Look Ahead — 2022 Team of the Year: Charlotte FC brings MLS to soccer-starved city

The David Tepper-owned team, delayed by a year, will start its inaugural season in February

Yordy Reyna, signed as a free agent by Charlotte FC, is expected to provide offense for the team in its inaugural season. (Jay LaPrete / AP Photo)

The North State Journal’s early pick for 2022 Team of the Year could also be considered the Rookie of the Year since it hasn’t played a game yet.

Charlotte FC will play its first Major League Soccer game on Feb. 26, at D.C. United. The MLS’s newest expansion team will then play its first home game at Bank of America Stadium on March 5 against the L.A. Galaxy. A crowd of 74,000 is expected, which would set an all-time MLS attendance record — not a bad way to make a debut.

The long-awaited reveal will end a process that began on Dec. 17, 2019, when Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper held an announcement in downtown Charlotte celebrating the successful expansion bid.

“During the last two decades, Charlotte has experienced enormous energy and growth, which matches soccer’s explosive rise in popularity in the United States,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “We are pleased to add David Tepper to our ownership group and look forward to working with him and his entire organization to launch Major League Soccer in the Carolinas.”

The leadership team had, of course, been busy long before that preparing Charlotte’s bid for a team. But when the city landed the team, the real work began.

Although the team’s inaugural season was pushed back a year from initial plans, Charlotte FC has unveiled its colors, name and team crest, as well as inking several sponsorship and partnership deals with companies in the area.

Charlotte FC found its coach in July, hiring Miguel Angel Ramirez, former coach of Brazil’s Porto Alegre International. The team interviewed more than 30 candidates and was surprised to end up with Ramirez.

“He was not on an initial list of candidates because we didn’t think, really, that we could get him,” team sporting director Zoran Krneta said.

The 36-year-old will become the youngest coach in MLS once Charlotte begins play.

“After a thorough review of many candidates, it was obvious to us that Miguel was the right person to lead our team,” Tepper said. “He is a process-oriented coach with a unique style of play and a proven ability to develop young talent.”

Earlier this month, the team’s roster began to take shape. Charlotte selected five players in the MLS Expansion Draft but promptly traded two of them away to amass more than $800,000 in General Allocation Money (basically, money used to sign players in the MLS’s version of a salary cap).

That will, presumably, allow Charlotte FC to bring in some high-level talent that wasn’t available in the expansion draft pool.

Charlotte left the draft with Austin FC midfielder McKinze Gaines, Atlanta United’s Anton Walkes and D.C. United’s Joseph Mora.

The team has also jumped into the free agent pool, signing defenders Yordy Reyna and Harrison Afful.

Reyna has 24 goals and 19 assists in 100 MLS games.

“Free agency is a great opportunity for us to continue to add players with experience in this league, and adding Yordy to our attacking group is an important part of our roster build,” said Krneta. “He’s a very technical player with high energy that can play on both wings and brings a proven track record of attacking success in Major League Soccer.”

A 35-year-old from Ghana, Afful has played in 164 MLS games and also has World Cup experience.

“Harrison brings a wealth of experience into our locker room, and we’re excited to continue to add title-winning players to our inaugural roster. His production over the last six seasons in MLS is vital for us and he’s been a highly regarded defender around the league,” said Krneta. “Across his stellar career, Harrison has been part of eight championships, both here in Major League Soccer and in Africa, and everyone at the Club will be able to lean on his leadership.”

The newcomers join a roster that now numbers 16 players and is still being shaped.

Regardless of who is wearing the uniform, the Queen City appears ready to embrace the state’s newest pro team. Area soccer fans have turned out in force for international matches held at Bank of America Stadium in recent years, and the groundswell of excitement continues to build as North Carolina enters MLS.