by Ryan Bailey
CHARLOTTE — From World Cup star Eddie Pope to Charlotte-born goalkeeper Clint Irwin, the Carolinas have provided no shortage of MLS talents over the years. But Zoran Krneta believes the best could be yet to come from the region.
“If the Carolinas can produce Michael Jordan, I don’t see why we can’t produce one of the top stars in soccer,” said Charlotte MLS’ new Sporting Director upon his unveiling this week.
“Put it this way: the Carolinas have roughly the same population as Holland. And if Holland can produce all that talent, I don’t see why the Carolinas cannot produce talent too.”
Identifying the big next stars of the beautiful game in the region will be no easy feat, but Zoran knows a thing or two about discovering talent.
It was his global sports agency, Star Sports & Entertainment, that found a 16-year-old named John Stones at Barnsley FC’s Academy. Zoran represented the England International in his move to Everton, and Stones’ subsequent record-breaking $66m transfer to Manchester City.
Zoran also represented defender Branislav Ivanovic from his native Serbia, securing him a deal with Chelsea, where he formed the backbone of a side that won three Premier League titles and the Champions League.
In a career that has seen him broker and negotiate deals for over 150 players across the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and MLS, Zoran has made particular use of his extensive scouting contacts in Eastern Europe.
Striker Luka Jovic (signed by Real Madrid for $65m last summer), Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić (who was recently the subject of a $100m bid from Manchester United) and 2017 MLS Golden Boot Nemanja Nikolić were all brought to the soccer world’s attention by the man charged with building a winning team in Charlotte.
Charlotte’s new Sporting Director boasts a wealth of experience in finding and nurturing talent from around the globe, but he intends to look a little closer to home to build the team’s backbone.
“We really want to focus on the Carolinas,” Zoran said. “And we will start building the academy process while cooperating with the existing youth academies in the area.”
“Ideally, we would like to get to a place where our academy produces two players every year for the first team.”
When looking at the future composition of the team, Zoran cites the example of Chelsea under Frank Lampard, where around five players in any given starting XI have come through the academy system.
But Charlotte MLS will by no means be a team entirely composed of locals: Zoran will also build the first team utilizing his vast global network of scouts.
“We will look at Latin America, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Belgium, and the lower divisions of France and Spain,” Zoran said. “We will look where the talent is found statistically, but it’s also about being brave enough to think outside the box.”
Zoran credits much of his success with an ability to think differently. To zig where others zag. A prime example is striker Héber Araujo dos Santos, whom Zoran discovered playing in the obscure confines of Armenia.
“I found Héber as a 30-goal-a-season striker in the Armenian leagues,” Zoran said, “where nobody was looking for talent.”
Zoran moved the Brazilian to the Croatian top flight, from where his value rapidly increased when he was signed by New York City FC this past March.
“That’s exactly the kind of player I would like to discover in the future. A player might be in a league that isn’t good enough, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t good enough,” Zoran said.
“That’s thinking outside the box.”
In addition to traditional shoe-leather scouting, Zoran plans to embrace modern technologies in building the first team.
“Data analytics will be a very strong focus,” he said. “We will have analysts watching, say 50 or 60 games a month, then they will look closely at the data and statistics of the players. Currently, in soccer, this approach is still lagging behind the NFL, basketball and baseball.”
In addition to overseeing player recruitment, Zoran will be responsible for identifying the head coaches, academy directors, and the full technical and medical staff.
“This is my biggest challenge to date, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to build something from scratch,” Zoran said.
“The philosophy, the values, the style of play can be created from day one — not just in the first team, but at all levels. To build a team that can work as one is a big strength.”
The most important aspect of building the team, according to Zoran, will be its philosophy. And his model of a playing philosophy is certain to be a crowd-pleaser.
“We will play attractive, attacking soccer that our fans will appreciate,“ Zoran said. ”And, of course, we will try to win every game.”
Charlotte MLS is also likely to eschew the kind of players who would come over from Europe in the autumn of their careers for a payday.
“If we bring in a big European star, he will be hungry, he will be a leader and he will also have legs to play 90 minutes all season,” Zoran said.
“The idea is to have balance in the team; a hungry team. There will be big Designated Players players, but they will have to fit within the team philosophy.”
The ultimate aim of Charlotte’s team, as owner David Tepper made clear on the announcement day, is to bring MLS Cup to the City.
“I think David Tepper is a natural-born winner,” Zoran said, “and I would not expect anything less than for him to want to win MLS Cup. That’s the aim that’s what we’ll build the team for.
“We know what we want to do and exactly how to do it.”