There are at least two compelling stories to tell about North Carolina FC. The first is about their turnaround. The second is a series of question marks.
North Carolina FC finished the 2018 season with a 13-13-8 record and 47 points – one spot out of the USL playoffs. They fired coach Colin Clarke at season’s end and brought in former interim USMNT head coach Dave Sarachen (SAH-Rah-Ken), who put NCFC on the right path. So far this season, the former Carolina Railhawks have a 9-3-7 record, including an unbeaten home record of 5-0-4. Sarachen’s wealth of experience and deep knowledge of the game have drastically improved North Carolina’s performance with a lineup that, although changed, doesn’t leap out at you as a top-four team. He simply has them playing the right kind of football, at the right time, every time out.
The question marks are another story. Looking at North Carolina’s roster, it leaps out at you that three players are on loan from the same club, MFK Vyškov, and that all three players are African – Donovan Ewolo and Duval Wapiwo are from Cameroon, and Yamikani Chester is from Malawi. MFK Vyškov is a third division club in the Czech Republic, so it would be normal to ask how they could afford to acquire several players from Africa. The questions continue when it becomes apparent that none of the three players ever suited up for Vyškov, and they become magnified when one looks a little deeper to find that Vyškov have almost a dozen players scattered across USL and MLS on loan. In addition to the three I mentioned, there’s also Antonio Lokwa at Bethlehem Steel; Bienvenue Kanakimana with Atlanta United 2; Alfusainey Jatta with North Texas SC; Ally Hamis Ng’Anzi at MNUFC; Pascal Eboussi with San Antonio FC; Modou Ndow and Ben Numbi with Tacoma Defiance; and Jerome Ngom Mbekeli with Swope Park Rangers. All of the players are from Africa.
How can a tiny club with no track record to speak of afford to buy a dozen African players, pay their salaries, and loan them out to the United States? The likely answer is that Vyškov is engaged as the middle man for a practice called third-party ownership, in which an agent or individual contracts for the rights to a player. The player is then loaned out to a team somewhere in the world where they will hopefully impress and draw interest; when that team moves to buy the player on transfer, a significant cut – or perhaps the entire cut – of the transfer fee, which would normally go to Vyškov, goes instead to the agent.
Does that sound shady? That’s because it is. It has resulted in players from all over the globe moving to small clubs like FC Stumbras in Lithuania and Royal Mouscron in Belgium and Apollon Limassol in Cyprus. The practice was banned worldwide by FIFA in 2015. The New York Times filed a report about the practice persisting beyond the ban when it wrote about FC Stumbras just last summer.
And an article in the Dallas Morning News draws many of the same conclusion about the way Vyškov is operating – inferring that the Czech club is just a pass-through for an African player management company called Rainbow World Group. Rainbow’s owner, Kingsley Pungong, is also the owner of MFK Vyškov.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a player on loan. In fact, from the details of the NY Times piece, one can conclude that USL teams that take African players on loan, paying them a decent wage, and giving them a big opportunity for their football careers is possibly saving them from a worser fate. But it is problematic for a USL club to get involved in acquiring players and teams that may be running afoul of FIFA rules.
Of North Carolina’s three Vyškov players, two have made significant impact. Chester prowls the right flank or at striker, has 5 goals, and scored a brace last week against Loudoun FC. Ewolo has 13 starts for the club. They have certainly been successful additions, regardless of how they came to the club.
All sport involves risk. For North Carolina FC, you wonder whether the risk will ultimately be worth the reward.
Recent North Carolina FC Lineup
Tambakis; Brotherton, Mehl, Duvernay, Guillen; Fortune; Speas, Chester, Smith, Miller; Ewolo
Date: Saturday, July 20
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvNC