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Getting to Know Charlotte FC Head Coach Dean Smith

The West Midlands master battens down team's defensive hatches

a photo of Charlotte FC Head coach, Dean Smith smiling
Dean Smith, former chess champion, current Charlotte FC Head coach. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

On May 25, after his team drew Philadelphia Union in a scoreless game at home, Charlotte FC fullback Nathan Byrne showered, put on his street clothes and made a swift departure from the team locker room with two bottles of wine under his arms. The English defender walked through a scrum of press and photographers that was so entertained by the sight that no one bothered to catch it on film.

It’s a scene that wouldn’t have made sense before Dean Smith took over as Charlotte FC head coach in December. Smith’s love of wine, especially from Italy (“Toscana, Tuscany”), manifests itself in one of the 53-year-old’s new traditions as Charlotte FC head coach: clean sheet wine for the back line. 

The new coach made a promise early on in the season that he would give out wine as gifts to his defenders and goalkeepers whenever they earned a clean sheet, keeping the other team scoreless. However, Byrne had told members of the media earlier in the week that Smith was “behind on his payments” after the defense had held other teams scoreless for the entire month of May.

“I’m going out and getting a crate of wine,” Smith told us later that day, and he finally delivered a crate of wine to the squad that weekend, making Byrne’s exit all the more comical.

After 15 matches in 2024’s campaign — almost half a season — Charlotte FC fans and players have a lot of good news to drink to. Charlotte leads Major League Soccer with the fewest goals allowed of any team (13), and is on track to have their best season ever despite losing three of its four highest-paid forwards. The club has spent most of the season solidly in playoff position.

“[Coach Smith] has really good advice for us,” said center back Adilson Malanda, the club’s star defensive player. “With his experience, he [helps] us a lot … as a defensive line we are really happy that he’s here because we can see already we’ve conceded a lot less goals this year than at the same point.” 

Malanda has a point. Charlotte FC allowed 52 goals in each of its first two seasons, or an average of 1.53 goals per match; this year Charlotte is allowing significantly fewer goals, averaging .87 per match. Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina leads the league with seven clean sheets in 15 matches.

Kahlina, Malanda and center back Andrew Privett — who was playing as a midfielder for Penn State just 18 months ago — have earned MLS “Team of the Matchday” honors for their defensive work this year.

It’s a significant shift for a club with a reputation for weak defense. With Charlotte’s starting back line and goalkeeper unchanged from last year, it’s hard not to see the new head coach — a former center back himself — as one of the catalysts for the change.

The beginnings of a MLS career

Smith was born on March 19, 1971 in West Bromwich, 7 miles outside of Birmingham. His family were all supporters of Aston Villa, the biggest football club in Britain’s second city, and Smith’s father Ron was a steward at Villa Park.

Smith grew up with his mother Hilary and brother David just three train stops away from the stadium, which still holds a special place in his heart.

“[My] favorite place [I’ve played or coached] is Villa Park,” said Smith. “Visiting Wembley is great as well … but Villa Park is the ground.”

Smith described a childhood playing with the other kids in the neighborhood; since he was 6, he always wanted to be a footballer.

“Like all my best friends, we were brought up by our mums,” said Smith. “My dad was out at six in the morning and back at six at night … I would probably credit all our athletic development by just being boys, just being kids playing street football.”

Smith attended Dartmouth High School and played football for the school team. As a youngster he tried to play midfield, but told Paul Marston of the Evening Mail & Sports Argus that he “got a nosebleed every time I crossed the half-way line” in a 1993 interview. Smith would end up a center back.

In school, he was also a prolific chess player, something that continued into his coaching days. In 2021, he told the Birmingham Mail, “I went into school and became West Midlands school chess champion as well, with our school team. I’ve continued playing. It probably gave me more of a tactical mind because of that.”

After playing for his school league and a youth stint at Newcastle United, Smith started his professional career at Walsall, just 10 miles north of his family home. After playing with the under-18 squad, he had an unexpected first team debut at 17 years old on Feb. 11, 1989 in front of 14,203 fans in Sunderland, 200 miles from Birmingham.

Though Smith didn’t know he would be playing with the top squad, John Barnwell, his coach at the time, had called Smith’s parents and family to make sure they were in the stands for his debut. 

Though he would play 165 more matches for Walsall, Smith said his debut on the first team at Walsall was the most memorable moment of his playing career.

Dean Smith yells from the sidelines
Dean Smith at work. (Photo by Rebekah Whilden)

“I didn’t expect to play, I played and we won three-nil,” said Smith. “It set me up on my career, and it was the only place I wanted to be then. There’s other games you can remember, but that was the main one for me.”

Debuts hold a special place in Smith’s heart, and he’s worked the lessons from his time playing into his approach as coach.

“When Tyger [Smalls] was playing against New England, I wanted him to make sure he told his mom and dad he was starting,” said Smith. “I think it’s really important, it’s a big thing for all kids, and I think it’s an important thing that they can share with their families as well. I still try and make sure the goodness that John Barnwell did for me, I try and pass on to other players and make sure their families are a part of their debut.”

