By Felipe Cardenas, Pablo Maurer and Sam Stejskal
In February, shortly after he infamously told reporters that he thought Charlotte FC was “screwed” in their expansion season, head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez brought his players together for a team meeting.
According to multiple sources, Ramirez apologized and explained that his comment was not prompted by a lack of faith in the players’ talent, but by his frustration that a series of would-be signings had fallen apart earlier that week. Later, after lamenting the club’s lack of a training facility, Ramirez hit his players with a somewhat shocking admission: He wasn’t sure, he told them, how much longer he could continue in such fashion in Charlotte.
He won’t have to ponder that question anymore. On Tuesday, in one of the more surprising coaching decisions in recent MLS history, Ramirez was fired by Charlotte FC after less than half a season in charge. His assistant Mikel Antía, fitness coach Cristobal Fuentes Nieto and video analyst Luis Piedrahita were also dismissed.
The moves came with the team sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference with 16 points through 14 regular season matches, just two points out of the playoffs. Charlotte has struggled in the attack in 2022, with their 13 goals tied for the fewest in MLS, but Ramirez earned widespread praise for how he organized his team into one that was defensively-sound, difficult to beat and has clear principles in possession. The fact that he managed to do so while Charlotte, which was widely picked in preseason to finish near the bottom of the league, spent less than all but one other MLS team on player salaries only boosted his resume.
It also created a good deal of confusion around his dismissal. A few hours after the firing was announced, Charlotte sporting director Zoran Krneta did very little to clear things up. Speaking in a virtual news conference attended by more than 60 reporters, Krneta offered essentially no explanation as to why he fired Ramirez not even 15 games into his contract.
“There’s not much point to speculate to what exactly happened,” Krneta said. “We made a decision for the best of the club. I wouldn’t want to go into details. It’s not going to help anybody. Some of you might think it’s difficult to explain, but it happens in sports very often.”
“At the end of the day, we had no choice,” he added later. “We had to do it.”
Ramirez has been replaced by Charlotte assistant Christian Lattanzio, a former assistant to Patrick Vieira at New York City FC and Ligue 1 side Nice, on an interim basis through at least the end of this season.
Multiple sources told The Athletic on Tuesday that Ramirez wasn’t fired for results, which have been acceptable by any reasonable measure, but for his management style and inability to mesh with Krneta.
A club spokesman declined to comment on the record to The Athletic, except to clarify that Ramirez was not fired for any legal or ethical wrongdoing, an important distinction considering the lack of specifics offered by Krneta in his news conference.
Krneta himself pushed back against the suggestion that his relationship with Ramirez was fractured at that conference.
“I don’t think there was any disconnect between the front office and Miguel Angel,” Krenta said. “I think in any sports organization, the same as this one, I hear that there are often different opinions on the players, on the style, on various things. But I think Miguel and I had a very good relationship, a working relationship and we constantly had been in touch. We worked together, we had regular meetings between each other…but in terms of a working relationship between the front office myself, and others in the front office, and Miguel and his team, we had a very good relationship.”
Sources said that a group of Charlotte players had issues with what they considered to be an abrasive, stubborn demeanor from Ramirez, with The Athletic’s John Hayes reporting on Tuesday that one of the club’s designated players let it be known that he would refuse to play for the club after they returned from the ongoing international break if Ramirez remained head coach.
Multiple sources elaborated on that account, saying that the player in question was Polish striker Karol Swiderski, and that he delivered his message to Krneta. Swiderski, who Charlotte acquired from Greek club PAOK for a reported transfer fee of $5 million in January and is earning $2.26 million this season, has four goals and two assists in 12 appearances in MLS. He hasn’t scored in his last eight regular season matches for Charlotte and left the club prior to the team’s 2-1 loss at Seattle on Sunday to report early for Poland’s upcoming UEFA Nations League contests.
Sources said that Swiderski’s request was not the only reason for the firing, with several pointing out that players having problems with their head coach isn’t exactly unique in the world of sports. Other Charlotte players, they said, were in Ramirez’s corner, with several going to his residence on Tuesday to speak with him following the announcement.
Regardless of whether they liked or disliked Ramirez, the sources said many Charlotte players understood that there was tension between him and Krneta.
Sources said that Krneta was not a fan of Ramirez’s comment about the team being “screwed” in February, though they pointed out that that was certainly an understandable stance for Krneta to take. Ramirez also didn’t do himself any favors with a somewhat bizarre analogy he made to Harry Potter when asked last month about Charlotte’s position near the bottom of the MLS salary rankings.
“I am not Harry Potter; I can’t do magic,” he said.”I work with what I’m given, shut my mouth, come in, and do my job. I don’t do magic; I have an incredible group that comes to work every day and puts everything into training to be in the starting XI on the weekend to play. Even with losing 2-0 (against Montreal on May 14), they still kept fighting and fighting. We cannot do magic, but what is in our control, both myself and them, will keep trying to make it happen with all our energy.”
Like the earlier comment, the quote could be perceived as a shot at Krneta and his staff for not assembling a better roster.
Many of the sources said that Ramirez could indeed at times be difficult to work with. There was a perception within the club, they said, that the Spaniard, who, in a rarity for MLS coaches, has his own PR team, was too quick to accept credit for successes and deflect blame for failures. They mentioned that as something that likely fueled the tension between him and Krneta, who, several pointed out, has a big personality and ego of his own. Ramirez declined to comment on the record.
