So who is this new crew garbed in Carolina blue? Here’s some background on the expansion side.
North Carolina’s largest city has seen several professional teams over the decades, including the Carolina Lightnin' of the old American Soccer League in the early 1980s and more recent USL sides Charlotte Eagles and Charlotte Independence. It was on MLS’s original list of potential markets before the league’s 1996 launch but didn’t make the cut, and subsequent expansion bids centered on renovations of historic American Legion Memorial Stadium didn’t come off.
With Gold Cup matches and international friendlies drawing large crowds to Bank of America Stadium, the young, fast-growing metropolis remained intriguing to MLS leaders, however, as well as the wider Carolinas region. And everything changed when billionaire David Tepper bought the NFL’s Carolina Panthers in 2018. Tepper stated his interest in an MLS team from the jump and soon hired former NYCFC and Manchester City executive Tom Glick to lead that process.
Charlotte underlined their intent to surge to the front of the MLS expansion race by unveiling a nine-figure plan to upgrade BOA for hosting both the gridiron and world varieties of football, then signing off on a lofty expansion fee that smashed the previous record. They were officially welcomed to the league on Dec. 17, 2019 and right away made clear their intent to go big on an Atlanta United/Seattle Sounders-type scale, aiming to draw big attendance numbers and connect with the millions of soccer lovers in the Queen City and beyond.
CLT FC further signaled those big ambitions with their first head coaching hire, Spaniard Miguel Angel Ramirez. A cerebral, charismatic manager – still just 37, he’s the youngest coach in MLS – he turned heads around the world when he led unfancied Ecuadorian club Independiente del Valle to the 2019 Copa Sudamericana title with a squad that included current Vancouver Whitecaps attacker Cristian Dajome and midfielder Alan Franco, who would later join Ramirez in Charlotte.
Ramirez is a disciple of the juego de posicion philosophy, an intricate, structured approach whose devotees include Louis van Gaal and Pep Guardiola. In general terms the idea is to dominate possession, stretching and disorganizing the opposition with fast, fluid ball circulation and maximum use of the full pitch, usually in conjunction with aggressive high pressing and counterpressing. Bob Bradley, Gregg Berhalter and Tata Martino are among those who’ve incorporated elements of this approach in the North American setting.
Like Bradley’s LAFC and Berhalter’s US men’s national team, Ramirez usually arranges his teams in an expansive 4-3-3 formation with two “free 8” advanced center mids and plenty of attacking enterprise along the flanks. He’s also utilized a 5-4-1 in preseason, though, hinting at a more reactive tactical posture which may mean he’s not yet fully confident in his side’s ability to impose themselves on adversaries.
Ramirez has brought both Latin American style and personnel to North Carolina, doing plenty of recruitment in South America with the likes of Vinicius Mello, Jordy Alcivar, Cristian Ortiz and Guzman Corujo. Other flavors abound too, though, starting with longtime Leicester City fullback Christian Fuchs and Designated Player Karol Swiderski, a Polish international No. 9 who’s reportedly Charlotte’s most expensive signing to date and is being counted on for scoring output.
Sporting director Zoran Krneta is a former agent and scout with a substantial contacts network, having been credited for discoveries like Luka Jovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and New York City FC striker Heber. He and Nick Kelly, a key figure in the club’s launch who recently moved from CLT FC president to CEO of parent company Tepper Sports & Entertainment, have weathered some setbacks in their roster construction, however.
Earlier this month Charlotte had a reported $6 million DP deal with Venezuelan winger Darwin Machis fall through due to the Granada player’s legal issues in Spain. A move for Polish international Kamil Jozwiak was cratered by an injury suffered by the Derby County winger. And their pursuit of USMNT wide man Paul Arriola was foiled by FC Dallas’ record-setting allocation money offer ($2 million GAM, plus incentives) to pry him loose from D.C. United.
