Welcome, Charlotte FC: How the Panthers’ ‘Other Football Project’ became a real club

It’s transfer deadline day in Europe, and atop the 12th floor of a skyrise in Charlotte, North Carolina, Zoran Krneta darts back and forth through Charlotte FC‘s offices. A bell rings, signifying another season ticket sold, a tally is added to the ticket sales leaderboard and staff members prepare gift boxes to send out to new supporters.

Krneta, the club’s sporting director, suggests moving the interview to a local French bar. On the eve of potentially signing the club’s second Designated Player, he hoped his old fashioned would be celebratory. Ultimately, though, that deal fell through and, looking back, the whiskey would be consolatory.

For Major League Soccer‘s newest expansion team, growing pains are natural and to be expected. When building a club from the ground up, firsts are meant to be celebrated — even if “first big signing to get away” isn’t necessary one of them. The first coach, the first kit, the first game: they’re all milestones worth toasting.

The first game wasn’t as joyous as many hoped, ending in a 3-0 defeat to D.C. United. There’s still the home opener to come, though, on Saturday when Charlotte welcomes the LA Galaxy to the Queen City.

The team’s highly publicized and ambitious goals are plastered all over the club’s walls: There’s 74K for the largest MLS crowd ever, 30K for the average attendance over the course of a season and 1 to symbolize hosting a playoff match. That ambition was born long before owner David Tepper spent a record-breaking $325 million expansion fee — eclipsing the $200 million St. Louis reportedly paid to join the league, starting in 2023 — to finally bring an MLS team to the Carolinas after several failed bids by previous entities, and it has been a common thread woven throughout the fabric of the fledgling club. It also goes beyond wanting to be the first MLS team to fill a roster spot through a reality show (which likely won’t happen until the back half of the season), or the first team in the league to hire a “chief fan officer.”

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The club says it’s all about being progressive.

“We have been doing it differently since day one, and we’re not doing it to be disruptive and to be loud, we’re doing it because we actually think it will help us win on the field and off the field,” former Charlotte FC president and now-CEO of parent company Tepper Sports and Entertainment (TSE) Nick Kelly said. “If we can’t be the first person to do it, or we can’t be the best at it, or the only one who’s doing it, why are we doing it?”

That emphasis on innovation has not been lost on MLS commissioner Don Garber.

“I think any time you bring a new team into a league, you hope that they bring new ideas, that they innovate, that they make everybody better,” Garber told ESPN. “Having that enormous energy that only comes when you first join a league, I’m excited for it.”

Building a club

Before the expansion bid was announced, Charlotte FC existed as an acronym on an email subject line as OFP: the Other Football Project. In the fall of 2018, a small internal committee of Carolina Panthers staff members, whose responsibilities ranged from ticketing, to partnerships, to entertainment, to community, to digital, started assembling the groundwork for the MLS bid. OFP meetings took place twice a week in a vacant suite at Bank of America Stadium, after the day’s work for the Panthers was done. It was in those confines where the first pitch decks to the league were discussed, verbal commitments from potential suite owners were secured and where a hypothetical idea turned into a tangible team.

“It was almost like an after-school project, developing this franchise,” said current Charlotte FC president Joe LaBue. “It was a lot of fun, just spitballing, whiteboarding, iterating what it would look like.”

“Charlotte, you ready to party,” Tepper asked the city after being awarded an MLS team on Dec. 17, 2019. The answer was a resounding “yes,” as more than 7,000 season-ticket deposits were made in the following 24 hours.

“[Tepper] didn’t strike me as a karaoke guy, but you know, it showed that he’s got unbridled passion,” Garber joked, recalling the moment his newest owner broke into song alongside him. “He’s brought that same energy and passion from day one.”

Tepper punted a soccer ball through priceless artwork in celebration at the uptown Mint Museum, and a pre-pandemic party took the city’s soccer scene by storm, like the one Charlotte had been fighting off all day.

“We were gathered in Hooligans in the French Quarter in Charlotte, which is kind of the hub of the Charlotte soccer scene,” Matt Chantry, VP of supporters group Mint City Collective, said. “It was like sardines in a can in there. David Tepper just rolled in and was pouring pints, buying everyone beer and taking selfies with people leaning out the window and chanting.”

The team was supposed to launch in 2021, alongside Austin FC, but the COVID-19 pandemic postponed further celebrations by a year. The coronavirus impacted the timeline of renovations to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Panthers for the past 26 years — and soon to be Charlotte FC’s too — and any capacity restrictions would have deprived the club of the atmosphere and financial support that comes with an inaugural season.

Charlotte is now the sixth club in MLS to share its home stadium with the city’s NFL counterpart (along with Atlanta United, the New England Revolution, the Chicago Fire, Nashville SC (until its new soccer-specific stadium opens this season) and the Seattle Sounders), and the third team to be housed under the same ownership (joining Atlanta and New England). Having Bank of America Stadium as an already-established selling point has been vital for the club in recruiting players and staff — even before Tepper invested approximately $50 million to transform the Panthers’ home into a multi-sport facility.

