Feature StoriesNews & OpinionSports

Jere Uronen Traces His International Journey to Charlotte FC

From hockey beginnings to Major League Soccer

Jere Uronen (far right) during a match against FC Cincinatti. (Photo by Rebekah Wilden)

Jere Uronen was in a rush to get back to Charlotte.

On Thursday, March 21, the defender was in Cardiff, Wales, as part of Finland’s national football team. Two days later, his current professional club — Charlotte FC — was set to face the Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium. 

The Charlotte match would be critical, as the Crown had gone winless during a brutal three-match road trip and Columbus was the defending champion. Despite entering their fifth match of the season with one win, one draw, and three losses, Charlotte looked better than they ever had, and the strongest element was the back line of center backs, Adilson Malanda and Andrew Privett, plus fullbacks Nathan Byrne and Uronen.

However, at Charlotte FC’s weekly press conference that Thursday, head coach Dean Smith read Uronen’s name from a list of players who wouldn’t be available for the match against Columbus. It looked like the successful back line would be broken for the first time.

Uronen had different plans.

Luckily for Charlotte, Uronen didn’t see play in the international match, a qualifier for the UEFA European Football Championship. Despite having 67 caps (international appearances) for Finland, Uronen spent the entire match on the bench for the 4-1 loss to Wales, meaning his legs would be healthy for a match two days later.

The next day, Uronen hopped on an international flight, arriving early Saturday morning in Charlotte, making himself available for the Columbus match. While João Pedro Reginaldo would get his first start for Charlotte in Uronen’s usual slot at left fullback, Uronen was available for the closing minutes of the 2-0 Charlotte win.

At the post-match press conference, Smith joked that Uronen “flew back economy class late last night” to make the game (for the record, Uronen later told us Finland flies its first team in business class).

“[Uronen] wanted to come back and be here for the [Columbus match] which shows me how committed he is to this football club as well, which can only be good news for us,” Smith told Queen City Nerve in March. “He’s willing to listen, he’s willing to get better, he’s willing to work hard.”

Though Uronen’s trip from Wales to Charlotte was straightforward, the course of the Finnish international’s life was a long journey from his native country through Sweden, Belgium, France, and Germany to eventually make it to Charlotte.

Beginnings in Turku

Born on July 13, 1994, Uronen is one of the veteran footballers on Charlotte FC’s first team. He is a native of Turku, Finland, the country’s oldest city and original capital. The city is bilingual (Finnish and Swedish), and as an important commercial and cultural city, features a wide range of cultures.

“Obviously the weather is quite different there than in Charlotte,” Uronen told Queen City Nerve in a March interview.

a photo of Uronen as a 16-year-old playing soccer in Finland
Jere Uronen with FTS as a 16-year-old. (Photo by Tiina Pirilä)

Because of Turku’s sports culture, Uronen’s interest in soccer wasn’t always assured. 

“I’m from a hockey city,” said Uronen. “Not a big football country.”

It’s no surprise the young Uronen played both hockey, Finland’s most popular sport, and soccer growing up. As a center in hockey, Uronen told us he was a good passer, but “never the strongest, never the fastest,” and no good in a fight.

“This frame is quite small, so I should just stay away from that,” Uronen told us with a laugh. 

At age 14, Uronen’s coaches forced him to choose between the sports.

“I think I made the right choice,” said Uronen. 

He also made another important choice in Finland, meeting his future wife Minttu in church 15 years ago. They married in 2017. 

He took his football career seriously, but growing up he didn’t think he would ever be a professional player.

“I never really thought my dreams could be anything more than dreams,” said Uronen. “Coming from a small football country, I knew the odds of making it were smaller than, for example, if you’re from England or Spain.”

Uronen loved the game and played soccer in his spare time with his friends. He didn’t engage in traditional training with cones and obstacles, instead opting for a fun, social experience. It was unstructured practice: shooting competitions, two-on-two scrimmages, and free kick contests. 

Eventually, Uronen developed his talents to the point where his first club, Turun Palloseura (TPS), noticed. Uronen was modest about how he got his start, saying he got the opportunity at 16 years old due to injuries at the club. 

“Out of the blue, I got a chance with my first team in Finland,” said Uronen. “I played well, and all of a sudden I was a starter … then all of a sudden I had offers from abroad.”

After 18 starts and one goal at TPS in 2011, Uronen made the move to Sweden on a €700,000 transfer fee, and would play in Helsingborg for four years before joining one of the top leagues in Europe in Belgium.

“It was just a dream for me, I never thought I could actually be a pro footballer,” said Uronen. “I feel really lucky obviously, and really proud of it.”

Making dreams a reality

When Uronen’s career took him to Belgium in 2016, he joined Koninklijke Racing Club Genk (KRC Genk), where he would face future Charlotte FC teammate Brecht Dejaegere with Koninklijke Atletiek Associatie Gent (KAA Gent), another team in Belgium’s top division, multiple times a year.

A portrait of Uronen smiling during a game with the Finland national football team
Uronen with the Finland national football team (Photo by Jyri Sulander)

“I played several times against [Uronen],” Dejaegre told Nerve. “I think I had some good games against him … They were always close games between Gent, my team, and Genk, his team.”

During Uronen’s time at Genk, he not only faced Belgian teams but also gained experience in the international competitions, facing teams like RB Salzburg (with a young Erling Haaland), Liverpool, and SSC Napoli.

“It was the biggest dream for me,” Uronen said of his Champions League experience. “It’s just special, especially when you go to their stadiums because you’ve watched tens, maybe hundreds of games [on] TV from those stadiums.”

That experience makes Uronen relatively unique among Charlotte defenders, many of whom are young or haven’t had the opportunity to play in the top leagues where teams can qualify for European play.

