Two signings done, 28 to go: How Charlotte FC is building an MLS team during the pandemic

McGree Krenta Charlotte 2020Charlotte FC

Even in the best of times, conducting transfers is a difficult business, simply because there are so many variables. Players, agents and clubs must all come together on an agreement, and doing so is often easier said than done.

But these aren't the best of times. In fact, they may be the worst of times. For those in the transfer business, the coronavirus looms over all. There are so many different hurdles to clear, precautions to take, financial aspects to analyze and reanalyze. As a result of this pandemic, even some of the world's biggest clubs have shied away from the market, forced to reconsider their strategies due to Covid-19.

And those are the big teams, clubs with years of history, big finances and useful relationships. But what about a team with no history, one that has yet to ever play a game? How can a team that doesn't even have a coach dive into the market knowing that any player signed won't even join up until 2022?

That's what Charlotte FC, one of MLS' newest teams, has done this year. Despite the fact that the pandemic pushed back their proposed debut, Charlotte FC has already completed the signings of two players. During the peak of the coronavirus, as clubs all over the world shifted their transfer strategy, Charlotte, a team with no real identity just yet, has been aggressive.

So, how did they do it? How can a brand-new club convince a player to move to a team that doesn't even really exist? How do you mobilize a still-developing scout team during a period where you can't even attend games? And, when the time comes, how do you finalize a deal from what is seemingly a world away?

As sporting director Zoran Krneta tells Goal, it's been difficult.

"Going to a restaurant is not easy these days, let alone building a club," Krneta says with a laugh. "We're facing the same difficulties as everyone else on the planet right now.

"It's helpful that we are having this year gap year, if you like, that you push back to 2022 because I think it's giving us time to kind of consolidate, to rethink, to focus, to be a little bit more strategic and not rush."

Charlotte was originally announced as MLS' 30th team last December, with Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper paying a reported record-breaking $325 million (£247m) to enter the league.

The club was originally expected to be fast-tracked, starting alongside Austin FC in January but, in July, MLS announced that the team's start date would be pushed back a year, along with those of fellow newcomers St. Louis SC and Sacramento.

That announcement came just nine days after Charlotte announced the club's first-ever signing, Sergio Ruiz. The 25-year-old Spanish midfielder signed from Racing Santander, having emerged as a regular for the second division side. With his former club relegated, Ruiz was loaned to Las Palmas until January 2022, when he will join up with Charlotte ahead of the club's first preseason.

But, even with the pushback in start date, Charlotte FC remained active right until the final days of the European transfer window. With just hours left in that window, the club sealed the signing of Riley McGree, a highly-touted Australia international that has previously been nominated for the Puskas award.

In McGree, Charlotte believe they have an under-the-radar building block, a potential hidden gem. McGree was voted the A-League's Young Player of the Year last season and, despite a suspension during his time with the Under-23s, looks like he should be a key figure for Australia's Socceroos for years to come.

Sealing that transfer, though, was complicated. Like any transfer, Charlotte needed to agree terms with McGree's club, Adelaide United, and, of course, the player himself. But, given the club's current situation, they also had to find a loan partner, a club willing to take McGree temporarily for at least this year.

That club, as it turned out, was Birmingham City. Just before the window closed, Charlotte sealed a loan move for McGree, sending him to the Championship for the rest of this season. Having already made six appearances, the Australian recently scored his first Championship goal in a 2-1 win over Preston North End.

It was a deal that Krneta says was the most challenging, but most exciting, part of the job so far, one that took a whole team to put together.

"We had three days to finalize the signing of the player," Krneta says. "It was across three continents because we had to loan Riley McGree and, simultaneously, we need to agree to deal with his club in Adelaide and also involve MLS.

"So, we had three days, three time zones, and three continents to finalize the deal... There was a kind of military-style operation to sign Riley, and I can tell you one thing: it didn't involve a lot of sleep for those three days."

The signing was a big one for Charlotte, who did not disclose the transfer fee paid for McGree. However, reports out of Australia said that Adelaide had hoped to get $3.7 million (£2.8m) for the 22-year-old this summer, with Borussia Dortmund, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Rangers reportedly among those interested.

Charlotte's fee, however, was reportedly much lower. Optus Sport reported that Charlotte paid around $664,000 (£498k) for McGree and, although Adelaide did make a big profit on the midfielder, it was not nearly as much as they originally hoped.

