The last time Dave Sarachan was in Cary, he was coaching the U.S. men’s national team, the caretaker manager assigned to clean things up after the failure to qualify for the World Cup and take a long look at the potential next generation of players before handing things over to Gregg Berhalter last month.
Thursday, 10 months after the United States played Paraguay at Wake Med Soccer Park, the first of three wins during his 12-match stint, Sarachan’s face loomed over the field, the video boards heralding his arrival as the new coach of North Carolina FC.
That’s quite a leap, from the national team to a second-division team that has played one postseason game in the past seven seasons, but it speaks to the promise and potential of owner Stephen Malik’s grand NCFC experiment, his attempt to build a soccer club with impact that far exceeds the boundaries of the Triangle.
Sarachan’s appointment is the latest step toward Malik’s vision of a club that provides a single path to a pro career from pre-teen to first team and beyond. The 2017 merger with two massive Triangle youth programs – CASL and Triangle Futbol Club – created a development structure that rivals any in the country. And the long-term goal still includes, at the top, an MLS team thriving with home-grown talent.
It’s modern and international and ambitious, and some important pieces are already in place. (Kids from the soccer-focused Accelerator School, which holds its classes inside WakeMed Soccer Park, attended Thursday’s press conference.) Team president Curt Johnson proclaimed the whole operation “ground zero of all that’s right about soccer in the United States,” to give some idea of the scope of the project. And Sarachan knows, as well as anyone, that none of that is going to work very well unless there’s a winning team leading the way.
“The timing is right to really push and make this club as good as any in the country,” said Sarachan, 64. “But my job is to win.”
The NC Courage has done its part under the Malik umbrella, without question, dominating the women’s game both here and, to the extent possible, abroad. But the men’s side of the equation has to have similar success, on a relative scale, especially given the ongoing push for an MLS expansion franchise. A winning team is an absolute necessity, from both a marketing and a competitive perspective. It’s the flagship product of everything NCFC is trying to do, and for too long it has been spinning its wheels.
“We need to keep pace with everyone else,” said long-tenured midfielder Austin da Luz, whose return to the club was announced later Thursday. “You look over at what the Courage is doing, we’ve got to keep up.”
That isn’t Colin Clarke’s fault, of course; the former coach had his moments of glory despite ownership turmoil before Malik bought the team and the inherent instability of the crumbling NASL before the eventual move to the USL. Even with Malik’s backing, player recruitment is always hit or miss at this level. But it was clear at the end – after a middle-of-the-pack finish in NCFC’s first season in the USL – that it was more than time to give someone else a try.
Sarachan arrives with an impeccable resume, having won a regular-season MLS title and U.S. Open Cup with the Chicago Fire, a longtime Bruce Arena assistant for both club (DC United and Los Angeles Galaxy) and country.
And Sarachan knows firsthand what WakeMed can be like, when things are going right. Three times he came here for U.S. Open Cup matches with the Los Angeles Galaxy as a member of Arena’s staff, once coaching the team himself while Arena stayed home, and three times the Galaxy lost.
“We came all this way,” Sarachan said, “and they beat us every time.”
A banner commemorating Landon Donovan’s lament – “We’re sick of losing to Carolina” – hangs on the concourse on the west side of the stadium, essentially the closest thing to the championship NCFC still has yet to win in any of its various leagues over the past 12 years.
All of that seems a long time ago. It’s up to Sarachan to make it fresh and new again, and with everything else the club is trying to accomplish, the stakes have never been higher.