The offseason has finally come to a close for North Carolina FC. 103 days after its season-ending loss to Birmingham on Oct. 23, the club returned to the field for its first training session of the 2020 preseason.

Two of the club’s three new signings from the offseason, center back Conor Donovan and midfielder Hadji Barry, were present at practice, while the third new signing, Brazilian midfielder Pecka, was not.

Also at training was former NC State and current Celtic player Manny Perez. Perez spent last season on loan with NCFC, and head coach Dave Sarachan stated after training that nothing was official yet, but the club was “hopeful” that a deal could be reached with the Scottish giants.

After training, Sarachan along with Donovan and midfielder Nazmi Albadawi, were available for questions. Here is everything the trio had to say after day one of the NCFC preseason.

Dave Sarachan

On offseason preparations

“We have a real starting point with the group that we kept for this season going into 2020. I'm very familiar with that group and the guys that we have added and hope to continue to add I’m familiar with. Familiarity is a keyword and our starting points, starting today, are here rather than here from last year. So, the offseason was a period of time to evaluate our group, what our needs were, who we could retain and go from there. That's been a good process for me.”

On owner Steven Malik’s expectations for the year

“Steve's been great. He’s been around this league and understands some of the challenges that it presents. I was hopeful that some of the guys that I targeted, we were able to try to secure, and finances is one thing but support from upstairs in terms of giving us a little more, supporting us through the offseason of trying to build our roster. There's always expectations of winning. Steve is a guy that is a winner who wants to win and have success. Last year, for the first year, was a good year for the club, but we have ambition to do more, and Steve is an owner that wants to win, and I'm a coach that wants to win, so it's a good package.”

On the new signings

“We want good footballers. We want good soccer players, guys with high IQ, and certain parts of the field demand certain things. So, a guy like Hadji Barry I've seen and known who's an attacking guy that is capable of setting up and scoring goals. Conor Donovan, an experienced defender, l wanted more depth there. Pecka, a Brazilian player, who is a holding midfielder that adds a little more of a dimension and bite. So from the new players from the positional needs and the new players, I think we did well.”

On if the new signings addressed his leadership concerns from last season

“Time will tell. I think so, I think when you have experience and experienced players usually that lends itself to leadership, but leadership comes in all different ways. There's vocal people, there's people that do it by example. The holdovers, the guys that we've retained, understand the culture of this club, and I would like to think that they're going to step up even more as leaders within the group, so I think we've addressed it will see as we played out.”

On first-year pros versus experienced players

“Today's day one of many days. We go all the way through November, hopefully, and it is a long season. As a coach who's been around, I understand the demands of a first-year player, it's challenging. But now with this group and the retention of veteran guys, the ability to sort of endure a long season, especially in this climate when we hit the hot summer months. Part of the challenge for me as the coach is to build a roster where we're two deep in every position for those reasons, but for the first-year guys, you can talk about it, but it's something they have to sort of grind through and hopefully our veterans can help them through that process.”

On the area as a soccer market

“Well as a soccer market, I mean as far as an enriched soccer area, my thoughts don't change. There's a lot of soccer here in this area and community. I think you're referring to market in terms of paid attendance and people in the stands. That's a challenge that I hope and I know for a fact our club has addressed in the offseason, to try to enhance the experience of people that come to this stadium. It's my job to put an experienced, exciting team on the field, and that's the product I hope they'll see. The fan experience in the experience of coming to WakeMed and experiencing our team on the field. If we can get people an early taste of that, I'm hopeful they'll keep coming back. It's an ongoing challenge for the club, but one that we're hopefully going to address and utilize this area which I do feel is a great area for the sport.” 

On Perez’s appearance at practice

"We're still working through that. We're hopeful that Celtic, and our club, come to an agreement where Manny will be with us. We think it's beneficial for him and for us. I think, philosophically, Celtic is still high on Manny but feels this could be the right place, so we're working on that we will have more to show in the coming days.”

Conor Donovan

On being back in training after the offseason

“It was good. It's been a long offseason, for myself and the guys, obviously, losing early in the playoffs. So it's just good to be out with the guys and actually getting to play organized soccer instead of pickup and all that stuff. You can see with the levels of excitement all the guys are just ready to keep going.”

On what brought him back to NCFC

“The club's been doing great with the new ownership and everything. Things have been doing great, and I mean, I looked at the work that the team put in last year, and it's a team that can definitely win and go far, and obviously, the prospect of playing at home and being in front of my family and friends and being from Fuquay, the opportunity to do that and help my hometown club reach new heights, was a massive opportunity I couldn't pass up.”

On his early interactions with Sarachan

“It's good. I mean, obviously still getting to know each other. We've talked a little bit before I signed and then obviously, after the signing. So it's a working relationship that we're still getting to know each other and getting all the guys, but I mean, it's a positive attitude. I mean he's excited, we're all excited. It's just excitement all around from the relationship.”

On if he has experience playing with other NCFC defenders previously

“Caleb [Duvernay] and I at NC State and the academy. DJ [Taylor] at the academy. Sam [Brotherton] and Alex [Comsia] not yet. We've been playing pickup together, so we're getting to know each other and everything, but Caleb and DJ for sure.”

On the competitiveness of the group

“You'll see it in practice, you'll see in games, guys don't want to lose and that's a great quality, obviously wanting to win, but not wanting to lose, it's massive. That's going to go a long way through the season and just in player development but also on the scoresheet.” 

On how he has changed since he was last with NCFC

“I changed, obviously everyone changes through the years. It's been six years, it's my sixth professional season coming in. The things I've been through with injuries and coaching changes and obviously different cities, different teams, you learn a lot off and on the field. Being around veteran guys, I've just obviously matured, matured is a good word for it, and I've taken on a big leadership role in the past teams I'm with, so I've just learned a lot about personalities and how to interact and talk with people.”

On playing with other former NC State players at NCFC

“It’s awesome. I mean, the Wolfpack is a great family. Growing up, I had coaches, Henry Gutierrez, Dewan Bader, Dario Brose, all those guys grew up coaching me and went to NC State. To have that familiarity, but also the drive to help each other, on and off the field, is a special bond to have.”

Nazmi Albadawi

On opening this season with NCFC

“It's amazing. It's always difficult when you're joining a team midway through the season, but credit to the guys that were here last year and the coaching staff, they made me feel right at home again immediately. That being said, I personally feel a lot better fitness-wise and sharpness-wise, and I’m really looking forward to this year and being a part of the group from the beginning and getting to know everyone from day one. I'm really excited about the group that we have, and hopefully, we can make a good run at it this year.”

On if last season was a successful season

“It's hard to say it was successful because we knew the potential we had last year, of course, making the playoffs is a great first step. That being said, we're upset that we didn't win the playoff game here against Birmingham, especially since we had to lead two times. We know we have to get better, but we have a great group to do that. So, we had a really young team last year, a lot of guys are older now, and we're bringing in some very good pieces as well that, if we put it all together, it really can be a special year for us.”

On getting back to playing

“It’s the best thing in the world and it helps that it's 65 degrees and sunny right now, but it really is. The first day is always a little bit hectic because everyone's so excited, so hyper, running around everywhere trying to win the ball back. It's 100 miles an hour, but it's the best feeling in the work to be back out here doing what we love and getting back to work.”

On Malik and his expectations

“What I love about Steve as an owner is he's as competitive as we are as athletes. If you're a professional athlete, you want to win. Steve is no different. He wants to win as well. And that's the expectation and that’s what we expected of the club as well. We want to be a winning club and the Courage are doing a great job of that. Now it's our turn. It's our turn to bring a trophy home and be able to celebrate with our home fans as well.”

On the competitiveness of the group.

“We've had a good growth group here during offseason, and so we've been playing a lot of pickup and whatnot, just us without the coaches and if you could see how competitive it gets out there at pickup, how much the guys hate to lose and how devastated they are after they take a loss in pickup, you know that's going to be a very competitive group and that going into this year, if we lose a game it's not going to be because we got all worked, that's for sure.”

On the differences between the current group and last year’s group of players

“The biggest thing compared to last year is that last year we had a lot of first-year pros that never played professionally before. It's a lot different than college season. I mean a college season is two or three months long whereas professional you're playing for a good nine, 10 months. So just being able to cope with that with your body, take care of yourself. And having last year where they got that experience, they learned a lot from it. I think they'll be a lot better this year as well coming into it because they know what it takes and others take care of themselves and that everyday matters at this level.”

On first-year pros versus experienced players

“I mean it's funny because it happens with most professional teams, even seasoned pros. They hit a part of the season where they feel like, ‘Oh my god I feel a little bit heavy leg-wise. I feel a bit tired.’ But as you get older, as you do it for longer, you know how to take care of yourself a little bit better, where maybe you're not doing extra stuff for an hour and a half after training one day just because you have a game on a Saturday. It’s about being smart, taking care of your body and preparing for the weekend because that's the most important thing for us.”

Assistant Sports Editor

I'm Nicholas Schnittker, one of the two assistant sports editors for Technician. I'm in the class of 2022 and am currently majoring in communication and minoring in journalism. I have been at Technician since August 2018 and an editor since May 2019.