When Smith broke into the first team at Walsall, he was surrounded by veteran players, including many who played for their national teams.

“There are a lot of players who I was fortunate enough to play with when I was younger in my career who probably helped guide me a little bit,” said Smith. “I certainly learned a lot from them just training with them every day.”

After a couple years with the club, Smith was named captain at Walsall in the summer of 1993 despite being just 22 years old. He had “tried out” for the role of captain the season before, wearing the armband for three matches while the previous captain served a suspension; Walsall won all three games under the young skipper.

a portrait of Dean Smith holding a banner during signing Day with Charlotte FC
Dean Smith (far left) on signing Day. (Photo by Jesse Boykin Kimmel)

“Responsibility tends to drive me on,” the young Smith told Marston in 1993. “Being competitive is what my game is about, and I like to think I am getting through to the other players. But really, when a match starts, you need 11 ‘captains’ on the pitch, all doing their job.”

Smith’s time as a captain for multiple teams influenced how he identifies players for the role.

“With all the captains I choose, I think it’s ones that I think can go in and create other leaders rather than followers,” said Smith. “It’s the person first; what’s his mentality, what’s his drive, what are his standards?”

In his playing days, Smith had multiple nicknames befitting a captain: “Deano,” “Smudge,” a common moniker for Brits named Smith; “Ginge” due to the bright red hair of his youth; and “Goughy” (rhymes with “coffee”) based on his resemblance to another player.

“We had a Scottish center back who used to play alongside me, and he thought I looked like a famous Rangers, Tottenham, and Scotland player named Richard Gough,” said Smith. “So they called me ‘Goughy’ after Richard Gough.”

Smith left Walsall after his first season as captain, but assumed that role at his future clubs.

Identifying as a leader

Smith didn’t want to leave Walsall, but the club was in dire financial straits — a recurring theme for many of the clubs in the second, third and fourth tier of English football. 

“The chairman told me if you don’t go, we might go bust,” said Smith.

With a transfer fee of £80,000, Smith was a record signing for the Bulls of Hereford United FC.

“I will always be their record signing,” Smith told us; the original club dissolved in 2014.

At Hereford, Smith had 26 goals in 146 appearances across all competitions — significantly more than his two goals for Walsall.

An old program from Dean Smith’s playing days. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

You can also see increasing confidence on display in Smith’s writings at the time. As captain, he had a “Living Room Gossip” column in Hereford’s program that he signed with the sobriquet “Smudge,” and he wasn’t afraid to brag, concluding one column with a shout out to himself.

“Before I go I just [thought] I would like to mention my brace against Scarborough [in a previous match]. Enough said. See you soon, Smudge,” Smith wrote in Hereford United’s March 25, 1995 program.

Smith went to Leyton Orient right after a time of financial turmoil for the club. The club had been in such bad financial straits that Orient’s owner put the club up for sale — assets and obligations — for only five pounds.

During one of our conversations, I handed Smith a program from one of his matches with Orient. It included the referee’s notes for the match, in which Smith had been written up for committing a foul. Smith remembered the match immediately.

“This was a cup game, wasn’t it?” he asked rhetorically, knowing the answer was yes. “I got sent off … if it was the cup game in the second round we won after extra time, yeah, I got sent off.”

While that red card was one of many for Smith in the fall of 1998, his stint at Orient would be the longest of his career. He appeared in 239 matches for the Greater London club and had 32 goals as captain and the designated kicker for penalties. 

Dean Smith chatting on the pitch
Dean Smith chatting on the pitch. (Photo by Rebekah Wilden)

The loquacious Smith always has a turn of phrase ready, so it’s no surprise you can find his words in many of the souvenir programs from his playing days. Leyton Orient programs featured a column called “Pearls from Dean.”

“They were transcribed from conversations, I quite enjoyed doing it,” Smith told us when asked about the “Pearls from Dean” column. “When I first started playing at Walsall, I used to do a column in the local sports paper every weekend, again transcribed from conversation, and I used to quite enjoy doing them.”

When I handed Smith a February 2002 Leyton Orient program opened to “Pearls from Dean,” his eyes lit up.

“It’s a good full page really, innit?” said Smith. “Wow, that’s a blast from the past. Same haircut as well.”

Leaving the UK

When Smith left Orient, his playing career took him to Sheffield Wednesday, then Port Vale. Smith hung up his boots in 2005 after 13 matches with Port Vale to go back to Orient as a youth coach, and shortly thereafter as assistant manager under his former teammate Martin Ling.

Ling got Smith to make the transition by calling him up after a Vale match and saying, “Listen, I’ve just watched you, your legs are going, come and be my youth team coach.”

Eventually, Smith would take over as manager at Walsall, where his playing career started, and then Brentford. 

After establishing Brentford as a force in the EFL Championship — England’s second tier and a league Smith feels is equivalent to MLS — Smith became the manager at his most beloved club, Aston Villa. There, he made his biggest mark as a coach to date, leading Villa to promotion from the Championship back into the Premier League, where the team has played ever since. 

