by Ryan Bailey
CHARLOTTE — From the outset, Charlotte MLS owner David Tepper has made clear his intention to create a winning team in the city. This intent has been further reinforced in the most recent technical staff hire.
Steve Walsh is renowned as one of the most successful scouts in world soccer and boasts a résumé that once led Sir Alex Ferguson to call him “the most influential person in the Premier League.”
Walsh, Charlotte MLS’ new Special Advisor, has acted as Assistant Manager at Hull and Leicester and recently served as Director of Football at Everton. But he is likely held in such high regard by Ferguson due to his incredible track record of talent identification.
“Sam Allardyce told me I would never get a better reference than that!” says Walsh, when recalling Ferguson’s praise.
“Fortunately, I’ve been more successful than not when making calls on players,” Walsh says, with a level of modesty that belies his wealth of experience.
After serving as Chief Scout at Bury and Chester City, Walsh spent fourteen years mining talent at Chelsea. He was part of a team that brought some of the greatest stars of the Premier League to Stamford Bridge, including Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Gianfranco Zola.
After a season serving as Chief Scout at Newcastle Utd, Walsh moved to Leicester City, where he created his magnum opus.
By thinking outside the box, and spotting talent in the places where others were not looking, Walsh built the Leicester teams that won League One, The Championship and the Premier League.
He is responsible for unearthing talent including Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante—all from unlikely sources.
Vardy, for example, was bought from non-league Fleetwood Town for £1m, having been released from Sheffield Wednesday’s academy. Mahrez was signed from the French second tier, while Kante was picked up after helping French minnows Caen reach the top flight.
“I’ve brought through players from the French second division into the Premier League,” says Walsh. “They came, they got better, and are all batting at a high level now.
“There’s a lot of players in France, Portugal, Spain and Germany who might not be in the top leagues, but if we can identify young talent with potential in those places, that’s something we’re very interested in.”
Walsh, who will act as Special Advisor to Sporting Director Zoran Krneta, President Tom Glick and Tepper, offers unrivaled expertise in talent identification in Europe. But the search for Charlotte MLS’ inaugural roster will be a global affair.
“The Central and South American influence will be a significant factor,” says Walsh. “I can see upwards of five or six players from those regions in the squad.”
Walsh also stresses that the search for players will start on the club’s doorstep.
“There is a massive wealth of talent in the Carolinas, so first and foremost, we will look in that direction,” he says. “The biggest soccer academy in Charlotte has over 6,000 kids, so you’d like to think that some of the professionals will come from there.”
Although he carved his reputation by finding diamonds in the rough, Walsh notes the importance of creating balance in the inaugural roster.
“We need experienced players—particularly players with MLS experience—so fans will probably have heard of some names we will target,” he says.
On the topic of Designated Players, Walsh will not entertain the idea of major European stars who might be seeking a paid vacation in the autumn of their careers.
“We don’t want people to come for a holiday. We want people to come for a job,” he says. “If we’re bringing in experienced players, they must not only bring their abilities to the table but also the kinds of personalities that will lift the team and take people along with them.”
Regardless of star quality, the trickiest spots to fill on the roster, according to Walsh, will be the attacking positions.
“You can coach a team to defend, but ultimately you need the tools to finish the job and stick the ball in the net,” he says. “That’s the most difficult skill in football: scoring goals. It’s why strikers tend to come at a premium.
“In my entire career, I’ve never met a manager who wasn’t looking for a striker.”
Drawing on his forté for building winning teams, Walsh will seek to identify the best attacking options, the supporting creative players, and a sturdy defense. To do this, he will personally travel to games around the world and draw on his established global scouting network. But before any shoe leather is worn, preliminary work will be done via video scouting and data analysis.
“We’ll be using algorithms and analytics to help us on our way and ensure the right decisions are made collectively,” says Walsh. “There was a time when you had to rely on agents and scouts in the field, but now most games are recorded and there’s generally footage of every professional game—and a lot of youth games too.
“When a player comes on your radar, you find as much footage as possible and back up your findings with stats. Then, you watch them play and see if they correspond to your feelings.”
In addition to consulting on talent identification, Walsh will serve on a technical board that will make decisions on both transfers and head coach recruitment. It is the latter appointment that will prove to be the keystone in shaping the playing style of the inaugural roster.
“The team’s philosophy will be driven by the appointment of the head coach,” says Walsh. “We’ll work on getting the players that fit what they want to do. If we want a high-pressing game at the top end of the pitch, then we need players with high energy and a good work rate to achieve that.”
According to Walsh, the toughest task for a newly created squad, or any squad, is getting them to gel and play as a cohesive unit.
“It’s a team game, and you need to work together. It’s about people management. How do you get success in the stock exchange, or building any kind of business? It’s about getting the right people who can work together.
“The mark of a truly successful team is when they bond. That’s the key: getting the dressing room together. It builds the fervor and passion to win.”
Charlotte MLS has a little over a year to start creating chemistry with the 30-man roster and coach. The prospect of building the team from scratch may seem daunting, but it is a welcome and unique opportunity for Walsh.
“Normally, a team isn’t bringing you in because they’ve been successful,” he chuckles. “Typically, you arrive to find players who are not performing. You either mold them into your way of thinking or move them on. So this is a magnificent opportunity to start from scratch.”
Having watched his Leicester City side rapidly rise to unexpected levels of success, Walsh is confident in Charlotte MLS’ ability to make an impression straight out of the blocks.
“The owner is putting a lot of emphasis on wanting to do well, and we won’t be there to make up the numbers,” he says. “If the conditions are right, I’d expect us to be fighting for major honors in the next few years.”
Walsh’s confidence in the forthcoming success stems not just from work being done at the organization, but the way Charlotte MLS matches the ambition, growth and dynamism of the city.
“Charlotte is full of vibrant, young people, and there are new buildings springing up everywhere,” Walsh says. “This is a really exciting time for Charlotte: not just for soccer, but the whole of the city.
“I’m really excited to be part of it.”