Bradley Carnell’s shot at US footballing greatness

St Louis City’s head coach has the opportunity to build a legacy from scratch at the midwest club, the latest franchise added to the United States’ Major League Soccer.

Bradley Carnell is living the life many coaches – especially those working in South Africa – dream of but few get to experience. He has total control building his own team from scratch.

As head coach of St Louis City SC, the latest addition to the American Major League Soccer (MLS) for the 2023 season, Carnell is tasked with not only coaching but also helping put together the playing squad and the team of technical staff, given that the franchise has just been formed.

The former South African international at junior and senior level is relishing the challenge and already hard at work ahead of St Louis making their debut next year. “It’s been an amazing first month [April] on the job and having signed European prospects to MLS contracts is already great news for the club. And we are not just building a team, we want to build a legacy.”

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“Building” is a foreign term in our local game. Coaches often arrive at training grounds to find new players signed for them by the club’s owners or administrators, while being expected to produce good results nevertheless. But the game in the US is very different and Carnell, a star with Wits University and Kaizer Chiefs in his early playing years, looks set to thrive in an environment that allows him so much leeway to express himself. He’s in his second spell in the MLS, having previously been part of the New York Red Bulls technical team.

It makes sense then, given that kind of freedom, that Carnell would dream big. “I want to play a role in developing the academy which identifies itself with the first team. To be active in creating an identity and expressing a playing style that resonates with the community. Plus, we are also looking for competent and reliable staff to build out the various departments: scouting, analytics, medical, coaching, conditioning, etc.”

The process is fast taking shape. Carnell says he has already “signed” four players and is “watching” a few development players in the MLS Next Pro League “closely”.

Passionate and energetic

Carnell’s playing days saw him making the grade in the tough and highly competitive German Bundesliga, where he turned out for no less than four clubs in the form of VFB Stuttgart, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Karlsruher and Hansa Rostock. He distinguished himself from his peers through honest hard work to complement his natural abilities as a foraging left back with the propensity to deliver great crosses if not pitch in with brilliant goals.

Will his team reflect the player he was? “Our fans are hard-working, humble people with a great soccer history, so we want ours to be a passionate, energetic and hard to play against style. For sure it will be a fast-paced, proactive, pressing style of play. We aim to create a very attacking mentality by the nature of how we set up our defensive structure. We want to actively hunt the ball, actively force the opponents to make mistakes and will use these moments to create our chances in transition.”

A Bradley Carnell team it will be then.

12 September 2020: From left, Aaron Long of the New York Red Bulls celebrates with interim head coach Bradley Carnell after their game against DC United at Audi Field in Washington, DC. (Photograph by Scott Taetsch/ Getty Images)

Finding the right players for that kind of style won’t be much of a problem. “Between myself, Lutz Pfannenstiel, the sporting director, and John Hackworth, the director of coaching, I feel we are well networked around the world and that we have a good handle on the global soccer landscape. With all the different rules in the MLS, we have got to be very smart in how we go about our business. We have an international as well as a local strategy when it comes to scouting and recruiting players. We are not just looking for the best players, we are looking for the best players who suit our style and their mentality must be one that is team first.” 

There’s a chance Carnell might come home to recruit. “For sure, there is talent back home and we are looking, but like I said it must be the right fit. I tried to get Percy Tau to the Red Bulls two years ago, we came close but unfortunately it never materialised.” 

Invaluable experience

Red Bulls were the ones who opened the door into the MLS for Carnell. “Building up networks and working relationships in Europe allowed the introductions here in the US. I worked with many staff of VFB Stuttgart who assisted in the birth of Red Bull Global, but I would say Ralf Rangnick and Jochen Schneider were vital in playing a role in my appointment at New York Red Bulls. Experiencing new countries and cultures has always been one of the main driving factors for my family and me. When the move came about, I didn’t hesitate to make the decision.”

And so, the appointment to lead the St Louis franchise was not surprising for the man capped 42 times at Bafana Bafana. He is looking to put the experience gained from working at Red Bulls to good use now that he’s going to be the man in charge.

“The Red Bulls experience is going to be of massive help. I’m very grateful for the experience gained over there. From style of play to coaching know-how, I felt like I was always on a good path knowing the what and why I was doing. But I feel like I learnt the how to use the tools provided to get there. It all begins with good people willing to allow others to grow.”

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Some of those people include Manchester United interim manager Rangnick and former Bafana coach Carlos Queiroz, whom he finds himself trying to emulate in his coaching. And working with Muhsin Ertugral at Orlando Pirates was an invaluable experience, he says.

“Just like any big club, I think there will always be pressure to succeed and emotions flying along with it, especially with traditional teams like Pirates. There’s got to be a balance, for sure, and I believe everyone working for a pro sports team has a responsibility for creating an infectious working environment, staff who are always pulling in the same direction, creating a feeling of worth and togetherness and inclusion. My appointment at Pirates was very symbolic as my career had come full circle. I was born in Rosettenville and to now be a coach at an amazing club [that trained in the area at Rand Stadium] was very emotional for me. Although short, I look back with pride on my time there.”  

Development goals

Now, he intends to build something at St Louis that he will be proud of years after he has left, although the maiden season objectives are understandably modest.

“The goal is to be super competitive, hard to play against and show growth in every game. I’ve been around the league for a long time now. I’m no dreamer and know the difficulties of an expansion team in the first year. We are all excited to get going and if I were to dream a bit… making the play-offs would be a dream come true.”

Long term, Carnell is keen to make as lasting an impact as what he did when he was a player. “I did not always think of going into coaching, but when I saw the impact you can have on someone like I experienced at the University of Johannesburg, that ignited my hunger to pursue a career in coaching. I believe in the youth and I feel the need to empower them. So developing young talent and turning them into great players is my long-term goal. Obviously, winning titles and silverware is on the list of my objectives. But I also want to keep on learning and developing as a coach, keeping up with the game.

“The soccer here is very physical, athletic and very competitive. The average age of teams is reducing every year. The MLS is no longer seen as a retirement league, with teams signing 15-year-olds to pro contracts.”

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Having started out pretty young himself, Carnell will have no problems handling a dressing room made up of youngsters as well as experienced professionals. “My playing experience is 100% helpful, yes. However, just by being a former player does not give you the right answers all the time. But it helps for sure knowing what the locker room feels like in certain moments of the season.”

South Africans have done well historically in the North American Soccer League, with the likes of Kaizer Motaung, Jomo Sono and both the late Ace Ntsoelengoe and Andries Maseko starring there in the 1970s and 1980s. Doctor Khumalo and Shaun Bartlett starred in the MLS era for Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids respectively.

Now it is Carnell’s turn to lead the way for coaches and there’s every reason to foresee him succeeding, given the kind of freedom he has to build the team up from scratch. He will be working with his chosen players and technical team after all, something he would never get here at home.

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