“This building, I don’t have this in Greece or in Poland,” DP Karol Swiderski said after being introduced to his new fans at the stadium. “This is something special for me.”

The challenge came in making Bank of America Stadium feel like it belonged to the football club as well. An entry corridor illuminated by chandeliers leads into a 2,600-square-foot dressing room equipped with a marble restroom and shower area. A soccer-specific training room, player lounges, sports medicine suites with hydrotherapy pools and offices were also built out for Charlotte FC.

The club’s initial plan called for partnering with the city to transform the old Eastland Mall into a mixed-use redevelopment site that would house the team’s headquarters. That changed when Charlotte FC announced its headquarters would reside in Uptown and the academy would occupy the Eastland Mall site, with conversations over a long-term plan still ongoing. For now, the team is training on the natural grass of Matthews SportsPlex — formerly home to the USL’s Charlotte Independence — and at Bank of America ahead of games that will be played on turf.

The league’s first chief fan officer, Shawn McIntosh, scrolls through recordings of original chants and jingles in a message thread he has with various supporters’ groups. They bounce around ideas for tifos and matchday traditions, and plan get-togethers to practice for the inaugural season. While the chants and traditions are new, Charlotte is quick to say the club is not building soccer culture in the Carolinas from scratch. Supporters groups like the QC Royals, who were established in 2015, had been cheering on other local clubs like the now-folded Stumptown AC and the Charlotte Independence for years. Those fans are hoping to make the team’s first home game the most-attended match in MLS history.

“To have the largest crowd ever in an MLS game speaks to where our league is going,” Garber said. “That’s a story that will be heard around the world.”

There have been hiccups along the way, though, primarily to do with ticket prices and fees associated with them.

Charlotte is the first in the league to mandate a personal seat license for season tickets sold outside of the supporters’ and community sections — the latter having licenses covered through a sponsorship arrangement with healthcare provider Centene. Those license fees range from $350 to $900, with an option to pay over 36 months. Season tickets were already among the most expensive in the league, ranging from $486 to $2,250, drawing considerable criticism on social media. Despite those missteps, supporters have noted the club’s emphasis on authenticity and communication when it comes to addressing their concerns.

“I’ve worked in sports for 13 years,” McIntosh said. “I’ve never seen this level of transparency. It starts from the top.”

Fans were consulted in the early stages of the OFP meetings, and their level of interest helped bring MLS to the Carolinas. LaBue stressed the importance of maintaining those relationships. Just two days after he was announced as Kelly’s successor, he was exchanging contact information with supporters’ groups at a local bar.

“I need them to be a sounding board,” LaBue said. “I don’t need them to be constant cheerleaders. I need them to hold us accountable.”

Building a team

Krneta was announced as the club’s first hire two weeks after the bid announcement. He co-founded Star Sports & Entertainment, where he brokered contracts across MLS, the Premier League, LaLiga and Serie A. His global connections have aided in putting the pieces of the club together, including bringing on Steve Walsh as a special advisor.

Leicester City won the Premier League with Walsh as assistant manager in 2015-16, and he’s credited with recruiting N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy — the three pillars of that title triumph. His appointment, along with the hiring of director of scouting Thomas Schaling from PSV Eindhoven, kickstarted the global search to build out the roster.

Walsh made a call to his former Leicester signee Christian Fuchs to gauge the defender’s interest in the new club. Fuchs’s family was already living in New York, so the move to the U.S. felt like the right decision, and he brings with him the experience of living one of soccer’s greatest Cinderella stories.

“Him making me a Premier League champion … there is nothing else I need,” Fuchs said. “I trust [Walsh].”

Charlotte signed its first player, Spanish midfielder Sergio Ruiz from Racing Santander, before the club even had a name or a head coach. In the early stages of recruiting, Krneta had to rely on selling the dream of building something new. Ruiz had other enticing offers, but he was all-in on the vision.

Head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez was on the staff’s radar for 18 months, but hiring him only took four days. Simply put, they didn’t think they could get him.

Ramirez had won the 2019 Copa Sudamericana as the manager of Ecuador‘s Independiente del Valle and was managing Internacional in Brazil‘s Serie A while Charlotte was interviewing other candidates. He was dismissed on June 11, and Charlotte secured the club’s first coach by July 7. It was love at first sight, and Ramirez became the youngest active head coach in MLS at the age of 36 (now 37).

“It is like when you see the girl [for the] first time and you know, this is the girl for you. This is how I felt when I first interviewed Miguel,” Krneta said. I was like, ‘Wow, this is the coach for us. This is the coach to take us places.'”

