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Krneta or Smith: Who has more responsibility for the success of Charlotte FC's 2024 season?

By Brian Maurer



Photo Courtesy of Charlotte FC


This past week the podcast Total Soccer Show was asked the question “What will Dean Smith bring to Charlotte?” The podcasters Joe Lowery, Ryan Bailey, Taylor Rockwell, and Graham Ruthven shared their takes on the Smith hire, what he can accomplish with The Crown, and the amount of responsibility on Smith’s shoulders to get the team results.


Here are each of their stances summed up in quotes from their discussion. Afterwards, I will hash out their takes with more depth on the current offseason and situation in Charlotte, and try to conclude where the responsibility heading into their third season lies.


Lowery: “It’s a fine, respectable hire for Charlotte FC…it would be great if Charlotte would give him a reasonable squad to work with, that’s the key for Dean Smith”


Bailey: “It certainly seems from their messaging…that player development is something they’re hoping from him quite a bit as well”


Rockwell: “I think him moving to Major League Soccer makes a ton of sense…he’s a pragmatic manager, and I think we see that with Aston Villa where he gets them out of the Championship, he gets them promoted, he gets them stabilized…moving to Major League Soccer where I think pragmatism is oftentimes rewarded…I think it suits him well and could lead to successes”


Ruthven: “I think Dean Smith could be a very good appointment for Charlotte…Dean Smith has pedigree, he has a decent resume…he leans on the attacking side of pragmatism…[Smith’s Aston Villa] liked to take risks…Dean Smith played a big role in turning Jack Grealish into the player that he is today, he set up his team to overload on one side or in central midfield, create space for Jack Grealish, create those one-on-ones, open up the channel…he was a perfect fit for Dean Smith’s kind of high-risk type of football”


There are a few main takeaways from the Total Soccer Show discussion. Firstly, Lowery stated his stance was that Smith’s success is completely dependent on the signings that Sporting Director Zoran Krneta makes. Secondly, all the analysts agreed that Smith is a pragmatic manager (Smith also stated this himself) and that his style should be suited for MLS. And lastly, Ruthven highlighted Smith’s ability to develop young players as one of his key strengths. Bailey added to Ruthven’s point that he thought this was a key reason for the hiring. 


All four analysts brought up useful points, but they only covered them at a nuts and bolts, surface level. Here is a deeper dive into their main points on the Smith hiring and how much of the 2024 season will fall on him compared to the Krneta.


Roster


Lowery was blunt in his analysis of the Charlotte roster. His stance is that without Krneta getting new signings the team will not be capable of success regardless of what Smith does. This is a bit of an oversimplification of the problems in Charlotte.


As a Sporting Director, Krneta will always be responsible for new signings to improve the club. Any MLS team can get new DP-level signings if they are willing to spend the money. Based on Charlotte’s past signings and current bids, they are willing to spend. Lowery also stated as much in the podcast episode.


Since Charlotte is willing to spend money on transfers they will be able to make player signings. The key issue for Charlotte this window will not be getting new signings, it will be their ability to make the space necessary to make more transfers. Selling players effectively will be the key to this window. If Krneta can accomplish this then the roster will have some flexibility. With the roster set up as it stands, it is a bit restricted.


Even if The Crown makes new signings this window (which is expected), there are still several key players already signed that Smith will be expected to get the most out of. Ashley Westwood will likely continue as the captain and play a pivotal role. Jere Uronen was signed during the summer and looks every bit like a capable starting left-back in MLS (limited minutes, but so far he looks very good). Several other veterans will be asked to play key roles. Also, several talented younger players will have opportunities to play key roles. 


In total, at least 10-15 regular contributors are already on the roster. New winter signings will also be contributors but the majority of the team’s 2024 minutes have already been signed. Lowery’s stance makes Charlotte out like they are in a full rebuild mode which is not the case. 


To put the entirety of this season solely on Krneta’s shoulders based on this winter window’s incoming signings is an oversimplification. It is key, but so is every window’s signings for every team all the time. That is nothing new. The story to watch in Charlotte will be to see which players Charlotte moves on from and how this adjusts their overall roster flexibility for the beginning of the season and into the summer window.


Pragmatism


Being pragmatic will be the key trait to Smith’s success in 2024. With the current MLS roster rules in play, there is no possible way to change the makeup of any roster entirely in the way a coach might want. Pragmatism can go a long way to help adjust for this. That was something former Head Coach Christian Lattanzio seemed unwilling to do last season. He had a formation and play style he wanted to play and he was regularly adamant about playing it.


Smith’s pragmatic approach will be asked to answer several questions right out of the gate. First, he will have to work out Charlotte’s striker situation. As things stand there are three strikers on the roster all in need of regular minutes. What approach will he take to get them on the field?


