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North Carolina FC checked all the boxes for Dave Sarachan: People, place, project

NCFC general manager Curt Johnson, head coach Dave Sarachan and owner Steve Malik pose for a photo on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2018 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — When Dave Sarachan’s tenure as interim head coach of the U.S. men’s national team ended last month, he zeroed in on three things to consider when looking for his next career move.

The people, the place and the project.

Sarachan has coached at the youth level, in college, in Major League Soccer and for the national team. He’s been on the sidelines for NCAA tournaments, MLS Cups and World Cups. What job would check all the boxes for the 64-year-old?

For him, that post was leading the North Carolina Football Club of the United Soccer League Championship. Sarachan was hired as the club’s coach last month and was formally introduced Thursday during a press conference at WakeMed Soccer Park.

“Dave’s hiring is timely in that he has the coaching pedigree to balance the need to develop players and win,” the club’s general manager Curt Johnson said. “He’ll be a key leader in the overall club and the pursuit of our club-wide goals.

“To be clear, this is not my hire. The club is hiring Dave and that’s monumental.”

Sarachan is succeeding Colin Clarke as NCFC’s head coach. After missing the playoffs with a 13-13-8 record and a ninth-place finish in 2018, Clarke was not retained.

Steve Malik, the owner of NCFC, said Thursday the coaching search was a chance to examine what direction the club would take over the next several years.

The club dismissed Clarke in October and hired Sarachan in December. Johnson said the during the two-month search, the hiring committee — which featured input from the club’s youth academy and North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley — considered more than 50 candidates.

“We were certainly well above 50, in terms of people that we wanted to make sure we gave them their due and assess them on a number of key criteria,” Johnson said. “That was a fun process. We identified Dave pretty early on as our leading candidate.”

Dave Sarachan speaks to the media after being introduced as the next head coach of North Carolina FC on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2018 in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

In courting Sarachan, Malik found out he was a big-time ACC basketball fan and the two went to a University of North Carolina game in Chapel Hill.

“We’re trying to build something here that does attract that kind of talent,” Malik said. “Really, this was an opportunity to really think about what we’re doing, where we want to go with soccer, and we have resources that no one else has.”

One of those resources is a facility Sarachan is a big fan of: WakeMed Soccer Park. Since opening in 2001, the complex featuring natural grass has hosted the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams for camps and games several times. Sarachan first made the trip to Cary in 2002 for a pre-World Cup camp and was there this past year to coach the Stars and Stripes in a friendly against Paraguay.

“I had a real taste of what this region was like. I still find this to be a fabulous place to play,” Sarachan said. “The training facilities — whenever I talk to anybody that’s been here, that’s the first thing they say. Great facilities, grass fields, good setup, good infrastructure.”

So, the place was an easy box to check for Sarachan. How about the people?

“You have to have a guy at the top that has vision and ambition, and Steve certainly has that,” Sarachan said. “I know I can work well with Curt. He’s a soccer guy that listens. He’s got great experience.”

Check. And what of the project?

“I think the timing is great to really make this club as good as any in the country,” Sarachan said. “But my job is to win. My job is to build a first team. My job is to put an entertaining product on the field using the resources we have to build a roster.”

Sarachan will be involved in not just the Xs and Os of NCFC’s senior team in the USL Championship, he’ll also have a hand in signing players, constructing the roster and how the academy operates. He’ll work closely with John Bradford, who has coached NCFC’s youth teams for more than 13 years. Bradford will also be Sarachan’s first assistant with the senior team.

This will be the first time Sarachan has been the head coach of a club team since he led the Chicago Fire of MLS from 2002 to 2007. During that stretch, he guided the Fire to a Supporters’ Shield, two U.S. Open Cup titles and an appearance in the MLS Cup final. He went 75–57–33 across all competitions and was named MLS Coach of the Year in 2003.

After being fired in Chicago, Sarachan joined Bruce Arena’s staff with the LA Galaxy and helped the club win three MLS Cups and two Supporters Shields’ from 2008 to 2016. During that time, the Galaxy also lost three times in the U.S. Open Cup to NCFC, then known as the Carolina RailHawks.

Sarachan followed Arena to coach the national team again, but Arena resigned after the U.S. lost to Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017, thus failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Sarachan took over as the interim head coach and guided the team to a 3-5-4 record.

“It was obviously disappointing not going to the World Cup. We had to get through that process,” Sarachan said. “If you fast forward over the 13 months, one of the few things I learned was how much I love coaching and teaching. Being around the younger players really energized me and gave me sort of a fresh look at the game… I don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning.”

Sarachan gave chances to unproven and young talent during his reign over the national team, awarding 23 players with their first caps. Notably, the team drew 1-1 with Portugal and France, and beat Mexico 1-0 with Sarachan at the helm. Former Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter was hired as the national team head coach in December.

A Rochester, N.Y., native, Sarachan hasn’t coached in the second-tier USL before, but has been impressed with the league’s evolution. In February 2018, he visited the league’s headquarters.

“I’ve done a lot of research, to be very honest. The USL is becoming much, much more relevant in the American landscape for many reasons, but primarily, for opportunity,” Sarachan said. “For players to have a platform to play. It’s not just MLS. It’s become a very relevant league, a much more competitive league, better coaches, better players, more competition. I’m learning more each day. It’s something I’m excited about.”

The league has now given Sarachan an opportunity to lead a club again, to work with young players and to build something that has the potential to be special.

NCFC will kick off its 2019 campaign March 9 at home against Louisville City FC, the league’s reigning champion. Between now and then, Sarachan wants to build a team with players that “show their personality.”

And he wants to win.

“I hope that translates into a team that can be pretty exciting,” Sarachan said. “For sure, (we’ll be) a team that’s hard to play against, a team that’s going to make the playoffs… Eventually, we want to lift trophies.”

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