by Ryan Bailey
CHARLOTTE — Many soccer fans are familiar with the work of a talent scout thanks to the Football Manager. The game allows fans to simulate the highs and lows of running a soccer club, from recruitment to game day coaching, and it is renowned for its highly accurate and tremendously detailed real-life player database. The game tipped the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kylian Mbappe for greatness long before they had broken through.
Growing up on the Dutch island of Aruba in the Caribbean, Thomas Schaling went a step further than playing Football Manager. At the age of 15, he started writing his own professional-grade scouting reports.
“I downloaded matches from lesser-known leagues,” recalled Schalling, who this week was named Charlotte MLS Director of Scouting. “Then, I built my own databases and started sending those reports to clubs.”
By the time the precocious teen returned to his native Holland for college, he had built a scouting database that would get attention due to its niche: a focus on talent from this side of the Atlantic.
“At the time in Dutch soccer, a lot of clubs weren’t really focused on Latin America, so I found a gap in the market,” Schaling said.
A chance meeting with the General Director at Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar (the club where United States Men’s National Team forward Jozy Altidore enjoyed his most prolific European stint) formally started Schaling’s professional career in scouting.
After two seasons at Alkmaar, where he identified talent in the European and Latin American markets, Schaling moved to PSV Eindhoven, where he travelled the world, built a global network of contacts and managed the video scouting department. In nine years at PSV, he helped the club bring in some of the biggest names in the game, including Mexican National Team stars Hirving Lozano and Andrés Guardado, upcoming Dutch national team star forward Donyell Malen, and Manchester City’s two-time Premier League winner Oleksandr Zinchenko.
The fruits of Schaling’s labor are evident in PSV’s trophy case: the team won three Dutch Eredivisie league titles in the last seven years of his tenure.
Now, Schaling is savoring the prospect of overseeing the scouting team that will build Charlotte MLS’ inaugural first-team roster.
“It’s a little bit different to working at a club where there’s already an existing scouting structure,” Schaling said. “We’ll have to build it completely and create a whole squad from scratch. It’s a great challenge and very exciting.”
Schaling’s in-depth knowledge of the European and Latin American player pools will prove vital for the construction of the Charlotte MLS squad, as will his experience of unearthing top-level American talent.
During Schaling’s time at PSV, both Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent were brought in for trials as teenage youth prospects, while Tyler Adams was a target before his move to Red Bull Leipzig. Current United States youth talents Richard Ledezma and Chris Gloster are both on the books at PSV thanks to Schaling’s scouting team.
“I have followed the MLS market closely, and in the first few months, we are going to be focusing a lot on the MLS player pool,” Schaling said. “But I’m also looking to add four or five international scouts. We will create a global scouting network.”
The process of actually scouting a player, added Schaling, will involve a great deal of data analysis before his team clocks up air miles.
“We will be travelling to matches and tournaments globally, but I’ll also be looking at targets identified by my team as especially interesting through our data filters,” Schaling said. “Then, we perform analysis with video scouting. Only after that will we ask the scouting team to go and watch those players live.”
Following the methodical data-analyzing process, most prospects will be watched live on multiple occasions.
“You try to watch them in different situations, like tough away games or midweek matches,” Schaling said. “Then you can decide if he’s exactly the right guy for you.”
Typically, club scouts will use databases built over a matter of decades to find their players, so Charlotte MLS will require Schaling to bring his knowledge, experience and contacts to the table from the outset.
“There’s no time to start following every player from scratch,” Schaling said. “It’s a little bit of a different approach.”
The video scouting process for Charlotte MLS is already underway, but Schaling hopes to emphasize the team’s effort to nurture and develop its own talent.
“In the end, the cheapest way to get players is if we develop them ourselves,” Schaling said. “At PSV, we always worked around the biggest talents from our academy, like Memphis Depay, so that we wouldn’t block their pathway to the first team.
“Scouting is important and we’ll always need to invest in first-team players, but if you want to build a squad and make profit from it, then developing your own talent will also play a big role.”
Profitability is an important consideration for Schaling, who notes that Charlotte MLS will aim to make a margin on players it has developed and scouted, in the same vein as many major European sides.
“We want to be selling players and also getting results on the field,” Schaling said. “That’s what I’ve been used to at PSV, and there are lots of excellent selling clubs in Europe.”
Schaling cites the case of Colombian fullback Santiago Arias, whom PSV bought for around €600,000 before selling him to Atletico Madrid—another successful selling club—for €12m. Similarly, Spanish defender Angeliño was bought from Manchester City and was repurchased by the Premier League side just one season later, at greater expense, via his buyback clause.
“It’s great to make profits on players, but of course, we’re all here to win things,” Schaling added.
In addition to staying in the black financially, a good soccer team must speculate to accumulate. Schaling is also aware of the importance of investing in the right Designated Players.
“We need to decide which three or four players will be instrumental in our side and then build the rest around them,” he says. “Of those instrumental players, the Designated Players are very important. They’re going to be earning more, so they should definitely be bringing above-average qualities to the team.”
Charlotte MLS, however, will not aspire to be a side that leans too heavily on a superstar.
“In the end, it’s about creating a balanced and winning squad,” Schaling said. “We will always set out to do that with our scouting team.”
Building a side from scratch is a great challenge, and time is shorter for Charlotte MLS than any other expansion team, but Schaling is confident that everything is in place for success.
“It won’t be easy,” Schaling said. “But looking at the people involved, and the people we’re bringing to the club, I’m convinced we can do a great job. I’m really looking forward to it.”