Christian Fuchs wheeled away from the penalty spot, thrusting his fist into the air and letting out a primal yell. The former Premier League title winner was soon blanketed in blue smoke, a familiar color throughout the defender’s 19-year career.
Yet this was not the blue of Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, his English home for six famous seasons. Instead, Fuchs was nearly 4,000 miles away.
The 36-year-old had just slotted home a penalty to open the scoring for Charlotte FC against third-placed Nashville SC in front of 36,244 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The goal sparked Charlotte to a 4-1 rout, the best result of the young club’s existence to date.
Fuchs is the cornerstone of the most recent Major League Soccer expansion team’s construction, the latest push by a brand new club to create something from nothing in short order.
MLS expansion is a uniquely American experience, following the lead of other major sports like the NFL, NBA and MLB which are built on franchises or clubs which become members of a league. Building a competitive roster, supporter fervor, and a club identity completely from scratch is a rare and intimidating concept, but one that creates a challenge that intrigues particularly competitive individuals looking to stamp their mark on the U.S. soccer landscape in a manner few have been afforded.
With Charlotte FC, an undertaking like few others is crossing the midway mark of its first-ever season. Like any club season, there have been ups and downs, but early signs are positive. It is the short-term fruit born out of a long-term plan that is bigger than any one individual or decision. That vision has already been tested just months into the club’s existence.
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Charlotte FC building a club from scratch
In your average, run-of-the-mill offseason, most football clubs around the world look at their roster, determine the areas needing improvement, bring in three or four players, sell three or four players, and look ahead to the coming campaign.
This past winter, Zoran Krneta had the unusual task of assembling a full 25-man squad piece by piece, in addition to an entire staff and front office needing construction as well. That’s the reality of an expansion team in American pro sports where there have been four expansion teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL since 2000. MLS has expanded by 11 clubs since 2015, including Charlotte, and with two more still to come.
Krneta, the first sporting director in Charlotte FC history, has served in multiple front office roles in global football. He founded the agency Star Sports & Entertainment, representing players like Branislav Ivanovic and discovering young talents like Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
Yet building a full professional roster from nothing was uncharted territory, even for someone as well-traveled as Krneta. “We had to bring in 25 players within a couple of months, and those players needed to adjust to each other, a new city, a new way of life,” Krneta said to The Sporting News. “I’m very proud of the group, they dealt with new changes and challenges very well.
“For teamwork to be successful, you need people to know each other, so it takes time. We did not build a roster to try and win the league in Year One.”
The start of the season went as expected for a squad that hadn’t ever played together before, but now halfway through the season and with a larger sample size of results, the product has marketably improved. The club has produced increasingly consistent results on the field, giving top MLS clubs tough matches and pushing into the playoff positions of the table.
“I think we went from not knowing each other at all, a completely new team — 25, 26, 27 new players — to finally getting going, which has shown in the last five or so games especially,” club captain Fuchs said. “I’m enjoying my time here not because it’s nice weather in North Carolina, but because we are very competitive.”
The on-field success has opened plenty of eyes, according to club president Joe LaBue. For a recent win over Nashville in early July, the club opened the upper level of the NFL-sized Bank of America Stadium for the first time since the season’s first match and the record-setting 74,479 crowd for the inaugural match. The club is averaging 36,000 fans per game, and the results are only helping.
“I didn’t know how much engagement we would have Year One,” LaBue said. “I didn’t know how much wins & losses would matter at this point, and it’s very clear that it matters a lot.”
A little past the halfway mark of its first season, the club had the same number of wins as MLS powers like the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders in virtually the same number of games. But it took a dramatic coaching change to make it happen.
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Charlotte FC’s bold move: Coaching change after five months
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing during the Charlotte FC expansion season. A head coaching change just three months into the season was not part of the plan.
Krneta made waves when he dismissed the club’s first-ever head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez just three months into the club’s existence. Ramirez’s guidance had been publicly lauded by fans and media, steering what he described as a weak roster to surprising early results.
That public narrative spun by the coach was not shared within the club. Instead, the front office at Charlotte FC felt that the performances on the field failed to adequately mirror the strengths of the squad. Krneta and his staff felt there was a disconnect, and the team cohesion he hoped to see take shape was not materializing.
As Ramirez publicly complained about the quality of players afforded to him, going so far as to say “we’re screwed” prior to the season start, the front office felt there was far more available to Ramirez than he made it sound.
“We were not particularly impressed by the performances under the first coach,” Krneta said, “because we thought that the team and individual players were better than the group’s performance. The narrative, unfortunately, was opposite. The narrative was ‘this is a very poorly constructed roster with this amazing coach who is a magician.’ We didn’t agree with that.”
As the season progressed, the disconnect became increasingly evident. Ramirez doubled down on his pre-season comments weeks later by saying, “I wasn’t just speaking for myself but everyone, for them and me.”
So Krneta made a change and canned a coach that was growing in popularity for his outspokenness and the team’s style of play. Not only did the team endure early fan backlash for making what at the time was an unpopular decision, but it was also a very public admission of a mistake.
What comes across in conversing with Krneta is that he’s confident enough to be self-critical. When asked if he could go back in January and give himself one piece of advice, he was straightforward: “I would focus more on proven MLS players, 100 percent,” Krneta said. “We knew we wanted that, but the previous coach [Miguel Angel Ramirez] did not particularly rate the value of MLS as a league and MLS players.”
