Home is where the heart is.
For Brandt Bronico, he grew up just an hour away from Charlotte, attended UNC Charlotte, played for the men's soccer team, and has now returned to the Queen City to continue his soccer career on the professional stage.
Bronico is a household name when it comes to the 49ers men's soccer team. During his time at Charlotte, the 49ers went to four consecutive NCAA tournaments and won the Conference USA tournament his freshman year. He started in 71 of the 74 games he played in, scored 25 goals, including 13 game-winners. In his senior year, Charlotte was nationally ranked the entire season, mostly due to the efforts of Bronico, who earned C-USA MVP and Offensive Player of the Year that year.
After his time at Charlotte, he participated in the MLS Combine and was drafted in 2017 in the third round by the Chicago Fire FC, where he played the past four seasons. After his departure, Charlotte FC acquired the rights to Bronico, where he will play when they join the MLS in 2022. For now, he remains in the city to play for Charlotte Independence this season. Their season starts May 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
In another edition of 49er Flashback, where the NT Sports section visits the Charlotte 49ers' past, Bronico sat down with the Niner Times to talk about his return to Charlotte.
Miles Ruder: How does it feel to come back to Charlotte and return to a city to play professionally, especially when you played at Charlotte in college?
Brandt Bronico: It's like a dream come true. I'm from the Carolinas. I grew up around here and played many youth games in Charlotte and against the youth clubs here, so just being back in my home state and in a city where it felt like home away from home. My wife and I wanted to come back here. I met her at UNC Charlotte. There are just so many connections here and so many great memories here, and I'm ready to make some more.
MR: What are some of your more favorite memories during your time playing with Charlotte?
BB: Probably when we went to the conference tournament my freshman year. That was definitely a highlight, and then my junior year, I think scoring the goal in the first round of the NCAA tournament to put us through to the second round. I think it might've been like the 83rd minute, so it was just a lot of adrenaline going through, but I think just as a whole, being a part of that culture that UNC Charlotte soccer has and just being in that environment and being around so many great teammates and great coaches.
MR: Is it cool to see some of your former teammates like Elliot Panico and Daniel Bruce playing against them in the MLS, knowing that you all came from the same place?
BB: Of course. Also, Callum Montgomery is playing for Minnesota United, but it's definitely cool, and it's a true telling of how Charlotte prepares you as far as the soccer side goes. It's a great culture, a great environment, and if you truly want to succeed, they have all the facilities and everything at your disposal that you need. It's cool to see guys move on from there as well and compete at a high level, and it's a telling of how Coach Langan runs his program. It's awesome to see, and I wish every Charlotte soccer player the most success.
MR: Do you guys still stay in touch with each other, even with your former players and coaches?
BB: Of course. From time to time, we'll shoot each other a message, check in on each other, and even guys from the program that aren't playing anymore that are still in Charlotte that I hang out with on the weekly. Our locker room was really close, and to keep those relationships for so long means a lot to me. For example, Hans Honer came in my class of 2013 and he officiated Rebecca and I's wedding. We're very close, and I hang out with guys like Biko Brennan and Austin Pack, who play for the Independence. We had a very tight-knit group, and it's nice to keep those relationships down the line.
MR: Even though you graduated, have you been keeping up with the team at all how they've been doing over the past few years?
BB: I always try to tune in to every game I can tune into. I sent Coach Langan a message after his 100th win this season. Actually, Hans and another former player, Noah Seach, and I watched the game together when they were playing Marshall. Unfortunately, it wasn't the result we wanted, but luckily they made it into the tournament, and they have Chapel Hill on May 2. So, definitely, be rooting for him in that game, and I know we lost to them my sophomore year in the second round. I'm hoping they can kind of reverse that and get the win on May 2.
MR: When you entered the MLS, did you have a "welcome to the jungle" moment?
BB: I wouldn't say I had a moment because I tried to prepare the best I could, talking with guys that I knew that played in the MLS, and I knew it was going to be a big step up. It was a little bit different, going from being the best player on the team and on the field to not being the best player on the team and on the field. That was an adjustment for sure, but you learn to adapt and find your role within the team and try to be a good teammate.
MR: 2020 was obviously an odd year for everybody. What was it kinda like playing soccer during a pandemic?
BB: It was very different. You're getting tested for covid every other day. I had to train on my own at the facility, and then we regressed into smaller groups. We all had to go to a bubble in Orlando where we had to stay there for 30-45 days. It was very unique, and even when we got back and played in our home markets, there were no fans, and I felt it took a lot of the energy and the soul out of the game. You realize how much fans bring to any sporting environment but especially soccer. You always feel that passion that they have and their energy. It was very different, very unique, but it's looking like we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and hopefully, we can get back to full capacity stadiums this year.
MR: Looking at your overall progress throughout your career, what kind of challenges have you come across that you've overcome to get where you are?
BB: There was a lot. For me, I was never the biggest, the fastest (or) the strongest. I really had to put the work in to get where I am today. Just observing players that were good and how I could emulate them and what they were good at and try and apply it to my own game. A lot of trial and error with my game, and I had to put in overtime a lot and still do just on my whole athletic and technical game. There's a lot of aspects that you have to keep working on every single day. It's not like this, 'Oh, once you get it, and then you're good.' You have to keep working on it. I never really had any handouts, and I always had to work and earn for what I got, and now, I'm glad, and I know I'm proud of that.
MR: What is one thing, maybe even during the pandemic, you learned about yourself as a pro athlete?
BB: I feel like the biggest thing is to never take a day for granted, never take a training session for granted. Really, never take a moment for granted because it can be taken away from you like that. It's more of a mindset of, 'Oh, I get to do this,' as opposed to like, 'Oh man, I have to do this.' So, it's really just being grateful and staying appreciative of even those days where you're not feeling the best. Maybe you're a little more sore than normal but really applying that, 'Oh, I get to go to training today,' or, 'I get to go lift weights today.' That's the biggest thing is being appreciative of all that.
MR: Looking ahead to the Charlotte Independence season, what have you been doing over the past few months to get ready?
BB: There's a lot, especially with covid, it makes it tougher because you don't have the luxury of going to play with so many people in the offseason or traveling as much to places that you would prefer to go in the offseason to train, but you make it work. A lot of training on your own, a lot of weights, technical training, keeping your touch sharp, and then you're learning to play with new players, building a new system. There's a lot of it that goes into play, and I think the guys from the Independence have done a great job with getting us ready and creating that chemistry leading up to that first game. I have high hopes for the team this year, and I can't wait to get started with them.
MR: Do you think Charlotte is like one of the more growing cities for soccer?
BB: Absolutely. We have a younger crowd here in general. I feel like a lot of people are moving to the Carolinas, Charlotte, specifically just because there's a lot of job opportunities, the weather here is great, the location as far as proximity goes to mountains or the beach. You can't really beat it. It's a growing city in itself, but I think soccer will have a major role in Charlotte, and I'm excited to be a part of that.
MR: Do you have any personal goals that you want to accomplish this season?
BB: Nothing really specific, just trying to be a better soccer player this year and trying to get better. Really, I just want to win. I want to go out there, I want to compete, I want to win with my teammates at the time and get ready for Charlotte FC in 2022 and bring the best version of myself next year.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.