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Five former Dean Smith players Charlotte FC should target

By Ryan Donahue

Photo Courtesy of Chelsea FC

On December 12, Charlotte FC announced the club’s third official manager, Dean Smith. Prior to arriving in the Queen City, Dean served as the former manager of some of England’s top clubs, including Aston Villa, Leicester City, Norwich, and Brentford, all of which have had seasons in the English Premier League (EPL).

With the appointment of Smith, Charlotte FC will likely look to reinforce the squad ahead of its home opener on February 24 against New York City FC and could potentially look to target the European transfer market for some former players Smith has worked with.

In addition to Smith’s arrival, there have been rumors of potential departures as the likes of Karol Świderski and Kamil Jóźwiak could leave for a return to European clubs. Derrick Jones was recently announced as a new signing for defending MLS Cup Champions Columbus Crew, and McKinze Gaines is headed to Nashville SC.

Ahead of the upcoming season and with Smith likely to line the side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, here is a list of several potential signings Charlotte FC could enlist to fill out Smith’s playing squad.

Anwar El Ghazi

The Moroccan-Dutch winger and former Aston Villa player has spent some of his prime years under Smith and is currently without a club for the upcoming season after being released by FSV Mainz. El Ghazi’s transfer value would likely make him a high-profile candidate to replace someone like Gaines or Jóźwiak, and if Charlotte were to act quickly, they could get him into the club at an exceptional price. 

El Ghazi, at age 28, could still have some of his best years ahead of him for Charlotte. He has the ability to operate off both wings and would also work interchangeably with Enzo Copetti in the central position filling a role that Świderski has occupied in previous seasons.

With Charlotte FC lacking in its ability to regularly produce and score goals, El Ghazi could be the spark the side needs to kickstart their third season. In El Ghazi’s 22/23 season with PSV, he converted eight goals across 23 appearances. In El Ghazi’s Premier League campaign with Aston Villa and Everton, he featured 73 times and picked up 15 goals.

While El Ghazi has struggled to nail down a long-term club in Europe, a move to MLS and the opportunity to play for Smith at Charlotte could be exactly what he is looking for to ignite the second half of his playing career and rediscover his form.

Ross Barkley

Currently with Luton Town, it is yet to be seen what may come of Barkley’s future. Barkley previously worked with Smith during the 2020-2021 season and has since played a role with Chelsea, Nice, and now Luton Town, who remain one of the favorites to be relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season. 

Should Luton be relegated, this could enable Barkley to make another move, and with the departure of Derrick Jones, Barkley could occupy a central midfield role alongside Ashley Westwood and Brandt Bronico.

While Barkley is a highly experienced English professional, he is only 30, making him an experienced addition to the side and adding another layer of steel to the center of the midfield. However, it is likely that Charlotte would need to expend extra funds to secure the English midfielder and would likely come in during the summer window after the season with Luton is concluded.

Yannick Bolasie 

Yannick Bolasie, who currently is playing with Swansea in the Championship, is another low-cost winger that Charlotte FC could look to bring in to help strengthen the attack. Similar to El Ghazi, Bolasie can play across both wings or in the central forward position. Bolasie is 34 and, with a lower transfer value and profile than El Ghazi, could serve as an experienced role-playing option for Smith should he decide he wishes to leave his current club.

Under Smith, Bolasie featured 15 times for Aston Villa and managed to pick up five assists across the duration of this time.

Throughout his career, Bolasie has not been able to nail down a long-term club in Europe, having served seasons across both the EPL and the Championship at clubs including Everton, Middlesbrough, and Crystal Palace. A change to Major League Soccer could be a great opportunity for the Congo international.

Sergi Canos

The current Valencia player and Spanish youth international crossed paths with Dean Smith during his time at Brentford. While at Brentford, Canós featured in 90 appearances getting on the scoresheet 14 times and contributing with ten assists. Canós' ability to create and convert goals is obvious, with the winger scoring 30 goals and picking up 30 assists in his Championship career.

The Spanish winger occupies the right side of the pitch but could also take up positions on the left and would add a dynamic type of profile the club does not have in its roster. With Charlotte struggling to produce clear goal-scoring opportunities in previous seasons, Canós could quickly become a fan favorite with his ability to create for Enzo Copetti.

Canós' transfer value would likely be in the range Charlotte FC is looking for and at age 26 could be an immediate improvement to the attacking line if he was able to find some chemistry with Copetti.

Axel Tuanzebe

The English international currently with Ipswich, and having spent several seasons with Manchester United, has struggled to lock down a consistent first-team place in any of European clubs with occasional top-quality performances. A change of scenery could be a perfect solution for Charlotte to add stability to its backline in the upcoming season and for Tuanzebe to finally establish himself as a first-team player. Tuanzebe primarily fits as a right-sided center-back and has also been deployed as a right-back, given his pace and ability to cover explosive wingers.

The England international worked with Dean Smith during his time at Aston Villa, where he managed to feature in 28 appearances. Since then, Tuanzebe has had on-and-off seasons at Manchester United, where he never quite broke through into the first-team although he did feature in some of United’s biggest profile performances, including shutting down Kylian Mbappe in the Champions League group stage in the 2020 season.

Tuanzebe is someone who could quickly break into the first team for Charlotte FC, and with the backline struggling to retain clean sheets last season, Tuanzebe could be a prime choice to start building some stability at the back.

One thing is for certain: if Charlotte FC wants to make a strong push into the playoffs this season, they will need to look at strengthening the squad in all departments this upcoming season. With Dean’s experience in the Premier League, appointing some of his former players to help stabilize areas of the roster could be exactly what he needs to get off to a good start.

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