Adil. Adi. Malanda. Adilson. The players and staff of Charlotte FC have different nicknames for their 21-year-old French defender, but the modest Adilson Malanda doesn’t insist on any particular iteration.
“They’re all the same to me,” he told Queen City Nerve as we set up a microphone and camera for our interview at Bank of America stadium in April. He was smiling, wearing a lilac Lacoste sweatshirt with the characteristic crocodile he donned after team practice and a shower.
Malanda’s infectious, boyish smile contrasts with a size of 6 foot 3 inches, 165 pounds. His smart, contemplative nature off the field — one of his favorite books is Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming — stands in contrast to the role he plays for Charlotte: the last line of defense between opposing attackers and his goalkeeper.
He’s also an optimist. When we spoke, Charlotte FC was in second to last place in MLS’s Eastern Conference. The team had only one win in their first eight matches and was still coming to terms with the tragic death of defender Anton Walkes in January.
Fans were getting frustrated with the team and the coaching staff. Malanda, however, was undeterred.
“Things are going to turn around, for sure.”
The very next week they did, with an impressive 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew and a convincing 4-1 victory in the U.S. Open Cup.
Malanda’s journey to soccer
Adilson Malanda was born on October 29, 2001, in Rouen, a city 75 miles northwest of Paris. The city is best known outside of France as the place where Joan of Arc was tried and burned at the stake, but Malanda didn’t have long to learn its history.
“I didn’t stay there a very long time … but it was good — very, very good. I still have family today in Rouen, and I went there to see them a little while ago,” he said.
He moved when he was 3 years old and grew up with his mother and sister in southern France. Malanda was raised more by his French mother, but he still feels a connection to the Congolese ancestry he inherited from his father.
“My father was Congolese, so I am too. But it’s true that I’ve never gone there, I have never met anyone in my family in the Congo either.”
At age 13, Malanda left his family to start on the path to becoming a professional soccer player. He joined the youth academy of Nîmes Olympique (The Crocodiles), where he learned the fundamentals of competitive soccer, then made the decision to go pro.
“It was just after my last year at Nîmes Olympique, I knew they weren’t going to offer me a professional contract, so I did my research with my former agent, and we were able to find Rodez, where I went to give it a try, and that’s where they decided to sign me to a professional contract.”
Rodez AF (The Blood and Golds) is a smaller club than Nîmes; the Crocodiles have spent many years in France’s top division and play in a bigger market. As for Rodez, though they currently play in France’s Ligue 2, they’ve spent most of their history at the lower levels of French football. Adilson Malanda joined the club just a couple years after they were promoted back to Ligue 2 for the first time in 26 years.
“It was very, very good in the sense that it allowed me to play my first minutes as a professional, to really discover what the professional world is,” Malanda said. “When you become a professional, results are expected rather than continued improvement or anything else. Obviously there’s a competition, so you have to do everything to perform; but that’s how it helped me. I was able to acquire some experience.”
Malanda played 33 matches with Rodez and quickly became a top prospect, but the path to top-tier soccer wasn’t without sacrifice.
“I spent time in quite a few places in my youth, even before Nîmes, I left home pretty early. So obviously, you develop your identity, far away from your roots, so to speak, far away from your family. It wasn’t always easy, that’s for sure,” he said.
Coming to America
Adilson Malanda was already being scouted when Charlotte FC fired the team’s first coach, Miguel Ángel Ramírez, at the end of May 2022. Christian Lattanzio took over as interim head coach and said most of the work had already been done when he was presented with the opportunity to bring Malanda on.
“I talked to [Adilson Malanda] before we signed him, and I quite liked what I saw,” Lattanzio said in an April 2023 interview. “I thought Adil specifically was a central defender that has the characteristics that I like. He’s mobile, despite his height; he plays very well … for me it was just a simple yes.”
When Charlotte FC became serious about acquiring Malanda that July, the French 20-year-old had never visited the United States and knew even less about the Queen City. As is the case with many professional soccer deals, he didn’t have long to decide.
“It happened pretty quickly, but it was an opportunity,” Malanda said.
Though he was comfortable and could have stayed with his club in France, he wasn’t opposed to the idea of playing somewhere new.
