedly by Collective members as a key to the growth of the fanbase. 

Chief Marketing Officer Meredith Starkey provided us with a few nuggets of information and some insight into the team's branding process. The biggest takeaway from our calls was that merchandise will be available at brand launch. This implies the branding has been set for a while, and they know the delivery of the branded product, which takes time to manufacture, is on target. This could mean they either have the product in hand already or it's in production, which could have been held up due to COVID-19.

Starkey did say that, while forming the branding, they looked at the survey results and have reached out to individuals about preferences. When asked about branding around North and South Carolina vs. Charlotte, to see if we could get some type of idea, Starkey simply said that they want to embrace both the Carolinas, but that the Charlotte feedback was strong. 
Community Engagement
Both Director of Community Engagement Dustin Swinehart and Community Engagement Manager Jorge Herrera were on the calls. Swinehart talked about community outreach opportunities, working in after-school programs and in disadvantaged neighborhoods, something we've heard often in conversations among the Collective members. He is also working directly with supporters, as he would like us to set a new standard across the league.

Other Tidbits
Nicholls was asked about the relationship with the Charlotte Independence. He said that the relationship with them is very solid and that his team actually provided some player analytics for them before the USL season came to an abrupt halt. We also heard assurances that the team will collaborate with Mint City on what the supporters' section concourse and entrance will look like for matches. Finally, President Tom Glick joined us for the Thursday call and said, "We see this as the beginning of a long-term conversation between all of you and the club … to make this club into what it should be.”
Wrap Up
Some of the main questions that we all want to know have yet to be answered, but again, it's amazing that they took the time to chat with us and provided the updates that they did. 

One of my main takeaways from these calls, something that was repeated by every single person from Charlotte MLS, was that the entire staff has really paid attention to what we are all saying through surveys, social media, and through these calls. They all believe supporters' groups will play a massive role in what Charlotte MLS will become.

Starkey brought up a good point during one of the calls: "How often do you get to be a part of creating something this massive? We should all appreciate it and embrace it. We know news has been slow, but we encourage all of you to keep the excitement up and get involved as things roll out." 
We are hoping to have more calls like this in the future, and we will, of course, keep everyone posted. Thanks to the team and the leadership of the Mint City Collective for making them happen.

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