Ramirez’s lineup choices were another source of tension. Multiple sources pointed to Ramirez’s preference for players like Brandt Bronico in midfield instead of higher-priced options like Sergio Ruiz as something that not only created problems with individuals not being selected, but also with a front office that brought the players in to play leading roles only for them to be reserves behind a player making a comparatively low salary.
Others pointed out that Charlotte failed to hit the goals that had been outlined to Ramirez during the interview process. The club still has not announced a plan for a training facility; the team continues to train at the practice fields of the Carolina Panthers, which, like Charlotte FC, are owned by David Tepper. One source said that Ramirez was also made to expect big-name, big-money signings that, apart from Swiderski, have not yet come to pass.
There is also a perception from sources at other MLS clubs that Ramirez was doing an excellent job with what he was given. That likely contributed to Ramirez’s surprise at Tuesday’s move, which was delivered by Krneta in a swift meeting, said multiple sources familiar with the situation. Those sources also suggested that prior to that discussion, Ramirez had not had any conversations with the front office about his performance. Krneta told reporters that the decision to fire Ramirez was unrelated to Charlotte’s 2-1 loss to Seattle on Sunday. The players were also surprised by the decision, according to sources.
Multiple sources confirmed a report that Krneta had directed the players to not comment about Ramirez’s dismissal or offer the coach support on social media. This was a demand that wasn’t well received by some of the players, and one that underscores Krneta’s own approach to governance at the club.
Ramirez arrived in Charlotte last summer with a reputation as a developer of talent, an approach that he has honed over the course of his young career. Ramirez was credited with elevating the academy pathway at Ecuadorian club Independiente Del Valle (IDV), where he started as the under-18 coach before taking over the first team and winning the 2019 Copa Sudamericana. It was IDV’s first-ever international trophy and one that came with plaudits for Ramirez’s distinct vertical style of play.
His stay at Brazilian side Internacional was more tumultuous, with Ramirez dismissed mid-season in 2021 following a stretch of poor results, including a loss to rivals Gremio, a 5-1 drubbing by Fortaleza and a loss in the Copa do Brasil to Série B side Vitória. An otherwise respectable 11-7-4 record over this stay there could not spare him from termination.
Still, it made plenty of sense for an MLS expansion side like Charlotte to believe that Ramirez could help lay the groundwork for long-term growth and create a tactical identity throughout the club’s ecosystem. He had begun to do that in 2022.
On Tuesday, Krneta said Charlotte did proper due diligence in hiring Ramirez, referring to the process that resulted in his signing as “a pretty lengthy” search that included 30 candidates. Ramirez ended up being chosen from a final group of five coaches.The Athletic understands that Ramirez preferred a two-year deal with Charlotte but the club insisted on a three-year contract, which Ramirez eventually accepted.
But the fact that personality conflicts were the main cause for the dismissal raises questions. If the club wasn’t up for his attitude or if the organization thought he would clash with the players they were targeting, then he probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. He’s a young coach, but this wasn’t Ramirez’s first job. There was a book out on what he was like as a manager before he came to MLS. It was on the club to ensure that his style and preferences matched what they were trying to build.
“No, I actually don’t think so,” Krneta said when asked if he thought firing Ramirez so soon into his tenure reflected poorly on the club. “I think it reflects philosophy already to make decisions when decisions need to be made, I think it reflects and shows that this club actually wants to be better and wants to improve. And every decision being made in this club is made into that light. So let’s get better. Let’s improve. Can we do better?”
Lattanzio will be charged with finding a way forward. He’s well-regarded by his former players, with goalkeeper Sean Johnson speaking highly of him when asked about the coach, who he worked with at NYCFC from January 2017-June 2018, at U.S. men’s national team camp on Tuesday. Lattanzio even turned down a job as top assistant under Vieira at Crystal Palace last summer to join Charlotte, according to a source.
He’ll likely come into the job a little bit more prepared for some of the unique rigors of coaching in MLS than Ramirez. In an interview with Spanish outlet Marca in March, Ramirez detailed some of the struggles that he encountered when he arrived, admitting that he didn’t realize how big of a project he was taking on in coaching an expansion team in a league with a singular set of roster rules until he was in the middle of it.
“Ultimately, I looked at it as a challenge, but I was thinking ‘man, this is going to be tough.’ But I didn’t think that just because of the club itself, but also because of the MLS, with all of the rules it has, it’s tricky,” he said.
Ultimately, though it wasn’t budget management, results or tactics that ended his run at the club, but blowback from certain key players and struggles to effectively manage his relationship with Krneta that appear to have done him in.
Ramirez now joins an ever-growing list of MLS head coaches who recently departed or were removed from their posts after a year or less. Former FC Cincinnati managers Ron Jans and Alan Koch, Inter Miami’s Diego Alonso, Gabriel Heinze of Atlanta United, Chris Armas of Toronto FC and former CF Montreal head coach Thierry Henry all lasted a season or less, though Henry departed on his own volition.
There are parallels between the dismissal of Ramirez and Heinze’s departure, as well as with the firing of D.C. United’s most recent permanent head coach, Hernan Losada. All three were let go amidst suggestions by players and administrators that they lost elements of their locker room, or were difficult at times to deal with. All three, though, were brought in to help establish or renovate a club’s culture and were let go seemingly before they had the chance to fully do so.
If things are really bleak, cutting ties early can be the right move for a club. It’s not clear if Charlotte was at that stage with Ramirez, or if the organization fell victim to the personal whims of a group of players and a sporting director who just simply couldn’t get along with a manager, who, while demanding, produced decent results during his time in MLS.
(Photo: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)
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