By Ryan Bailey

Charlotte FC’s second-ever signing offers leadership qualities, MVP performances and a tendency to score stunning goals

CHARLOTTE — As Charlotte FC prepares for its inaugural season in 2022, the team’s scouting department has been searching the globe in its quest to fill the first-ever roster. This is evident in the second piece of the squad puzzle, who was found on the other side of the planet.

Australian midfielder Riley McGree put pen to paper in the final hours of October’s European transfer deadline, confirming Charlotte’s successful acquisition of another highly promising talent. A young player with a proven record of success, McGree had attracted plenty of interest from other teams in MLS and beyond.

The 21-year-old, signed from A-League side Adelaide United, was both his club’s top scorer and MVP last season. He was duly named as the league’s Young Footballer of the Year, building on a reputation earned in the previous season, where he played a starring role in Adeliade’s FFA Cup victory.

In the period before Charlotte FC’s inaugural campaign, Sporting Director Zoran Krneta has discussed his intention to loan players to high-profile second-tier European leagues, citing a level of competition that will serve as excellent preparation for MLS. With the club’s first-ever signing Sergio Ruiz currently playing in the Spanish second division with Las Palmas, McGree has been loaned to Birmingham City of the EFL Championship.

“Birmingham is a very big and very professional club, with good quality players,” McGree said from his hotel room, following his third day of training with his new loan side. “Obviously, the weather isn’t great compared to Australia, but it’s been a really good experience so far!”

The Championship is often regarded as the most competitive league in the world, and Birmingham have set their sights high under the management of former Real Madrid star Aitor Karanka. With the potential to fill the boots of teenage prodigy Jude Bellingham—sold by Birmingham to Borussia Dortmund over the summer for a reported $32m—McGree is relishing the opportunity presented by his loan placement.

“I’m getting the best of both worlds: an opportunity to play regularly in Europe with a huge club, and also the opportunity to play in MLS, with a really exciting new project,” says McGree.

McGree spent two years under contract with perennial Champions League and Europa League contenders Club Brugge, but has played the bulk of his career in his homeland. He is enthused by the career progression available in the United States.

“MLS is a growing league and I believe it is going to be one of the top leagues in the world in five years or so,” says McGree. “To be honest, with the time differences, I haven’t been able to watch a lot of MLS. But I do know there’s great quality in the league and a lot of money going into it.

“It’s amazing to be given the opportunity to come to the States and be a part of the start of something very special in Charlotte. It’s really exciting.”

Charlotte FC will certainly benefit from McGree’s leadership qualities, evident in his role as captain of Australia’s U23 side.

In 2017, he was called up to the full international squad for the first time, leading up to a pair of 2018 World Cup qualifying matches. He is also expected to be involved in Australia’s forthcoming World Cup qualifiers.

With the Socceroos likely to qualify for the tournament in Qatar, it is a distinct possibility that McGree will follow Charlotte’s inaugural season with a leading role at the 2022 World Cup.

“I want to be in and around the national team—that’s something I’m very ambitious about,” says McGree. “Putting in decent performances at Birmingham and getting into good form will go a long way in doing that.”

While McGree aspires to wear his nation’s colors at soccer’s showpiece competition, he already has experience of enjoying the global spotlight. In 2018, he was nominated for FIFA’s prestigious Puskas Award, which recognizes the “most beautiful” goal of the calendar year across all divisions and leagues. His extraordinary scorpion kick, scored while on loan with the Newcastle Jets, garnered international attention and has been described as the A-League’s greatest-ever goal:

“It was definitely a crazy moment and something I will never forget,” says McGree.

The goal that was not only beautiful, but also significant: It served as the equalizer in a crucial A-League playoff match that the Newcastle Jets would eventually win.

“There were a whole lot of emotions, especially with the crowd and the context of the game,” he says. “We went on to win, so it was an uplifting feeling to score that one, for sure.”

The boldness required to score such an incredible goal is reflected throughout McGree’s game—and also in his decision to embark upon a new adventure.

“I’ve never actually been to the States before!” admits McGree. “As an Australian, you always see movies and TV shows from the US, so I’m really looking forward to the lifestyle.

“Zoran has told me how Charlotte is a beautiful city with really good people, and I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have vouched for how great North Carolina is. So I’m very excited to come and check it out.”

McGree is, undoubtedly, an exciting prospect for Charlotte FC fans. The livewire attacking midfielder has won Player of the Year awards at club and league level, he has scored one of the best goals of the modern era, and captained his country at youth level.

“Riley has the aggressiveness and work ethic that we want to see in all of our players,” says Director of Scouting Thomas Schaling. “He has a strong desire to get himself into good scoring positions and take his chances. We believe that his strongest attributes allow us to use him in a variety of ways, making him a great fit for our inaugural squad.”

McGree’s signing shows the ambition of Charlotte FC’s recruitment, the ever-increasing appeal of MLS for young international prospects, and the caliber of player to be expected by fans at Bank of America Stadium.

“I’m a hard-working team player, and hopefully a chance creator and goalscorer,” says McGree.

“I like to work hard, have fun, enjoy myself… and sometimes put on a bit of a show!”