How Zoran Krneta and Steve Walsh built Charlotte FC’s MLS expansion team

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How Zoran Krneta and Steve Walsh built Charlotte FC’s MLS expansion team

Depending on whether your glass is half-empty or half-full, building a team from scratch could be seen either as a blessing or a burden. One thing for certain is it’s one of the most challenging situations you’re likely to find in soccer.

That was the situation Zoran Krneta threw himself into when he was hired as Charlotte FC’s sporting director shortly after the club was awarded MLS expansion status back in December 2019.

“When you’re building a club from scratch, from zero, then, of course, the work is way more difficult, way more challenging, and way more demanding,” Krneta recalled of the challenges he faced in an interview with 90min ahead of Charlotte FC’s first home game in March.

“You have to be ready to work hard. You have to be ready to work after hours, if there is such a thing as after hours in this particular instance, and building this club. So it’s a very demanding role, both mentally and physically, so you need to be prepared. You need to be ready for a lot of challenges that are ahead of you.”

— 90min (@90min_Football) July 29, 2022

Not only did Krneta have the 12-month delay to Charlotte FC entering the league due to the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with, but he also had to adjust to the complexities of Major League Soccer. 

Designated Players, Allocation Money, the SuperDraft. Even for league veterans, it can be a struggle to wrap your head around all the rules at play.

“It’s incredibly complex, and it’s an ongoing progress. I’m still learning. I’ve been here for two years [and] I’m still learning about the rules,” Krneta said, adding: “We’re trying to see the rules as something that we should use as an advantage, not as a disadvantage. Of course, being a new team is not easy. We don’t have an academy, we don’t have an affiliate or B team that we can pick players.”

Though grappling with the MLS rules is no easy task for any sporting director, Krneta – who previously worked as an agent prior to taking the job in Charlotte – at least had help identifying talent from Steve Walsh, who helped unearth gems such as Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante for Leicester City’s shock 2015/16 Premier League title win.

Walsh played a key role in bringing Christian Fuchs to Charlotte FC to become an early leader of the expansion group and called on his experience to guide the club’s recruitment process.

“I always wanted to have that part of a huge experience that Steve possesses, but also someone that I can turn to in a time of any kind of doubts that I might have as someone relatively new in a particular role,” Krneta said of Walsh.

”And also, someone that can actually help us, given his background discovering and unearthing some amazing talent like Mahrez, Kanté, Vardy, there’s quite a few of them. So I think from many angles, Steve’s experience, advice, and insight into the business helped.”

Watch the story of Charlotte FC’s journey to MLS in 90min’s The Making of Charlotte FC, presented by DoorDash, on 90min channels now. Subscribe to our new US YouTube channel.

Just like Krneta, Walsh was excited by the challenge of building a team from the ground up. Even more so as someone who has already pretty much experienced everything the game has to offer back in Europe.

“The project excited me because I’ve never had that opportunity, not many people have, to start a football team from scratch,” Walsh told 90min.

On his role as a guiding hand to Charlotte FC and Krneta, Walsh added: “I think experience counts for a lot. And if you’ve been through the process, you rely on that experience to help you make better decisions.

“I hope that my experience is being used so that Charlotte can make better decisions going forward. Nothing’s perfect. But we’re trying to get there. And I use the knowledge that I’ve gained throughout my career to enhance and help all the people at the club, not just the sporting director, but all the people at the club.”

Perhaps Walsh’s most important role with Charlotte has been using his experience in the European market to help bring in quality players who have upside. This could, in the future, develop where Walsh finds the best landing spots for the club’s most talented players, ensuring CLTFC become a presence in the global market.

After all, as Walsh himself points out, long gone are the days where Major League Soccer was just the final destination for fading superstars.

“As far as the global game is concerned, I think originally MLS would take players from Europe, take players from South America and the US. But now it’s global,” said Walsh. “I think there are clubs in Europe, in South America that would like to take MLS players. So it’s kind of a reverse trend. And I think that the scouting fraternity out there are very, very keen to watch MLS to see if those players can move to top European clubs.

“You only have to look at Alphonso Davies from Vancouver Whitecaps. He’s done well at Bayern Munich. So, that shows you that clubs of that ilk are coming and they’re scouting MLS, which has got to be good.”

“”I think Charlotte is a buzzy, energetic, young city. And if you look at our team, it actually reflects the city of Charlotte and North Carolina.””

– Zoran Krneta

The search for players never ends. Krneta himself admitted to 90min that CLTFC had even looked as high as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when evaluating talent.

But Charlotte FC now has a competitive team on the pitch. What’s the aim beyond that? Where does this club and this team go after year one? How will Krneta ensure he builds the next group of MLS Cup champions, not another franchise fading into the background?

“The plan was always a three-year plan, how we actually looked at this,” Krneta explained. “The first year to [build] the spine of the team, to be competitive, to be strong, and the next year to improve on that.”

He added: “The idea is you want hungry players. You want players who want to win. You want players who want to fight for this club. You want players who want to come to this club and be happy here. And we don’t want players who come here for the last retirement paycheck.”

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