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Jack Grealish video, foot golf and swimming – how Dean Smith is unifying Charlotte FC

Charlotte FC manager Dean Smith walked onto the field at Bank of America Stadium for the first time in front of a raucous crowd of more than 62,000 fans and felt pride… along with a bit of surprise.

Smith played 16 years up and down the English Football League and spent another 12 coaching in England at clubs including Brentford, Aston Villa and Norwich City, so Charlotte’s opener was unlike anything Smith had experienced before. It was sensory overload before kickoff: fireworks on either end of the stadium, former Charlotte NBA star Muggsy Bogues crowned in the Queen City supporters’ stand, guitar riffs, and a military flyover.

All in all, it was a bit different than a season opener in the English Championship.

“I didn’t expect a flyover, I must admit,” Smith told The Athletic with a laugh. “The show we put on was exceptional.”

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Smith’s first 90 minutes in charge served as a microcosm of the optimism within the group. The team was obstinate and well-drilled in a 1-0 win over New York City FC that sent the fans home happy.

His second 90 minutes came on the road to Vancouver on Sunday, in which Charlotte performed strongly again and earned a 1-1 draw. Their foundation and shape looked cohesive — like a team that has been together for a few years, and not one with a new head coach who oversaw his first training session with the group last month.

Those around the club describe a togetherness to the operation that wasn’t there in their first two years. They describe how quickly Smith got buy-in from the players and staff. Most already call him “Deano”, as if he’s an old friend.

“It’s togetherness. You rely on the people next to you, that’s the message,” said Charlotte sporting director Zoran Krneta. “I also believe in this; it’s perfect. We’re working hard to build a one-club model where we’re all together. That’s exactly what we needed.”

That buy-in and continuity were lacking in the club’s first two seasons. Charlotte named Miguel Angel Ramirez their first manager before the 2022 season but he was fired before they even got to the halfway point (owing largely to conflicts with the front office). Christian Lattanzio took over as interim, was named full-time head coach in the offseason and then fired after one disjointed 2023 season.


Charlotte’s home opener was a raucous affair (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

“(Smith) brought in a new, refreshing way of managing the team, the players and the coaches, which I embraced,” said assistant coach Christian Fuchs, who played for Ramirez and then was an assistant on Lattanzio’s staff. “I really enjoy working with him because I’ve seen a lot already in my young career where we had to deal with a lot, a lot of adversity over the last two years, which is incredible; probably experiences that he didn’t even have.”

As Smith established himself through the interview process, emerging ahead of the former Chelsea and Everton head coach Frank Lampard as the club’s top managerial choice, Krneta said an early positive sign was his open mind on hiring assistant coaches. Smith wanted to bring just one assistant along, and when that person opted for a different job, Smith was glad to add an assistant from within MLS instead. Charlotte landed on Miles Joseph, who spent part of last year as interim head coach of the Portland Timbers and joins Charlotte as associate head coach with 14 years of experience on an MLS sideline, and six years as a player in the league.

“For me, that was refreshing,” Krneta said. “A lot of people come with their own entourage, six or seven people. It’s a comfort zone. They always tell the coach he’s right, he’s so smart. It’s always someone else’s fault. The players, the front office, the referees, the turf, whatever. We had two coaches who were complaining about players or everything else.”

Smith has set about increasing the connections between the people who were already there. During the club’s first leg of training in Florida, Smith and his staff organized a competition. Everyone — the players, team admin, the nutritionist, the athletic trainers, the public-relations department and the front office — all mixed together and divided into four teams.

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“It was important to make sure everybody understood togetherness when I got here — and that doesn’t just mean the players,” Smith said. “There are so many things that get the players out on the pitch and help their performance. Whether it’s a nutritionist, a cleaner, an office worker, or a ticket salesperson who gets 62,000 to our stadium. They’re all so important and I want to make them feel valued.”

The teams competed in a foot golf session, a scavenger hunt, quiz games and a swim meet. Technical director Bobby Belair bought members of his team goggles for the swim event, something the other teams questioned. Smith and Krneta acted as judges. They overruled those contesting the goggles, and Belair’s team won.

“What’s the point of doing it with only players?” Krneta said. “We’re all in this together, we’re all the same group. All the staff is so important, everyone at this club.”

Smith and Krneta treated the winning team to a lavish dinner. The team that finished last had to perform a song for the rest of the group. They chose “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. Team admin Spencer Regier stole the show by coming out for the performance in a makeshift, homemade costume of Sir Minty, Charlotte’s mascot.

“Man, it’s one of the funniest things ever,” Krneta said. “I could not stop laughing. Everybody couldn’t stop laughing. It was an amazing performance.”

“We had some fun, that’s for sure,” Smith said. “It raised the spirit and showed everybody that we’re all in this together.”

Smith wants his teams to play with that same type of unity. That much was apparent in the debut against NYCFC, in the celebrations after Charlotte’s opening goal, as Adilson Malanda headed in a deflected effort from MLS debutant Iuri Tavares and the crowd went wild. Ashley Westwood and Junior Urso embraced Tavares as the group came together. Tavares was making his MLS debut after signing to the first team off the back of a season with Charlotte’s second team last year.


Smith has enjoyed immediate buy-in from players upon arrival in MLS (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

“Players coming to football clubs, they’re very good technicians and have a tactical knowledge — otherwise they wouldn’t be here,” Smith said. “It’s that mental side, getting to know them and getting a connection that gets the best out of them.”

Tavares would go on to score Charlotte’s lone goal against Vancouver in week two. He is one of several young players who graduated into the first team this preseason under Smith, including Nikola Petkovic, Joao Pedro, Chituru Odunze and the highly rated 16-year-old homegrown winger Nimfasha Berchimas, who has appeared in both of Charlotte’s games.

“Deano is full of joy,” Krneta added. “Before and after training he’s always there, always smiling, always there for everybody. But once you go on the pitch, he’s tough. He’s strong. The players really bought into all of this. Players like managers who make them better; that’s exactly what Deano has done.”

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Smith said he still speaks with many of his ex-players. Before Charlotte’s win against NYCFC, Jack Grealish sent a video to Smith to play for the locker room, a message supporting the head coach and his group. The Manchester City star then shouted out his former Villa manager on social media after the win.

Smith’s most successful spell as manager came at Villa, where he guided the club to promotion to the Premier League in his first season, 2018-19. He kept them in the top flight the next year and advanced to the League Cup final. He stayed with the club until November 2021, then took over at Norwich days later and joined Leicester City in April 2023.

Charlotte doesn’t yet have their own version of Grealish, but they’re working on it. The team’s search for new attacking talent has been ambitious. They had bids of around $10million rejected for the Danish youth international Albert Gronbaek of Bodo/Glimt and are in the race to sign the 20-year-old Uruguayan Luciano Rodriguez, one of South America’s brightest talents, from Liverpool Montevideo.

This weekend, The Athletic reported Charlotte was finalizing a deal to sign Celtic and Israeli international winger Liel Abada to a DP deal.

This isn’t the finished product for Charlotte, and the team’s optimism will continue to build as long as performances and results follow.

Smith is a long way from England, but that’s what he wanted when he took this job: he wanted to get out of his comfort zone and try something new.

“It was something different and it was going to be a challenge for me,” Smith said. “I love a challenge, it’s what gets the juices flowing.”

A fireworks show and a surprise flyover above a crowd of 62,000 doesn’t hurt either.

(Top photo: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)


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