“I said to myself, ‘Why not give it a try?’”
He wouldn’t have any time to adjust. When Malanda was signed, Charlotte was in the middle of its first Major League Soccer season; the team was in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and barely holding on to the last playoff spot.
Then, two days after Charlotte FC announced Malanda was joining the club, the team lost talented defender Guzmán Corujo to a season-ending injury in an August loss to the Chicago Fire at Bank of America Stadium. The dominant Malanda would be expected to fill the shoes of the physical Corujo as soon as he could get to the States.
“The first thing we had to do was to put [Adilson Malanda] up to speed with the way we want to play — with the ball and without the ball,” Lattanzio said. “I even spoke with him in French, but his English was excellent so he didn’t really need me speaking to him in French … it probably was better like that.”
Two weeks after Corujo’s injury, Malanda was part of Charlotte’s 20-man roster against Orlando. The next week, he would start at home against Toronto; then on Sept. 10, in only his third appearance for the team, he won Man of the Match honors for his performance in a 1-0 win against New York City FC.
After that breakout match, then-interim head coach Lattanzio said, “Our central defenders did a great job … [Malanda] of course is a guy who helps fill this gap.” Malanda was then featured as part of MLS’s Team of the Week as Charlotte started a winning streak that kept their playoff hopes alive until the last week of their inaugural season.
Malanda has started on Charlotte’s back line in every league match since.
“To adapt so quickly to the new way of life, and to [get up to speed] not only with football … but also culturally, that’s a credit to him,” Lattanzio said. “I think we are really lucky and blessed to have a guy like him.”
The modest Malanda credited his breakout performance to being well-rested. While the MLS season runs from March to October, the French soccer season runs from August to May, meaning Malanda was just coming out of his offseason.
“I had just finished some training, so physically I think I was at my best,” said Malanda. “The teams here had played for almost an entire season, which wears on your physical condition, and it’s true that when I arrived, I felt good physically, and I was able to use that to have some good performances.”
Charlotte barely missed making the playoffs in the first year. Due to arcane league rules, Malanda was not allowed to play in the home match against the Columbus Crew that knocked Charlotte out of playoff contention. Because the match was a continuation of a postponed match that was supposed to take place before Malanda joined the team, he couldn’t be used in place of Corujo.
One can only imagine how the team might have played with Malanda on the pitch.
Tragedy and setbacks
Charlotte FC was optimistic going into its second season; preseason training was going well and most pundits considered the team a playoff contender, if not yet a championship team.
On the defensive line, the team looked like it had significant depth. Adilson Malanda had just had a breakout season, veteran defenders Anton Walkes and Harrison Afful brought valuable MLS experience to the club, Premier League champion Christian Fuchs was staying on as part of the coaching staff, and Nathan Byrne was a healthy addition to the team. Corujo was bound to return at some point, perhaps joining Malanda on defense.
Then, just weeks before Charlotte FC was set to kick off the season against New England at home, the unfathomable occurred.
On Jan. 18, Walkes was involved in a boating accident in Florida. He died the next day at the age of 25.
“To be honest, it hasn’t been easy,” Malanda told Queen City Nerve when asked how the loss has affected the club. “It was a tough blow.”
Malanda said it was a pivotal moment for the club, but something that brought the team closer together.
“Although we don’t tell each other often, we care about each other, we’re part of the same club, of the same family … and it’s true that it hasn’t been easy, but today we get back up and we move forward, for [Anton], and for the fans, too.”
Although Malanda believes the tragedy brought the team closer together, the grief remains. He said the team is still thinking about Anton’s family, and individual players are processing the grief of losing a teammate in different ways.
“In those moments, me personally, I like to be close to others, and in tough moments, work even harder to overcome all of this. I think that’s how it went,” he said.
Malanda’s partner on defense in Charlotte’s 4-3-3 formation is New Zealander Bill Tuiloma, who came to Charlotte from the Portland Timbers. As someone with significant experience playing soccer in France — he was the first New Zealander to play in France’s Ligue 1 — Tuiloma is the ideal partner for the young Malanda. Along with Lattanzio, he’s also one of the few other people in the organization who speaks French.
“Right off the bat, the connection of both players speaking French was pretty cool,” Tuiloma said.
