Charlotte FC’s Technical Director discusses roster building, Academy prospects and the potential for success as the inaugural season approaches

CHARLOTTE—With a little over four months until first kick, Charlotte FC now has eight players signed to its inaugural roster. Renovations to the tune of $50m are on schedule to ensure a class-leading MLS experience at Bank of America Stadium, the Academy program is performing impressively in its sophomore season, and the club’s Uptown office is bustling with activity across all departments.

“We’re in the place where we need to be at the moment,” says Technical Director Marc Nicholls, who arrived in Charlotte shortly after the team’s announcement in December 2019, on the back of a highly successful seven-year stint with the Seattle Sounders.

“I definitely think we’re on schedule,” says the two-time U.S. Soccer Coach of the Year, who notes that the club has done extraordinarily well to meet its targets, given its formative months coincided with a global pandemic.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of other expansion teams, and in terms of planning and timeline, they have been fairly complimentary.

“Our roster signings—three of whom are already playing in the community—give us a backbone before we have started. Of course, you don’t want to recruit too many players at this stage, as you need to prepare for end-of-season trades and the drafts, but I would say we are on track.”

Midfielder Brandt Bronico and defenders Christian Fuchs and Adam Armour have been enjoying regular game minutes in the city with the Charlotte Independence. Thanks in part to the contributions of the Charlotte FC’s loanees, the local side have qualified for the USL Championship Playoffs and, at the time of writing, sit in second place in the Eastern Conference.

“It’s been really great to have our guys here at the Independence,” says Nicholls. “The team has hit some form and is fighting its way up the table. And of course, we’re happy that the likes of Sergio Ruiz, Riley McGree and Jan Sobocinski are playing in Europe at a high standard.

“By the time our squad comes together, I believe our players will be primed to compete and perform.”

Nicholls forms part of Charlotte FC’s global scouting network, which has so far signed players from seven different nationalities to the roster. The former NC Fusion and Carolina Dynamo coach notes that he has been watching a lot of college soccer game tape lately, in order to help prepare for the number one pick in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft.

“Now that we have a head coach on board, our scouting framework has become even more specific and detailed,” says Nicholls, in reference to the arrival of coach Miguel Angel Ramirez.

“Miguel has a very specific style of play and, just like any team, it’s important that the manager gets the players he wants to work with.

“The entire technical team holds weekly meetings, in which we discuss style of play, the transfer of players from the Academy, and where we share our collective knowledge and experience of player development.”

Nicholls is keen to stress that the first team coaches were recruited due to their respective strong track records in player development.

“It was one of our criteria to bring in coaches who know how to develop players,” says Nicholls. “Miguel had been an academy director, and his assistant Christian Lattanzio has performed this function too.

“From an operational and developmental perspective, we’re really happy with where we are right now.”

The first team’s inaugural match may be on the horizon, but Charlotte FC’s Academy program, led by Academy Manager Dan Lock, continues to blossom in its second year.

It is expected that some of the brightest prospects from the Academy program will join the first team on its first-ever pre-season training camp in January.

“We have some very competitive Academy squads and we’re seeing the emergence of some real talent, which we expect and hope will transfer into the first team,” says Nicholls. “It’s a realistic target to have a few of those guys join the pre-season camp.

Nicholls is also bullish about the idea of Academy players stepping up to the 2022 senior roster.

“It’s our stated aim to have two Academy players graduate to the senior roster every season from 2023, but no one will be upset if it happens earlier than that,” says Nicholls. “It’s about doing the right thing: if there’s evidence the players are ready sooner, then of course they can move up to the senior training environment. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

“It’s worth noting that some young talents become better players when they are around better players. But all of this will reveal itself over time—it’s important not to put pressure on them, or ourselves.”

On the path to forging the club’s unique identity, Nicholls and the technical team leadership have considered the precedents of other recent additions to the league.

“We’re not looking to copy anyone, but we can learn the basics that have led to success, “ says Nicholls. “I’ve looked at a lot of expansion clubs, especially those that joined since 2017, and there are very specific clues to be identified from their perceived successes and failures.

“Nashville, for example, have done really well after starting in the midst of the pandemic, while Atlanta and LAFC both won silverware in their second seasons. Several new expansion teams have Designated Players who are true difference-makers, while boasting a domestic core of players in their rosters.

“There are certain themes and fundamentals you can see in these successful teams, but each has succeeded in its own way, with its own identity, playing budget, style of play and leadership.”

When it comes to fostering a culture of success, Nicholls notes that it is important to get off on the right foot.

“Seattle’s first game in 2009 was a 3-0 win over the Red Bulls in front of a sellout crowd,” recalls Nicholls. “It’s just one game, but it set the benchmark for a team that made the playoffs in its inaugural season. That becomes who you are, and before you know it, you have established a culture of success.

“Our first few games will be tough, and MLS is a very tough league. We wouldn’t want to put pressure on ourselves in the first few games, but to compete early on, and pick up points, is a major plus in terms of consistency and stability.”

One of the most important ingredients of a team’s success is out of the hands of the technical team: the support and passion of the fans. Despite having never played a first-team match, Nicholls is delighted with the manner in which the Carolinas has embraced its new team.

“There’s a real connection between the teams and the fans that started with the Academy—and that program is, of course, an extension of the community,” says Nicholls.

“In the community events we have been able to stage—such as Coach Miguel’s welcome party—the groundswell of support and sense of identity. I feel there’s already a love for the club, so long may that continue!”

With fervent support in the community, a thriving Academy program, and a process-driven approach to constructing the inaugural roster, Nicholls has faith in a strong start for the club in 2022.

“I’m confident the club will compete from the outset,” says Nicholls. “We know it’s going to be a ride, but the club has set up robust systems. We have a talented coach with a clear vision, who will entertain.

“We hope we’ll take the league by storm, but it’s important to be realistic, too. But we have no reason to fear anyone. We have to be ourselves and give it a go.”