“We both have some experience on the international level with Europa League games but also Champions League games,” said Dejaegere. “I think experience can always help a team and both of us have quite some experience on that side. It’s always beneficial for the team and for players.”

In 2017, Uronen and Dejaegere would face off in the round of 16 in the Europa League, with Genk prevailing thanks in part to a Uronen goal. Then, in 2019, Genk won the Belgian championship, defeating Dejaegere’s Gent twice in the round-robin playoff.

“It was good to play against him,” said Dejaegere. “He always said he liked talking to his opponents.”

Dejaegere would join Charlotte FC in July 2023, less than a month before Uronen.

Moving across the world

“Eff it, let’s move to Charlotte,” sounds like a line from a certain Onion article about the Queen City, but it’s also how Uronen came to join Charlotte FC.

After his successful time in Belgium, Uronen moved to French side Stade Brestois 29 (Brest) on a reported 1-million-euro transfer fee, but the move to France presented challenges on and off the pitch.

a photo of Uronen greeting fans that are gifting him with a Finnish National flag
Fans present Uronen a Finnish National Flag. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

“After a while in France, we kind of all realized with my family that it’s not a good fit,” said Uronen. “Football-wise, it’s not a good fit for the whole family living there. We were never really happy there, we never settled. Then, you just have to kind of accept that it was a mistake.” 

As much as if not more than any Charlotte FC player we’ve spoken with, Uronen centers his wife and family in conversations. It’s clear their happiness is very important to Uronen — and to his quality of play. In France, Uronen felt he wasn’t performing at a high enough level due to the unhappy situation, stating that there were issues on both sides.

His former coach at Brest apparently felt the same; when Nerve reached out to Michel Der Zakarian, a spokesperson for his current club told us, “The coach does not wish to respond favorably to this request.”

Uronen’s current coach, however, told us how important a good fit is to a successful footballer.

“Massive difference. You want to feel wanted, you want to be enjoying yourself,” said Smith. “I’ve always said here I want the culture to be where people come to work everyday wanting to come to work with a smile on their face … you can have a bit of a laugh and a joke but work hard to improve … What I’ve seen from Jere so far is that he wants to do that.”

Smith, following his own advice, couldn’t help but add a joke to his comments. “Big difference from Finland’s weather to North Carolina weather, that’s for sure. He’ll probably get through as much [SPF 50 sunscreen] as I do.”

Because he and his family wanted a change, Uronen asked Brest for a new opportunity and went on loan to Schalke in Germany to help them in a relegation battle, where he is fondly remembered as a “great guy” by the communications staff. 

Uronen’s family had a much better experience as well.

“Fantastic experience. Just incredible for me,” Uronen said of Schalke. “Unfortunately, [while] we had a really good six months there when I was there, [and] we got a lot of new players in January, it just wasn’t enough.”

Schalke missed their target by one win and the team was relegated to Germany’s second league, meaning Uronen’s loan contract was void and he was on his way back to France. His family stayed in Finland as he looked for somewhere else to go.

“The club saw it on my face that I wasn’t happy there,” said Uronen. “So Charlotte came calling, and I think I had one day to decide if this is going to be the next adventure for us or [not] because the transfer window was closing … we ended up saying ‘You know, eff it, let’s go for an adventure across the big sea.”

Shaping Charlotte’s defense

Uronen has been a stalwart on defense since joining Charlotte FC last August. He’s appeared in 18 matches for the club, starting for the team when he’s not on international duty.

At first, however, the August heat was a major change from Europe, especially while going though big changes with his family.

“It was scary going to a different continent with two little kids, but I know I have the best wife with me who will be there for me and for the kids,” said Uronen. “It’s been great so far. This city’s just fantastic, the club is amazing, and all four of us have really enjoyed our time here.”

When I ask Jere Uronen how his season has been so far, he gives a reasonable answer: “Lot of good, lot of things to be better at obviously, like every season you never really feel satisfied as a player or as a team, no matter the results.”

an action shot of Uronen against a member from Inter Miami
Uronen faces off against Inter Miami (Photo by Jesse Boykin Kimmel)

Again, it was a modest response: Charlotte’s back line has been seen as one of the highlights of the team this season, conceding only eight goals in eight matches as of this writing.

“Both the fullbacks have been leaders in that back four … so they’ve got the experience of playing a lot of games and they can give really good advice to Adi [Malanda] and [Andrew Privett] who have been playing there so far,” said Smith. “Likewise in front of them as well — they’ve had some young players in front of them — just giving some help and advice in those areas as well has been really helpful for us.”

“I think we’ve built a really good base now during the offseason and the first games, and game by game it feels better, I think it looks better, and we’re on the right track,” said Uronen. “Just as a team, I feel that we are really solid. I think Nate [Byrne], Adil [Malanda], Drew [Privett] … they’ve played really well. I think [goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina] has a lot less work to do than last year, which is always a good sign.”

The introduction of Smith as coach has changed a lot for Uronen — and his teammates — at Charlotte this year.

“Obviously, the philosophy is really different this year. Everyone knows that every single football coach has their own way of playing and it’s always different,” said Uronen. “There’s quite a big contrast between our coach now and Lattanzio last year in their way of thinking. For me, there’s never [a] right or wrong way of playing football; it’s just whenever you have a coach who wants to play in a certain way then as a player you do everything you can to play at your highest level.”

While Uronen has accomplished a lot in his career, Finland has never made the World Cup. Uronen is ready as soon as it happens.

“I’ve been really, really lucky with my career. There’s only one thing I haven’t checked off my list, which is playing in the World Cup with my country,” said Uronen. “For me, I just go with the mentality, let’s go show how good I am, let’s enjoy this moment, because you never know if you’ll get anything like that again.”

SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *