After a disappointing end to the 2019 season where North Carolina FC crashed out of the USL Championship playoffs play-in round, the club has had a busy offseason.
The most recent of NCFC's business is the signing of NCFC Youth Academy standout and former NC State center back Conor Donovan. The 22nd pick in the 2015 MLS Super Draft, Donovan has a wealth of experience playing in USL. Last season, Donovan was a key member of the Rio Grande Valley FC defense, leading the team in blocks and finishing the season with 93 clearances, second most on the team.
“Conor is another great example of our academy and club and the work that we’ve done to allow players like him to continue at the pro level,” NCFC head coach Dave Sarachan said in a press release. “To bring him back, we’re very excited. From the soccer side of it, he will be a great addition to our backline. He’s played a lot of matches recently and is a leader with USL and MLS experience. We’re so pleased to add him.”
Donovan is also a proven leader, captaining RGV FC in 18 of his 20 appearances last season, something Sarachan believed his team was lacking in 2019.
“We were a little bit lax this year in our leadership, to be honest,” Sarachan said after the 3-2 loss to the Birmingham Legion in the playoffs. “And we have veteran guys and they're all great guys. But I think leadership, in a game like tonight, when we get up 2-1, there's got to be people on that field that step up and go ‘okay let's lock this down for the next 10 minutes’ and I don't think we had enough of that.”
The announcement of Donovan rejoining his former club came just days after the Tampa Bay Rowdies announced the signing of one of NCFC’s best defenders from last season, left back Aaron Guillen. Guillen was fantastic in 2019 and while Guillen and Donovan play different positions in the backline, Donovan’s defensive ability will go a long way to filling the gap left by Guillen’s departure.
Guillen’s exit does pave the way however for another former member of the NC State Wolfpack, Caleb Duvernay, to make the jump to being a regular starter. Duvernay was one of three defenders who NCFC exercised contract options with earlier in the offseason. Duvernay made nine starts and 14 total appearances for Sarachan in his first season.
Along with Duvernay, the club also exercised contract options on center back Sam Brotherton and Alex Comsia, and joint-leading scorer Robbie Kristo.
Brotherton and Comsia form a solid partnership in the heart of NCFC’s backline, and with Donovan returning the club will have plenty of depth at the center back position.
Kristo was Sarachan’s go-to super-sub with the forward bagging nine goals and two assists in 868 minutes, meaning the forward contributed to a goal every 79 minutes. Kristo’s big frame and ability to both hold the ball up and be a target for crosses in the box made him a good option off the bench late in games.
In the same press release where the club announced it had exercised options on Duvernay, Bortheron, Comsia and Kristo’s contracts, it also announced it declined contract options on Austin Panchot, Timmy Mehl, Victor Igbekoyi and Darrin MacLeod.
This offseason has been an interesting one for the NCFC midfield. Manny Perez and Yamikani Chester, both on loan last season, were some of Sarachan’s go-to wide midfielders but with Perez returning to Celtic in Scotland and Chester being announced by Las Vegas Lights FC this week, the club will need to either find replacements from its academy or look elsewhere to replace the two player’s production.
Perez and Chester each made 21 appearances, 12 of which were starts for Perez and nine were starts for Chester. The pair also contributed nine assists across the season.
While Perez and Chester will not be returning to the club for the next season, there will be plenty of familiar faces in the midfielder with Nazmi Albadawi, Graham Smith, Ben Speas and Seven Miller all signing new contracts with the club.
Albadawi, who has 24 career assists for NCFC, a club record, played the second half of the season with NCFC on loan from FC Cincinnati and the midfielder will be returning fully for the 2020 season. Albadawi scored four goals and set his teammates up for a further five in his 19 appearances.
A regular starter for the Palestinian national team and another former member of the NC State Wolfpack Albadawi is a fan favorite and will continue to provide a creative boost to the NCFC midfield.
"Everything that I was told about Nazmi in terms of his character, on-field talent, his connection to the community and his leadership ... every box was checked this year," Sarachan said in a press release. "It was a challenging year for Nazmi when he had to come in kind of late and get up to speed with us and then a few moments where he went on international duty. But given all that, he was an important attacking piece to our team. I'm thrilled that he's going to be a part of our roster from the very beginning of next season."
Smith, an out and out defensive midfielder, does an often underappreciated job, but the midfielder was an important part of the midfield in the 2019 season.
“We’re pleased to have Graham back,” Sarachan said in a press release. “He’s a tireless worker, and he comes to training every day with great intent to improve and has a real winning attitude, which is really important for the group. As the season went on and as he gained more experience, he established himself as an important link between our backline and our midfield.”
Speas, who played for NCFC on loan from Indy Eleven last season, racked up five assists and two goals. The stats do not tell the whole story, however, Speas is a brilliant creator with great vision and he is able to play the pass when he sees it.
"When we acquired Ben in the offseason, I had an idea about what I was getting and it came to fruition: a guy who is a great pro, showed up every day, utilized his experience with our younger guys and showed a lot of versatility positionally, whether we played him as a central midfielder, second forward or a wide guy," Sarachan said in a press release. "Having his soccer IQ and technical ability really helped solidify our attacking core of guys this season. Knowing we're going to have a guy like Ben next year gives us a really good starting point."
Miller, one of NCFC’s longest-serving players, had one of if not his best season for NCFC last season as the midfielder scored nine goals, a joint team-high, and grabbed a team-high six assists. 2020 will be his sixth season for the club and he ranks within the top-10 all-time for the club in appearances, minutes, goals and assists.
"Statistically, Steven had his best year and provided some important goals for us this year, along with being a guy that is really embedded with the club and the community," Sarachan said in a press release. "He's sort of on a pathway similar to Austin da Luz and some others over the years. He really wears the crest proudly and you can never dispute his work rate over the course of 90 minutes."
While the club has already secured a number of its best players from last season and added more strength in Donovan, it is unlikely that the club is done with its acquisitions and re-signings this season.