This question could be answered more easily if Karol Świderski is sold as there are constantly rumors swirling around him these days. Even then, that would still leave Enzo Copetti and Patrick Agyemang both needing minutes. Smith will need to find a solution to the striker situation that provides the team with a strong attacking threat that leads to more goals than in the past two seasons.


Second, Charlotte’s midfield struggled to maintain control of the game at key moments and gave away too many turnovers in bad areas last season. Smith will need to find a way to sort out the team’s midfield play. Part of this solution could be with a new midfielder signing, but Smith will also need to find a playing style that helps set up the midfielders he currently has to be optimally successful too.


Third, Smith will need to find a solution to Charlotte’s defensive inconsistencies. They have not had a consistent backline in either performance or personnel since the team’s inaugural match in DC back in 2022. Smith’s approach will need to include a consistent defensive rotation of players that can start to grow together and that also provide more consistent performances.


Player development


This point stands out as an obvious one because of Smith’s role in developing Grealish. Charlotte’s senior roster currently includes five out of 16 players who are 25 or under. If you include the club’s supplemental roster, the club has 15 out of 26 players under 25. That’s not including more young players who could get promoted from Crown Legacy FC. Needless to say, Charlotte’s roster has many young players who will be needed, and expected, to contribute.


Smith’s strength to develop young players will need to stand out. The primary players to watch that can highlight whether he is going to be able to use this strength in Charlotte will be Kerwin Vargas and Adilson Malanda. Both have been regular contributors over the past year and both will need to reach another level for the club to attain the goals that weren’t able to be achieved under Lattanzio. Other players like Agyemang, Jaylin Lindsey, and Ben Bender could also be added to the watchlist of Smith’s ability to help in player development. 


Final thoughts


Charlotte FC’s current roster has had a wide range of different opinions from pundits across MLS. Some, like Lowery, have dismissed the roster out of hand. For them, the pressure of The Crown’s third season lies on Krneta as the roster build was his responsibility for overseeing.


Other pundits have stated that they like the foundation of the roster that has been built. MLS analyst, Matt Doyle’s recent analysis of Charlotte’s roster was “...there aren’t a lot of holes in this roster. If they can add two high-end attacking DPs who fit with what’s already in place…a bounce-back year wouldn’t be at all shocking.”


Broadway Sports Media’s Ben Wright stated “I actually like a lot of their pieces, especially if they sign Grønbæk. Świderski potentially leaving would be a big blow, but I think they have a good base to work with” in response to a question about Charlotte FC’s depth chart asked on X.



With pundits independent of Charlotte FC struggling to determine the strength of their roster, it is going to be difficult to find a conclusive determination on who is likely to be facing the most pressure going into the 2024 season. Smith is the third head coach in three years in the Krneta era. A third season with mediocre results would put significant pressure on the idea that the roster build may indeed have not been good enough.


For Smith, the pressure is also going to be high due to recent trends in MLS where coaches have been finding immediate success. Ben Olsen took over as Houston Dynamo’s manager this past season and they jumped from 25th in the Supporters’ Shield standings to 10th. Olsen also led the Dynamo to winning the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions Cup qualification. Steve Cherundolo took over the LAFC two years ago. In his first season, LAFC won the double (MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield). 


Pat Noonan took the three straight Wooden Spoon (last place) winners to a playoff win in 2022 and a Supporters’ Shield win in 2023. Wilfried Nancy took the Columbus Crew from 15th in the Supporters’ Shield standings to third and won the MLS Cup.


Needless to say, these coaches and more showed an ability to start getting results quickly. For Smith, the expectations could easily be set as high. Based on his first press conference, Smith appears to recognize those pressures and wants them.


It is easy to try and state that one person should take more responsibility than others, but in this instance, there is a lot of nuance. One thing appears clear, the pressure is being felt within the club. The indicators for this are in the head coaching hire as Smith has proven himself to be able to handle these high-pressure situations (e.g., keeping Aston Villa in the Premier League after getting promoted). The hire is a sign that Charlotte is no longer interested in experimenting.


Another sign that The Crown’s front office is starting to feel the pressure is in their attempts to sign Albert Grønbæk. The Danish midfielder is a high-level prospect and their bid is a serious one (currently at $9.5 million).


So, who is more responsible for the success of Charlotte FC’s season? It’s likely going to fall on both Krneta and Smith equally. While Krneta has built a roster that has yet to meet expectations, there are some indicators that the past two coaches have not been able to get the most out of the players available (which will now be Smith’s responsibility). Regardless of who is going to be most responsible for the results this year, it is clear that the pressure is going to be turned up a level.


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