National Writer: Charles Boehm

Dean Smith thinking big at Charlotte FC: “We can go create our history”

Charlotte FC - Dean Smith

Some variation on the word ‘ambition’ was uttered no fewer than 10 times as Charlotte FC introduced Dean Smith as the third head coach in their brief history on Monday – and the Englishman did not shy away from great expectations in his new gig.

“If I sat here and said I have come to do anything but win MLS Cup, I shouldn't be hired,” Smith told a room full of journalists at Atrium Health Performance Park, CLTFC’s training facility.

“The role is for anybody to be as ambitious as possible and my ambitions are to bring the MLS trophy here. Whether that be the next year, the year after that, that's my ambition and the players will know that as soon as they get here.”

The Crown reached the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs during their second season of existence, seizing the Eastern Conference’s ninth and final slot in the final weeks of the campaign to notch a key milestone for any expansion side.

Yet the arduous path they took to get there, combined with their fleetingly brief stay in the postseason – the New York Red Bulls routed them 5-2 in the Wild Card round – convinced owner David Tepper, sporting director Zoran Krneta and the rest of CLT’s decision-makers to move on from previous boss Christian Lattanzio.

“I think that sets a bar already,” said Smith, a defender in his professional playing days who managed Walsall and Brentford in England’s lower divisions before drawing attention by leading Aston Villa from the English Championship back into the Premier League in 2019.

“My job is to develop players. If I develop the players, then the team develops, and if the team develops then we start winning football games, soccer games, and we get into the upper echelons of the regular-season league. That's what we need to do.”

Why Charlotte?

This is Smith’s first coaching foray outside his homeland. Yet he’s familiar with MLS, Charlotte and the Carolinas thanks to his son Jamie, who crossed the pond to play college soccer at Limestone University and NC State and currently competes for USL League One club Greenville Triumph. He’s already attended a CLTFC game at Bank of America Stadium and spoke glowingly of the size and passion of the fanbase and the matchday experience they create.

“In the UK, most clubs have a long history. So probably my first club, Walsall, is 140 years old, but has never played in the top league,” he said. “This is exciting. It's a challenge.

“I'm really impressed with the facilities, for one at the training facility. I've had a good start already by being in attendance with the Panthers [CLT’s NFL siblings] winning yesterday. So it's a great start so far, but it's one, really, that we can go create our history, and what's happened in a short space of time is a credit to everybody here.”

Krneta declined to discuss other finalists in Charlotte’s coaching search, which reportedly also included the likes of Frank Lampard, Robin Fraser and Freddy Juarez, emphasizing Smith was a clear choice.

“We’ve done a comprehensive long process of about three, four weeks, where we looked at a number of candidates and, to be honest, Dean stood out from the very first moment,” said Krneta, citing Smith’s experience and leadership qualities as major factors.

“He has the ability to make the players better, and I think it's his desire to come here. That's very important. He wants to be here. He wanted to come and take us to the next level.”

Imparting an identity

Smith most recently led Leicester City for a handful of matches at the end of the Foxes’ 2022-23 Premier League slate, a brief and ultimately unsuccessful effort to dodge relegation to the second tier.

He spoke of both proactivity and pragmatism when asked about his desired playing style in Charlotte, while also pointing to young talents he’s promoted at his previous clubs to make clear that he’ll give opportunities to academy players and prospects from CLT’s second team Crown Legacy, which finished joint-tops in the MLS NEXT Pro regular-season table this year.

“First and foremost, it’s to come in and assess the squad first and see how adaptable they are in terms of playing style,” Smith explained. “I can sit here and say my playing philosophy is the same as Pep Guardiola’s or Jurgen Klopp’s, but we haven’t got their players. So my playing style has always been, if we lose the ball, win the ball back quickly and go and score as quickly as we can. And if we can't, then we retain possession and find different ways to score.

“And that will continue through all the clubs, because the game doesn't change in that sense. You've either got the ball or you haven't got the ball, and I want my teams to have control with and without the ball. But we want to excite fans and attacking football excites fans. So that's what we want to try and do here.”

Smith’s ability to do so will be highly influenced by Krneta’s winter improvements to a roster with several areas in need of upgrades.

“It's still a building process. We have some players that have left us, there might be some players that will be leaving,” said Krneta. “That's part and parcel of the game, that's normal. We are going to improve. We need to improve; we know exactly the positions we need to improve the roster to give Dean the best tools and the best chance to succeed.”