Prior to preseason, Ramirez jokes that he spends more time in Krneta’s office than in his own home. The two have neighboring offices and have formed a strong bond Krneta chalks up to two words: trust and respect. However, Krneta claims Ramirez keeps stealing his mineral waters from his office mini fridge. That’s OK, though; Krneta has been stashing away Ramirez’s protein bars to conduct “market research” for the players, he admits with a laugh.

“We make a lot of jokes,” Krneta said. “Good banter,” director of player personnel Bobby Belair chimes in. “Fantastic banter,” Krneta adds.

“The office atmosphere is great,” Krneta said. “And to be honest, I don’t think we would be able to pull this team together as we did if we didn’t have this kind of atmosphere in the office.”

With Ramirez locked in, the team added another layer to its evolving identity: a game model. The system is a complex style of possession play that requires a specific type of player. Having the strategy solidified made Krneta’s approach clear, and finding some players with familiarity of the system certainly helped the build.

Charlotte’s first U22-initiative signing Vinicius Mello was signed from Ramirez’s former team Internacional. Former Independiente del Valle players Alan Franco and Christian “Titi” Ortiz were picked up on loans. The club’s first No. 10, Ortiz, scored nine goals in 31 games under Ramirez in 2020, while midfielder Franco started all 11 matches in the 2019 Copa Sudamericana victory.

“At Independiente, I had a great year and had a lot of fun. I grew up a lot as a player and a person, so I’m very happy to be here with Coach Miguel Angel Ramirez,” Ortiz said at his introductory news conference. “I know Miguel’s playing style and it helped a lot.”

The club’s first DP was secured when Swiderski joined from Greek side PAOK, shocking former Poland manager Paulo Sousa. Krneta had called his longtime friend to do a character check on the 25-year-old striker, and instead, Krneta received recognition.

“I’ve known Paulo for a long time so I called him and I said, ‘Paulo, Karol Swiderski?’ And he said, ‘What about him?’ I said we like him and he said, ‘Come on, he’s a Serie A player, he’s a Bundesliga player, there’s no way he will go to MLS,'” Krneta recounted of his conversation with Sousa. “Well, we have more or less done the deal, I just want to talk to you a little more about him. He said, ‘Amazing player. Amazing human being, amazing player. I can’t believe that you got that player.'”

And yet, Charlotte FC has built the team without breaking the bank. To compete, Ramirez says the team will need to pay. Where it will pay, though, is still to be decided.

What Charlotte won’t do is follow the MLS 2.0 blueprint and sign a big-name star in the twilight of his career.

“Guys are showing by example, showing that we should be in the gym extra, that we should be watching film extra, that we need to do the little details and take care of our bodies,” midfielder Chris Hegardt said, referencing Fuchs and Ortiz. “I think ultimately that will make the team so much better.”

The final countdown

The first weeks of 2022 were uncertain ones for Charlotte, beyond the usual question marks that come ahead of an expansion team’s inaugural season.

The president of Tepper Sports and Entertainment, Tom Glick, left the organization. Charlotte FC president Kelly was promoted to replace him. The team’s technical director departed for an opportunity with the Columbus Crew.

The sporting side also faced some unexpected fallout in its pursuit of multiple big-name signings. Most notably, it was outbid by FC Dallas for Paul Arriola and it backed out of signing Venezuelan striker Darwin Machis.

Ramirez raised eyebrows two weeks before the start of the season when he told media members that it would be very difficult to compete for the playoffs. That certainly doesn’t lend confidence to the goal of hosting a playoff match.

Ahora, estamos jodidos,” Ramirez said on the day the Machis deal collapsed. The kind translation of that is, “Right now, we’re screwed.”

“He really was passionate about bringing in a player and was not able to do it, and he showed his disappointment,” Garber said “But that just gets him that much more energized to getting his team right and putting the right players on the field so that he can have the most attractive product for what I think is going to be a very knowledgeable and passionate fan base.”

Ramirez will be the first to admit there are still gaps in the attack, but the plan was never to have the roster set in stone for game one. The front office wants flexibility to add players in the summer window, and it will be patient in assessing the players it’s missing to be competitive.

“The best coach and the best teacher is the competition,” Ramirez said following the opening-day loss to D.C. “The competition will tell us what we need to improve and where we are doing well.”

Every major league team in Charlotte has now lost game one. On the pitch, an unlucky series of decisions and the club’s first goal being overturned by VAR contributed to the score sheet, but Charlotte FC showed flashes worth being patient for as the club continues to evolve.

“It is the start of a journey. The group that we are, the club that we are, we have been together for five weeks, six weeks. Nobody ever said it would be easy, that we would walk through the MLS. No. No chance,” said Fuchs, the team’s first captain. “You saw glimpses of our potential, but there is still so much to learn. It’s a big factor of being patient as well.”

The goal is to build a competitive team for the long haul, and that will take some time. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Krneta said.

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