In Ramirez’s place stepped assistant Christian Lattanzio, who has worked alongside Fabio Capello, Roberto Mancini and Patrick Vieira in the past. He has completely transformed the team’s identity, changing the image of the team from a cute underdog story to legitimate playoff contender. The results have thus far vindicated what was billed initially as a rash decision, and the feeling within the club is that unity is at an all-time high from ownership down to the coaching staff.
“Building a club is like building a house,” Krneta said. “You’re not building it to live in for one summer or one winter, you want it to last for generations.”
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Leicester City at the heart of Charlotte FC
Every club needs a heartbeat, from Real Madrid and Liverpool all the way down to your rec league team. Someone or something that drives the team forward, a presence to push the team in times of strife and harness the positive energy in times of elation.
For Charlotte FC, that heartbeat comes from one of the greatest stories in modern soccer history.
When Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2016, it sent shockwaves through the footballing world. Charlotte FC now has a piece of that embedded within its soul.
Before hiring a single player or coach, Krneta brought aboard a person he calls a “legend”: Steve Walsh, now a special advisor with the MLS side. Walsh came from Leicester City, who he joined in 2011 as assistant manager and head of recruitment, eventually responsible for bringing Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante, and much of the title-winning squad to the Foxes.
Naturally, Walsh’s first call with Charlotte was to one of the rocks of that 2016 title-winning lineup — Christian Fuchs. From the start of October of that fateful season, the Austrian international logged more Premier League minutes than all but two outfield players on the Leicester City roster, cementing himself as a legend of the English club.
Fuchs couldn’t say no to a new challenge. The 36-year-old told The Sporting News, “When Steve says ‘this is a great opportunity for you and your career now’…what can I do? I trust this person.”
Walsh’s recruit has turned into the natural leader the fledgling club needed. A natural left-back, Fuchs has at times deputized in the heart of defense earlier in the year. His tenacity and leadership has bled into the squad, and impressed the front office.
When asked if seeing clubs like LAFC signing global superstars this summer tempted him to join the party, Krneta didn’t hesitate. “We have our our own version of [Giorgio] Chiellini, which is Christian Fuchs. He’s done a great job for us, and a lot of people were questioning this. We got a top professional and a leader on and off the pitch, training harder than anyone else. That’s a great message for the younger kids, and this is how you build the new stars.”
Fuchs admits MLS wasn’t what he thought it was when first arriving. “For me, MLS is more competitive than I thought it would be, not having known anything about it, because you can’t give a judgement before having played in it yourself.
“You can see that there’s young, talented players coming through the ranks in the U.S., which is great for the future…there’s a lot of potential.”
Charlotte FC’s path forward
As Krneta, Lattanzio, and Fuchs continue to work on building a successful club on the field, there’s plenty happening off it.
There are others tasked with fostering the community of supporters around the club and the culture that those fans are slowly building. Team president LaBue says Charlotte FC wants to cultivate a following among soccer fans, first and foremost, alongside those who follow other sports.
“There is a huge soccer culture in Charlotte and in the Carolinas,” LaBue said. “MLS wasn’t always here, but soccer was. Talent was here, and fans were here. So we have to give that attention and give them what they’re hoping for.
“We want to have fans come to the game who maybe watch Champions League or the Premier League on TV, but haven’t ever come to an MLS match before, and help them become MLS fans.”
And the club wants to go beyond the Charlotte city limits in due time and become the club for the Carolinas. Achieving the level of success off the field will be tied to the winning that happens on it. Recent MLS expansion clubs Atlanta United and LAFC are examples.
“I think what we need to be a regular playoff contender is a stability that every expansion club doesn’t have,” Krneta says. “You can’t build it overnight, it has to be six months, a year, or even longer.”
While LaBue and Krneta handle the bigger picture, Fuchs sees the club blossoming on the field as well. “Charlotte needs an identity,” said Fuchs, who spoke about how MLS as a whole doesn’t quite have a trademark style of play, affording every club the chance to establish its own unique way of playing. “We want to be known as a well organized team that’s good in possession but also not shy of pressing and putting in the dirty work.”
Stable and healthy clubs are often a reflection of their ownership group. In the case of Charlotte FC, deep-pocketed David Tepper, doesn’t only have the resources to build a winner, but he’s also engaged in the club’s day-to-day.
“He’s an owner who really cares about what’s happening here. He’s very involved,” Fuchs said. “When I was injured, we had a lot of conversations at training…he’s really involved, he really cares, and he wants Charlotte to be a top club in the league. As long as you have an owner like David Tepper who’s involved in the best [interests] of the club, it will push forward.”
And there is plenty of work to do. That was never more evident than in a July match against Inter Miami, just one weekend after the electrifying win over Nashville. Charlotte staked themselves out to a 2-0 road lead against David Beckham’s struggling side, only for it to all unravel in the second half. Charlotte eventually conceded an ugly 93rd-minute goal to lose 3-2, seeing all three precious points slip away in the logjammed playoff chase.
Charlotte FC may need time to become a well-established MLS force, but the Queen City’s team is already making plenty of noise. One more way it’s doing that? A summer friendly against English giants Chelsea FC, a mere five months after playing its first official game as a club. It’s the latest bold move by a brand new club that has already shown it’s not afraid to make them.
Title : Charlotte FC 1-1 5-3 pens Chelsea Full Match Replay Pre-Season Tour
Artist Name : Chelsea Football Club
Duration : 59:22
Video Size : 81.53 MB
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