Before Zoran Krneta can continue building Charlotte FC's inaugural roster, he's got to furnish and decorate his new office.
The sporting director has got a desk and a computer, so he can easily conduct business over virtual meetings as much of the world has done for the past eight months, then there's a whiteboard somewhere. The walls are bare, awaiting more club-related memorabilia and personal photos to be measured and hung to render the space his own. A little touch of home. Whenever the world returns to normal, this is where discussions will be had and decisions made to shape Charlotte's inaugural roster.
The connections between Krneta's new office space and his club's roster build are almost too obvious not to ignore.
Like adorning his office, Krneta isn't in a rush with his new club. After initially focusing on a chaotic sprint to get Charlotte FC ready to debut in MLS just over a year after the city was officially awarded an expansion club in December 2019, the pandemic has pushed back their entrance to 2022. Their infrastructure is up and running, the club have already signed two players, but the head coaching search has been put on pause and player acquisition has slowed down.
“The biggest positive of the extra year is to let us do the work without the pressure," Krneta told MLSsoccer.com last week of the roster build.
The added time will also allow Charlotte's robust scouting network — the true backbone of the club's plans — plenty of time to show its value.
Charlotte hired former PSV senior scout Thomas Schaling to be their director of scouting. Steve Walsh, who helped build Leicester City's historic Premier League-winning team in 2015-16, joined as a special adviser. Lisandro Isei (sports psychologist and scout), Vincent van Raam (video scouting specialist), and Davor Brasanac (Serbian-based scout) round out Schaling's staff.
“The scouting network and scouting department is absolutely key for any club in the world," Krneta, who was previously the co-founder of the global scouting network Star Sports & Entertainment that has placed players on rosters in MLS, the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, said. "The most successful clubs nurture and build that department, they put a lot of effort and time into it. The clubs who are not as successful, they disregard that department and focus on other things. Big-name players, big deals. The future is only scouting coupled with data/analytics."
A fertile ground for MLS imports in recent years has been South America. Diego Valeri, Miguel Almiron, Nico Lodeiro and plenty others are the major success stories from the region, as clubs seek to find quality talent who are great fits culturally in the league at an affordable cost. The problem, Krneta says, is that, with the number of clubs shopping in South America, value has become more difficult to find.
And while Charlotte believe they have a good handle on South America, they won't focus disproportionately on that market.
“We have a number of targets and an extensive scouting network worldwide – I mean you see that with Riley McGree," Krneta said. "We scout worldwide. We’re not focused on, let’s say like a majority of MLS teams, just Latin America. We look at Latin America, our head scout is a specialist with South America, but we know the real values and inflated values. We’re often seeing players move to the rest of the world, especially the U.S., at an inflated value. We won’t pay the price we don’t think the player is worth. Therefore, we’re looking everywhere. For bargains, for players who will fit our philosophy."
McGree, the club's second signing following Spanish midfielder Sergio Ruiz, was acquired from Australian club Adelaide United and immediately sent him on loan to English side Birmingham City. "Three continents, three different clubs all in three days!" Krneta said proudly.
The 22-year-old midfielder scored his first goal with Birmingham a few weeks ago as he settles into the team. Ruiz has been on loan in the Spanish second tier with UD Las Palmas, where he has appeared in all 12 of the club's games.
It's not often MLS clubs look to Australia for talent. It remains to be seen how McGree gets on in MLS, but his signing is what the club hope for by investing in vast scouting and analytic departments. They hope to capitalize on market inefficiencies and unearth valued assets.
“It’s a question of being present everywhere and knowing the market values, having information ready," Krneta said. "Information is key. We need to know everything about the player, the club, the manager, everything. We’ll have our own internal price for every target. If it’s a similar price that the selling club wants, then there’s a deal there. If not, I don’t see how we’ll do a deal. ... We will shop in a lot of places maybe a lot of clubs would be surprised. Because there’s value.”
Value is the crux of Charlotte's immediate plans.
Krneta noted they were only able to acquire Ruiz because of the financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, so they finalized his signing earlier than expected. Expect more of the same in the months moving forward, a slow drip of some players signed (then loaned until 2022). They will once again ramp up the coaching search, checking in on candidates they originally identified as well as new ones who emerged over the last year.
“We’re not going to rush," Krneta said. "We’re going to get a few more players before the summer, then we’ll be active in the summer window. We’ll see what COVID is bringing. And we hope to announce a head coach by then, who will then be able to monitor Sergio, Riley, our other players then analyze what we need to balance the team. That’s the less risky way to do it than bring 20 players in one month.”
The scouting network will help identify undervalued targets and mitigate risk when deals present themselves.
"It’s like picking up fruits," Krneta began to explain. He is full of metaphors. "There’s a time to pick up fruit. If you pick it up 10 days late, it’s no good anymore. If you pick it up 10 days early, it’s not ready.”