MLS will kick off in Charlotte in less than a year, and while the new club have postponed the unveiling of their name and colors in light of the global coronavirus pandemic, an organizational identity may already be taking root under sporting director Zoran Krneta.
“I'll give you a quote which will probably fit very well with my thinking and the thinking of my team, and I think would work well with the people of Charlotte and Carolina,” Krneta explained in a recent video-chat conversation with MLSsoccer.com, citing a tidbit of wisdom from his fellow Serbian Bozidar Maljkovic, one of European basketball’s most successful coaches.
“He basically said that dogs and wolves are the same, except for one difference: Dogs live at home, food and water are provided and they sleep in their owner’s bed. Wolves, meanwhile, live on mountains, have to find their own food and find somewhere to sleep. So, bottom line, I want to have a team full of wolves.”
A former agent and scout with an eye for talent and a global contacts network, Krneta is responsible for unearthing and/or advancing players like Luka Jovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and New York City FC striker Heber over the years, and also played a role in 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic's move to Chicago Fire FC.
Now he’s building MLS Charlotte’s soccer operation from the ground up, a process he says is on schedule despite the disruption wreaked by COVID-19.
“Because we started early,” Krneta said from London, where he’s based at present; he and other Charlotte hires from overseas have had to delay their Stateside moves due to the pandemic. “We were kind of lucky that we knew early that the franchise might be ours, so we started preparations. And the day that we announced, 17th of December I think, we were already talking to the main people.
“From the middle of January we were working full-time: The scouting department, technical department was brought on, the people for youth development were brought on, community engagement and that arm was formed. So I would say that in some areas like scouting or identifying players and head coach, we are almost a little ahead of where we might be expected to be.”
There’s reason for urgency. Though other expansion newcomers have also faced truncated timelines for entry, most have been existing clubs moving up from USL or NASL, not brand-new entities like Charlotte, though their sister organization and Bank of America Stadium housemates, the NFL’s Panthers, have provided some useful infrastructure.
Charlotte could conceivably start signing players as soon as this summer – although it’s anyone’s guess what the global transfer market looks like under current conditions – and are planning for their first-ever squad to report for preseason on or around Jan. 4.
“We've been scouting all over the world; there is not really a continent where we don't have potential targets right now,” said Krneta. “We would ideally like to see some of these players live, although this is not always the most important thing. What may be even more important than seeing players live: We can watch 20, 30 games on them and dig through the data, the analytics and other information.
“What we would like to do is sit down with the player and find out about their mentality, about the family situation, background, everything. I'm interested in everything — even what kind of food you like, if you have a dog or not. I believe this is a very serious business where you have to minimize any potential risks.”
Krneta believes the MLS environment calls for a particular blend of commitment, athleticism and resilience.
“For me personally, the most important skill set for the player in any league, including MLS, will be mentality,” he said. “Mentality, hard work, desire to succeed. Talent comes after that. MLS is a very physical league, very strong and challenging league with a high tempo, in my opinion. It reminds me a little bit of the English Championship … strong, tempo, physicality, but also a lot of quality technical players.
“Charlotte is not going to be a holiday destination for any player – or the executives, or non-playing staff. It’s the same thing.”
Savvy international acquisitions are one plank for the club; another is the rapid deployment of an academy system to cultivate local talent.
“I think the USA has an incredible pool of talent,” said Krneta. “I mean if you look only at the Carolinas, we have academies that have 6-7,000, 10,000 players. Nobody can convince me that there are no big soccer stars.
“How many [Christian] Pulisics are there? How many Gio Reynas? If you look at the Bundesliga, there's 250 American players in this league,” he added. “But those players, potentially, in my opinion, are leaving a little bit too early. And I would like to see some of those players staying and being given the chance to play in MLS. Maybe go the route of [Alphonso] Davies: play for the [MLS] team and then go to Bayern Munich. And he’s doing great. Just another proof that there’s a lot of talent, a lot of players. The mindset has to be focused on finding them and developing them – and playing them. That’s very important.”
Former MLS defender and North Carolina native Darrius Barnes joined Extratime in December to discuss the popularity of soccer in his home state.
Charlotte’s next big hire is their head coach, and they’ve held preliminary conversations with potential candidates abroad. They’re also contemplating domestic contenders for the job, though Krneta says those interviews will have to wait until the schedule regains some semblance of normalcy.
“We want a coach that will fit the profile of the Charlotte and the club,” said Krneta. “Charlotte is a vibrant, full of energy, relatively young, ambitious city, and we would probably describe similarly the club. And from there you can get some of the profile and characteristics of the coach.”
While the manager will have the freedom to implement their preferred philosophy and style, Charlotte have an NFL-sized stadium to fill, a well-to-do owner in billionaire David Tepper and a desire to be competitive and entertaining out of the gate.
“We would love to come to be attacking-oriented, shall I say, and possibly very pressing-oriented,” said Krneta. “So therefore it would be a coach who can buy into these ideas. And then I think there are quite a few very, very interesting young, ambitious coaches around the world who fit into that category.”
He emphasizes the collective resolve to be more than just also-rans in year one.
“We made sure we brought the best people we think at this moment could help us to build this team to be competitive from day one,” he said. “Whether we will win [MLS] Cup or not, nobody can say, but whether we will be competitive from day one? Absolutely.”