Their similarities go beyond fluency in French. Tuiloma also shares Malanda’s experience with culture shock, first when he moved from New Zealand to France, then moving from France to the US.
“Moving to France I was 17 turning 18, so I was a lot younger back then. Obviously, the culture [shock] from New Zealand to France, the biggest thing for me was the language barrier,” Tuiloma said. “Coming out to the States, I’d say that the amount of hours that we fly [is the biggest difficulty that I had to get used to].”
The similarities are important when it comes to building a relationship on the back line, and doubly so in the wake of Anton’s passing. Lattanzio told me that despite not having a preseason with the team, Tuiloma came with the right attitude and was ready to do anything the team needed.
While Tuiloma didn’t have the chance to play with Walkes, he had to drop into his position almost immediately.
“The season started soon after Anton’s passing,” Malanda said. “Bill Tuiloma arrived right before we started the season, so obviously when we don’t have the same points of reference as when I was playing with Anton, but yeah, we adapt, we adapt, we work, we work a lot.
“We try to make sure to solve problems, issues in the same way,” he continued. “Whether we succeed in doing that, that’s another question, but that’s our way of doing things in any case.”
Success has been a challenge. Both defenders have faced criticism from fans who were frustrated with Charlotte’s slow start in 2023, and the occasional sloppy play from the new pairing. Neither one, however, is deterred.
“Each day and each game we’re improving in our defense and how Lattanzio wants us to be as defenders,” Tuiloma said. “We are building that confidence and we’re building that momentum each day.”
“We are continuing to work; in any case that’s the only solution,” Malanda said. “Obviously, at this point we would like to have more points, but we know we are capable of making adjustments, and our objective is to do that as soon as possible. We can hold our own against the other teams in my opinion, we just have to sort out certain little details that are [causing us to lose matches].”
The future of Charlotte FC
Though it seems like professional soccer players are easily traded, talented young players like Adilson Malanda are the future of any major league team. They have an opportunity to build the team’s culture, to form the core of the squad, and to gain enough experience in the organization to mentor the next generation.
Lattanzio has been most impressed by Malanda’s maturity and personality.
In our conversation, Malanda consistently demonstrated the maturity of a team leader: taking responsibility, emphasizing the team aspect of play, and eschewing any opportunity to scapegoat another player or a member of the club.
Despite Malanda’s insistence that he still has work to do, his teammates had no shortage of praise for his play.
“Adil is a young guy, fantastic on the ball,” said goalkeeper George Marks after Charlotte’s April 22 match against the Columbus Crew. “He hasn’t gotten to shine as much as I believe he should. He’s such a top player.”
Tuiloma continuously praised Malanda’s work ethic and leadership on and off the pitch. Both him and Lattanzio specifically mentioned his commitment to training and improvement as one of his best qualities.
“He’s a guy that’s willing to learn, he’s a guy that’s willing to take information and put that into work. I can see that on the training pitch and I can see his maturity as a player,” Tuiloma said. “He looks like he’s a vet in the game, but people don’t realize he’s only 21. He’s a player that’s already making a mark in this league and on this team as a young leader.”
“As a player, he’s mobile, he trains hard, he’s a good trainer, he’s a real professional. Again: maturity,” said Lattanzio. “At the same time, we have to remember that he’s only a young player, and he needs time to develop like everybody else.”
As of this writing, Charlotte has 24 matches left in the season, so there’s still time left for the team to make a serious championship run. Throughout our interview, Malanda was more focused on the health and future of the team than anything else.
He acknowledged that small mistakes have been the team’s Achilles’ heel, and that this level of play in MLS, those mistakes are the difference between poor seasons and the playoffs.
“We are hoping to elevate the level of our game even more to pose more problems for our opponents, whether it’s on offense or on defense,” Malanda said. “It’s clear that we are continuing to work, for us, to improve, and to show the other teams in the league that we are a serious contender.”
No matter which direction Charlotte’s season takes, expect Malanda to continue to improve and remain an impact player.
“He has the opportunity to become one of the best defenders in the league,” Tuiloma said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”
*When necessary, quotes from Adilson Malanda were translated from French by Adrian Singerman, a native French speaker.
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