Miguel Ángel Ramírez, Charlotte FC’s new head soccer coach, seemed to be a likable and smart guy during his inaugural meeting with the press Thursday. He cracked jokes in two languages and sounded a lot like Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule — the man Ramírez will share Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium with — when he began to talk fervently about the “process” of building a winning team.
Ramírez won his initial press conference, although it wasn’t a landslide. Let’s call the score 1-nil, since there are a lot of those sorts of games in soccer.
He’s going to have to win a whole lot more in Charlotte FC’s inaugural Major League Soccer season in 2022, though, to capture the casual fan.
Charlotte FC is a team that is a very cool idea in theory. I’m glad it’s here. But I also bet 99 percent of you can’t name one player on the squad and that you also don’t know where Ramírez made his coaching reputation (mostly in Ecuador and Qatar).
Despite the lack of name recognition, Charlotte FC isn’t in “We’re just happy to be here” mode. The team has ambitious, publicly announced goals for its first season in 2022 (an opening pushed back a year due to COVID). It wants to average 30,000 fans per home game in B of A and to draw 74,000 for its first MLS game ever in Charlotte in March 2022, so as to set the league record for attendance.
Perhaps hardest of all, Charlotte FC says it not only wants to make the playoffs in Year 1, but also wants to host at least one playoff game.
Ramírez, 36, will be saddled with doing all of that — drumming up support in the community and then winning games with an entertaining style that keeps fans coming back. It’s a tall order for anyone, especially once the novelty wears off. The tickets aren’t cheap, and there’s going to be a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar in Charlotte in 2022.
Charlotte FC owner David Tepper, though, firmly believes that Ramírez can do it.
Said Tepper of Ramírez: “He’s not afraid to push the limits … And we’re not going to be afraid to do something different. ... He’s a very process-oriented, disciplined guy — a guy who’s going to help set a legacy here in Charlotte.”
Tepper’s quotes about Ramírez on Thursday sounded an awful lot like his quotes about Rhule, who is about to enter his second season as the Panthers’ head coach after going 5-11 in his first.
Rhule, 46, is a decade older than Ramírez, but the two men obviously share a love for detail and building things. They also have charisma and a similar sense of humor. Much like the way Tepper was convinced he had his man in Rhule and made sure he took no other interviews, Tepper told the rest of the people on the Zoom call “I’m done” interviewing Charlotte FC candidates after he spoke with Ramírez. (It should also be noted that Tepper stayed very much on script Thursday, avoiding any questions about a potential new stadium for his pro football and soccer teams and sticking to compliments about Ramírez).
This is a little bit of a Ted Lasso situation in reverse. Ramírez is coming from overseas to take over a team he doesn’t know that plays in an American football stadium. Like the fictional Lasso, a football coach who takes over an English soccer team in the Apple TV+ series, Ramírez likes to talk a lot about belief. He said several times about the Charlotte FC opportunity: “This is my American dream.”
The Ted Lasso analogy would really work if Ramírez had been hired as the Panthers’ head coach instead of Charlotte FC’s, because the soccer coach admittedly knows “nothing” about American football and said he has never watched a single NFL game.
“Now I will have the chance to,” Ramírez said. “I need to understand the game first, because I don’t understand.”
And what will he do in his free time in Charlotte?
“Attend an NFL game,” Ramírez joked. And then, more seriously: “And for sure the NBA, because I love basketball. I’m also a culture lover. So I will attend concerts and museums and the opera.”
That was undoubtedly the first time in 27 years in this market that I heard a head coach of any sport in Charlotte profess that he would attend operas while he was in the Queen City. But good for Ramírez. He likes the dramatics. And opera stars’ penchant for over-the-top acting has a lot in common with the way soccer players try to draw a penalty kick in the box by acting like they just got knifed after being barely touched by a defender.
Lest you think I’m an old-school, anti-soccer guy, incidentally, that’s far from the truth. I’ve coached youth recreational soccer for a decade now and played the sport myself as a kid. I’m far from an expert, but I do explain what offside is to young players every year (maybe not very well, though, because some of them never get it).
Ramírez will need to succeed to provide the “party” that Tepper claims it’s going to be at every home game.
“For the demographic we hopefully get in there (to soccer games), it’s going to be a party,” Tepper said. “This is a great town for this sport at this point in time. I think we have a great young coach with a brand new team. It’s an exciting time. I mean, coming out of COVID I think people are ready to let loose, and I hope everybody lets loose.”
That’s what Ramírez will work toward — a slow, steady build that allows everyone to let loose.
It’s far easier said than done. But Thursday, at least, was a good start.