He's one of the world's best soccer players, playing in Charlotte on a second-tier club

  • In Sports
  • 2021-08-26 10:00:00Z
  • By Charlotte Observer

With the Charlotte Independence down 2-1 at halftime of Saturday's soccer match against Colorado Springs, defender Christian Fuchs delivered a few impassioned words to his teammates, imploring them to capitalize on created chances to score.

The conversation led to the desired result, because in the first 20 minutes after the team returned to the pitch, "It was like a power play in ice hockey," Fuchs said.

"I think Colorado Springs, they didn't come across halfway. That's how well-organized we were behind the ball."

Two more Independence goals followed 16 minutes apart before Colorado evened the score in the 84th minute to close the match 3-3. The result "felt like a little bit of a loss," Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries said.

Fuchs saw the bright spots.

"If you can't win the game, at least take a point away," Fuchs said during a phone interview with The Observer. "And that's what we did."

He acknowledged the team's 3-0-2 (W-L-D) record over the past five matches (8-7-3 record on the season) and the nine Independence goals versus the five conceded in most recent games. The team is preparing to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies - ranked first in the conference - this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. But Charlotte's surge of momentum has been closely timed with Fuchs' arrival to the city, and teammates are quick to acknowledge it.

"He's a very smart player. He's a leader to have back there," Independence midfielder Brandt Bronico said. "I definitely feel like I can trust the back line."

It's also easy to connect the performance dots considering that Fuchs is playing 90-minute games in USL Championship - a second-tier American men's soccer division - when two months ago he was competing for Leicester City in what many deem the world's top level of the sport, the Premier League.

"You play with better players, you tend to play better," Bronico said. "Practice has gotten harder with him holding everyone else to a higher standard, because obviously everybody knows where he's played and who he's played for."

Fuchs, 35, left Leicester in late May after "a hugely successful six years that has seen him lift the Premier League and FA Cup," the team wrote in its press release. The former Austrian national team captain made 152 appearances with Leicester, and he was at the heart of the club's Cinderella story victory in 2016 when the Foxes escaped relegation and claimed a first Premier League title.

Brandt Bronico warms up before practice with his Charlotte Independence teammates at the Matthews Sportplex on Aug.
Brandt Bronico warms up before practice with his Charlotte Independence teammates at the Matthews Sportplex on Aug.  

Although Fuchs developed a reputation as a Leicester legend, his goal was to eventually settle closer to his wife, Raluca Gold-Fuchs, and their three children in New York. So when former Leicester scout Steve Walsh pitched Fuchs in March 2020 on joining an expansion Major League Soccer team in Charlotte, the player was quickly sold on helping build something new in a city located two hours by plane from New York rather than the transcontinental trip from England.

A pandemic delayed his arrival and the club's inaugural season by a year, but the plans were in motion for Fuchs to join the roster as an early signing for Charlotte FC. He signed a one-year contract with a one-year option as a Domestic Player in June.

Charlotte FC is set to take the pitch at Bank of America Stadium in 2022. Three of the team's six signed players - Fuchs, Bronico and Adam Armour - are playing locally with the Independence in the meantime to gain familiarity with each other and their future fan base. For Bronico, a former Charlotte 49ers and Chicago Fire FC player, and Armour, an 18-year-old local talent from North Carolina, the move wasn't too drastic.

For Fuchs, it's a major shift. Although he's not the first player from the Premier League to spend time with a USL Championship club, he's one of a select few. Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba played for Phoenix Rising, former West Ham winger Joseph Cole spent a few seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and former Man United/Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard is a player and part-owner of Memphis 901 FC. But Fuchs occupies a unique space of joining USL straight from the Premier League and on the way to an MLS expansion team.

"Clearly, he's a top guy. We don't get guys from the Premier League and so forth playing with us all that frequently," Jeffries said with a laugh.

For both the Independence and Fuchs, the transition has come with early lessons.

"My first training, I did a slide tackle and everybody's like, 'What?! Since when do we do slide tackles?' " Fuchs said. "I'm like, 'Well, I want to get the ball from him. It's just normal.' "

Independence captain Enzo Martinez said that in addition to Fuchs' "quality on the ball," his ability to lead by example and "do all the little things every single time" sets him apart. Jeffries described how the veteran defender is often the first one ready for 5-on-2 drills and constantly coaching up younger players like Armour.

"He demands a lot and that's the biggest thing," Martinez said. "You can't really take a break. At the highest level, the difference is done in one little mistake, one second delay, and that's what he brings. He's able to get that mentality for 90 minutes."

Fuchs' presence is elevating the level of others on the team, players said, as they fight for a postseason berth. Independence is ranked fourth in the Eastern Atlantic Conference, and the top four teams in each division advance to the playoffs.

Although Fuchs said he's emphasizing the importance of "technical discipline" to teammates, he's not knocking the club for its smaller staff, media turnout or attendance figures. (A little more than 2,000 fans turned up to the last home match at American Legion Memorial Stadium compared with the pandemic-restricted 20,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium when Leicester played there in May.) Still, Fuchs will happily take photos post-match with fans, who now often approach him wearing Charlotte FC branded "0 Fuchs" shirts.

"What more can I ask for?" Fuchs said. "Everybody tries their very best. Everybody tries to create a great environment for players, and (if they try) to play up to the best expectations, to a high standard, then I'm happy."

He's happy for another reason as well. He spent Tuesday recovering from what he calls a "tough" "preseason" (meaning his return to 90-minute match fitness) by swimming at Lake Norman with his wife and three children, Ethan, 12, Anthony, 6, and Katherine, 3. He also caught a Charlotte Knights baseball game over the weekend for more immersion. Although some of his family members will return to their New York home base, Katherine plans to stay with her father through the end of the season.

"That's the beauty of it," Fuchs said. "(Raluca) can come down for a weekend, spend the weekend, watch the games, fly back. That's beautiful. We didn't have the luxury (before) and that for me is a big luxury."

When asked about the future Charlotte FC season or even upcoming USL games, with one as soon as this weekend, Fuchs demurred, preferring to live in the moment.

"It's one out of many that are still ahead of us."


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