Such is the reality of dealing with transfers in the coronavirus-based market. Clubs have to make difficult decisions with finances now more important than ever before. 

And Charlotte is one team in position to take advantage of that fact. Tepper, their owner, is reportedly worth $13 billion and, if his commitment to his NFL team is any indication, is determined to win no matter the cost. And, MLS, with its single-entity model, is more stable than most leagues, with lower-league clubs all over the world staring down financial ruin due to the pandemic.

That allows Charlotte to hunt for bargains. Ruiz was one brought in from a relegated team and McGree was one brought in from a club eager to sell if the situation arose.

“Selling Riley worked well because everyone’s interests were aligned. We wanted to sell and Riley wanted to progress his career so he was keen to go overseas,” Adelaide United director of football Bruce Djite told Optus Sport.

“He’s a quality player and it’s a perfect example of the potential for A-League clubs to generate other revenues outside of sponsorship. Transfer revenue can be a real driver, the difficulty is there is a shallow talent pool in Australia; there is not three or four Riley McGree's in Australia."

Krneta added: "[Finding teams needing to sell] is a possible strategy, and this is one of the reasons why Riley and Sergio are on board.

"The other reason is that they are top talents and the third reason is that we were able to find very good clubs, very competitive leagues, for both players to be placed and get playing time and improve. And once they arrive in January 2022, they'll come to us as better players."

McGree Birmingham Charlotte 2020Getty

McGree's signing may not be the last Charlotte completes in the coming months. As things stand, though, some plans have been pushed back, including those to bring in a head coach.

Krneta says that the club interviewed candidates this year but, with the club's start date being delayed, that process was put on hold. Now, the plan is to interview those candidates again, while adding in a few others, before making a decision sometime in summer 2021. 

That timetable would allow that coach to come in and have a fairly substantial say over future transfers. Ruiz and McGree are seen as building blocks, but there's still a whole roster to fill out before kicking off in spring 2022.

And, until that point, the club is actively scouting players all over the world. Krneta is a former agent whose agency, Star Sports & Entertainment, previously represented John Stones, Branislav Ivanovic, Luka Jovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He also represented former Chicago Fire star Nemanja Nikolic and current New York City FC striker Heber, two players who came from less-prolific leagues and instantly became top-tier goalscorers in MLS.

Krneta, having negotiated deals for over 150 players across the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and MLS, has contacts, spread from England to Eastern Europe. And the club's director of scouting, Thomas Schaling, joined Charlotte from PSV, where he helped finalize the signings of Hirving Lozano, Andres Guardado and Oleksandr Zinchenko as the club's International Senior Scout.

Schaling's specialty, though, is in finding European and Latin American talent, and the latter will likely be of importance. In recent years, MLS clubs have become more active in the South American markets, signing internationals like Miguel Almiron, Cristian Pavon, Raul Ruidiaz and Diego Rossi from South American clubs.

But every team in the world is looking at South American talent and every team in the world knows that the game's best young stars come from countries like Argentina and Brazil. So, Charlotte, like every club, is trying to find its hidden gem, a player that fits both financially and, when the time comes, stylistically. 

Tepper MLS CharlotteMLS

"We're looking everywhere," Krneta says. "Latin America is a great area for talent, but I would add also that it tends to be very expensive, especially for MLS clubs recently.

"We know the values and, therefore, we don't want to go into this kind of bidding war with other clubs or compete with anybody to pay inflated prices. So, we will go over the talent, we will go over who the affordable players are. We would like to build a squad. It's all about team, not individuals for us."

And building a brand new club takes a team. Krneta, Schaling and the rest of Charlotte's scouting department are assembling this from the ground up during an unprecedented time. They're finding this club's place in the transfer market at a time when every other club in the world is redefining their own perceptions of that very same market.

So, the processes change and, sometimes, the plans do too. Signing a player is perhaps more difficult than ever and, even with McGree and Ruiz now officially on board, Charlotte a lot of work to do in the next year or so.

"We [can do everything] except the live watching of a player, traveling," Krenta says, "so what we try to do is get as much information about the player as possible, and given our extensive network of contacts across the world, we are very often able to kind of get from various sources who do know the player, the family, the club, the situation in a country.

"We have a collection of very good information that actually helps us make a final decision."

He added: "This club is not here to participate. We're not here to kind of make excuses being an expansion club. I don't see this as a huge disadvantage. We are here to start being competitive from day one, and we want to win from day one."

That starts in the transfer market. Two signings down, only 28 more to go.