It all led to Ramirez saying “estamos jodidos” (polite translation: we’re screwed) in a media availability when asked about the current squad’s ability to deliver Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualification in year 1, a frank observation that quickly went viral. That said, the MLS primary transfer window remains open, and with Tepper’s vast spending power it seems like a matter of time – whether now or in the summer marketplace – before CLT reel in some bigger fish.
Located in the shadow of the center city’s skyscrapers in the uptown district, BOA debuted in 1996 when the Panthers launched and was crafted with soccer in mind. It has a maximum capacity of 75,412, which CLT FC plan to pack out for their home opener, a clash with the LA Galaxy on March 5, taking aim at the MLS single-game regular-season attendance record of 72,548 held by Atlanta.
Like ATLUTD, most of their matches will utilize only the venue’s lower bowl and club sections, though, at a total of 38,000 seats. A $50 million refurbishment project has added locker rooms for CLT FC and visiting teams, a midfield tunnel entrance for soccer games, additional video screens and camera locations and myriad other upgrades, as well as a switch from a grass playing surface to FieldTurf in light of the heavier usage brought on by cohabitation and other events.
Charlotte have sold more than 20,000 season tickets so far and reports suggest they have a very realistic chance of reaching the milestone they seek for their home debut.
Upwards of half a dozen supporters groups have already sprung up, some of them well before Charlotte officially earned their expansion slot, to offer hard-core fans a way to get behind CLT FC, including the Mint City Collective, The Queens Firm and Southbound & Crown.
The club has founded a Supporters Council to facilitate communication and coordination with the Sgs, who will congregate in BOA’s Supporters Section, located behind the east goal, on gamedays. Media reports suggest that 300 or more of them will travel to Washington as away support for this weekend’s inaugural match.
Many of those groups’ names, as well as the team’s “Newly Minted” away kit, reflect aspects of the city’s history like the U.S. Treasury coin mint that operated there in the 1800s, and the roots of its name, a tribute to Queen Charlotte, wife of Britain’s King George III.
When it comes to budding rivalries, there’s no doubt about who CLT are targeting: Their nearest MLS neighbors, the big dogs four hours’ drive to the southwest in Atlanta. Citing the Five Stripes’ self-applied tag as “Kings of the South” and Charlotte’s regal nickname, ATLUTD president Darren Eales recently mused that the matchup might be dubbed something like the “Royal Rumble.”
As alluded to above, Charlotte aspire to qualify for the postseason in year one, an achievement which would put them in select company. Only seven expansion teams have made the MLS Cup Playoffs in their inaugural seasons; just one, the 1998 Chicago Fire, won it all, a distant achievement which today feels like it happened in a different league entirely.
And pedants might attach an asterisk to one of the most recent examples, Inter Miami, who snagged the East’s 10th and final spot in 2020, when the field was expanded in recognition of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the competition. (The Herons were promptly bounced in the opening round by fellow newcomers Nashville SC, who probably offer CLT FC a more useful modus operandi to crib notes from, having built a sturdy defensive foundation before shifting focus to the attack.)
ESPNFC’s Noah Davis recently wrote a “dos and don’ts” piece about potential expansion lessons from the new kids where he delves into this angle in detail; it’s worth a read.
Ramirez’s ideal game model is intricate and difficult to perfect. At the moment he doesn’t seem to have the kind of high-grade offensive firepower that Martino enjoyed out of the gates with Atlanta. An entirely new squad must find its identity and be tweaked and strengthened on the fly.
All that could well make the Charlotte project difficult to truly assess for months to come, with the distinct possibility that the fanbase will need to subsist for a good while on the euphoria of having a top-flight team of their own and the chance to build a culture around it.
But this is MLS; who knows for sure? Outside of a true elite of four teams or so, the Eastern Conference field has room for a Cinderella to sneak into one of the final playoff berths. It also bears watching to see if Charlotte can leverage the return of the U.S. Open Cup to embark on a midseason tournament run that would build confidence among players and supporters alike.
Whatever transpires in their maiden voyage, the Mint City has arrived, and aim to become a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.