At Villa, he had the chance to develop Jack Grealish, who later joined Premier League champions Manchester City on a £100-million transfer fee, at the time the record fee for a British player.

After coaching stints at Norwich City and Leicester City that saw both teams relegated from the Premier League, Smith attended his first Charlotte FC match and quickly became the club’s top candidate for the head coaching job at the end of the team’s second season.

The first time we ever spoke with Dean Smith one on one, he had just been introduced as Charlotte FC’s third head coach. He was impressed by how far the club had come in only two years and felt a real warmth at the club despite its young age and new facilities.

“I think every club I’ve worked for, I’ve invested totally into it,” Smith told us in December. “I think it helps that I’ve been involved in this game for 36 years as a player and a coach … We have to become successful, but consistent as well.”

a photo of Dean Smith with friends and family of players in Charlotte FC
Dean Smith (third from left) meets supporters. (Photo by Jesse Boykin Kimmel)

Though Charlotte FC is Smith’s first coaching job outside of England, he was already well acquainted with the Carolinas. His son Jamie started playing college soccer in Gaffney, South Carolina in 2017 before going on to play for NC State, USL League Two’s Asheville City SC, and most recently USL League One’s Greenville Triumph.

However, despite many previous trips to Asheville and Charlotte, the Carolinas can still surprise the gaffer.

“Just walking down the greenway and seeing snakes, I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’” said Smith when asked about the differences between Charlotte and England. “I know there are snakes here, but they seem to cross my path all the time … [one time] I was walking down the greenway and had three snakes cross my path.”

Smith told Queen City Nerve he’s added an app to his phone to help identify the snakes he encounters.

Highlighting mental health in sports

When we asked Smith about the biggest lessons from his playing career that he brings to his job as coach, he listed emotional control, discipline and being respectful to the players.

“I want to be a manager who I would have wanted to be managed by,” said Smith. “I have to make tough decisions, but there can be a different way you make those tough decisions and give it to the players.”

Mental health was a focus for Charlotte FC in May, with the team releasing a video sharing the story of Caroline Love, a young fan who struggled with mental health challenges but persevered through therapy and treatment despite adversity and suicidal ideation. 

Caroline “went through a lot of problems that people do go through, and because people can’t see the disease of mental illness, it becomes a tough thing to talk about,” said Smith during a May 23 press conference. “Sometimes we’re not aware of the impact we can have.”

One major change on and off the pitch since Smith’s playing days is the focus on mental health and managing stress. Smith told us that, in his time, players didn’t manage emotions or stress, and hazing was more prevalent.

“It was old school then. You had to get on with it,” said Smith. “I remember the week before I made my debut [for Walsall] I got called up to train with the first team, I trained with them and then after that I had to clean 24 sets of boots and do all the laundry.”

Though the experience drove Smith to want to play for the first team even more, he added, “You had to find your own ways of coping.”

For Charlotte FC players, there is a different approach than the one Smith experienced in the ’90s. There are club staff who directly support players, including player engagement and welfare director John Wilson, and Smith is in the process of hiring a sports psychologist (Andrea Cannavacciuolo, who was previously hired as Charlotte FC’s head of mental performance, left the club when former head coach Christian Lattanzio was sacked).

Dean Smith takes a wave
Dean Smith takes a wave. (Photo by Rebekah Whilden)

“We all think [mental health] is a really important part, because as approachable as I am as a head coach, there will be some things that my staff or players don’t want me to know,” said Smith. “I think that it is important that there’s somebody within the workplace that people can reach out to when they’re having problems.”

Since taking over at Charlotte FC, Smith has overseen the departure of three offensive designated players: Karol Świderski, Kamil Jóźwiak, and most recently Enzo Copetti. In their places, Charlotte FC has signed winger Liel Abada for a transfer fee approaching $8 million, a record for the club, and he has elevated Patrick Agyemang into the striker role. 

Additionally, Smith is still seeking an attacking midfielder who can be a key piece.

“You have to build the foundations of keeping clean sheets and being tight defensively, I believe that’s what helps you win football games,” said Smith. “We’re still working on the top half of the pitch, and we’ll keep working religiously on that, but we’ve got a good base at the moment because if the opposition don’t score, you’re guaranteed a point.”

Smith told us that even though he played defense for most of his career, his perspective from his playing days is most useful to attacking players.

“I actually feel I’m more capable of giving better information to forwards,” said Smith. “I know what defenders don’t like, so I can be telling forwards where center backs don’t want to go … I think the small details are what I give to the defenders.”

“He gives us great advice,” said Agyemang. “I try to take in as much information, and bother the center backs as much as possible, and it’s all based on what I’m learning and what I’m getting told. I think he’s doing a really good job helping us.”

That advice is going to be important as Charlotte works to create chances and score more goals; though Charlotte’s defense has had a great year, only one team in MLS’s Eastern Conference has scored fewer goals than Charlotte as of press time.

“He knows what he’s talking about,” said Agyemang. “He genuinely wants to see us learn and get better each and every day. That’s the thing that stands out to me.”

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