After a 9th-place finish in their debut season in MLS NEXT Pro, Huntsville City FC announced their end-of-season roster moves. The club will bring back just four players for their sophomore season; defender Fernando Cicéron, midfielders Isaiah Johnston and Ollie Wright, and forward Azaad Liadi.
Chad Emerson, Managing Director of Business Operations, and Liam Doyle, Director of Soccer Operations, spoke to the media earlier today in their end-of-season press conference.
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Chad Emerson: Year one, Huntsville City Football Club led MLS NEXT Pro in attendance and in just about every type of positive revenue category you have. We’re super excited to have been the anchor tenant for Wicks Family Field at Joe Davis Stadium. The city did an amazing job and the architecture team at Chapman System, the contractors of the building, everyone did a fantastic job and we’re excited for 2024 to start our home season right out of the gate.
Leading into that, we will be kicking off our preseason with the blast-off battle, our inaugural Invitational Tournament, where we’ll host Chattanooga Football Club, the newest NEXT Pro member, as well as South Georgia Tormenta FC, a USL League One team, and FC Tulsa, a USL Championship team. We’ll play all four of those matches over the course of the weekend, right here at Wicks Family Field. And that’ll get us kicked off for the 2024 season.
Liam Doyle: Leading off, Chad said it was a great experience and environment for our players in 2023. I can’t thank our fans enough for their attendance, their support and how loudly we’re throughout the year.
Our goal is to keep putting out a competitive team year on year and making them proud, and I think that we’ve set the standard for the league in terms of fan base and outreach for our team, and we want to continue that into 2024 and beyond.
HCFC: Can you speak about the four players returning for 2024 (Fernando Cicéron, Isaiah Johnston, Ollie Wright and Azaad Liadi)?
Doyle: Azaad has come back to lead the line for us. 12 goals last year, which is a good return. I think there’s much more to come from him in terms of output. I think he’s a dynamic forward who can really grow and help this group next season as well.
Into the midfield area is Ollie Wright, fan favourite, fans’ Player of the Year. He started the season really strong with a goal in Cincinnati and played a variety of different roles across the midfield. And he’ll be a great asset to the group again next year for new players coming in, younger players. He’s a real good leader in that. It’s important to have players who know what it takes here too.
And the same with Isaiah Johnston. He obviously captained the team a lot last year. The anchor in midfield and our expectations bringing those two back in there is they can really help carry the group to greater heights next year.
And Fernando’s a 19-year-old left center-back who he came in and did well. It’s always difficult to come into a team midseason. I think he fit in seamlessly and had this tremendous growth to be had there. And we’ll look forward to seeing how he progresses next year.
Max Cohen, WAAY 31: Will Jack Collison be back in 2024, and why was that the right decision?
Doyle: Yeah, Jack is back there in the contract for next season. He is under contract for two years and we’ve set a good foundation with Jack in year one. We’ve been working hard together in this offseason to be bigger and better in 2024.
Ben Wright, Broadway Sports Media: Huntsville was stylistically pretty different from Nashville SC on the field. What’s the overall vision for symmetry between the two clubs and putting players in a style that helps players integrate with the first team?
Doyle: I think you’ve seen a heavy first team influence here last year and a heavy academy influence. While being competitive in Huntsville and putting out a good team for the fans, we want to develop future first team players. I think next year we’re looking to align a little closer to the first team in terms of style. And I think that’s well underway. As I said, it’s our job to bring young players through and push them to the first team. So we’re definitely looking to do that.
Ben Wright: You have four players under contract currently, while academy players like Adem [Sipić] and Isaiah Jones played significant minutes. Does it feel like an opportunity to re-set things, and do you expect even more academy players to be involved in 2024?
Doyle: I think it’s important. Aside from Isaiah and Adem, we had Jake [Grekowicz] down here training. Throughout the year,we had seven or eight academy guys either appear for Huntsville or have long training stints. Our academy is new in its existence compared to other academies. And I think as that continues to develop, we’ll certainly see a greater academy influence in Huntsville and then hopefully on to Nashville in the future. I think that will be positive for everyone.
Ben Wright: Kemy Amiche was the club’s Player of the Year. He’s not coming back. He was with Nashville officially, but I’m curious from your perspective what all went into that decision and how you plan on replacing that level of production.
Doyle: Yeah, everything is a group decision from senior leadership down. As you said, Kemy was on a first team contract, and no decision is taken light-heartedly. And we’re working hard this time of year to replace the output. And we feel like we’ll be in a great spot to do so.
Mike Easterling, 256 Today: Yeah, Mike Easterling, 256 today. Chad, having these guys that were fan favorites coming back, does that help to dig the roots in a little bit further for the organization?
Emerson: Yeah, I think it’s really a positive thing to have popular players like Ollie come back. People recognize him. He’s a fan favorite. He’s quick to sign autographs, quick to engage with kids and the fans. So while winning is our primary goal, we want to support first team.
It’s also, I think, good for Huntsville to have some level of continuity. So get Izzy and Ollie and Azad, some of these players that really connect with the fans. I think that’s going to cost people to come back next season and recognize, “Hey, there’s one of my favorite players. I’m excited to see them again.”