Charlotte Football Club is at a fork in the road. The team has played 20 matches of their inaugural campaign and have 14 to go before the MLS Cup Playoffs. As of press time, Charlotte FC sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, with 26 points and an 8-10-2 record. If they finish in seventh place or above, they make the playoffs.
The season could go in any direction from this point. The last two home matches are great examples; in their 0-1 loss to Austin, Charlotte played well but their offense never clicked, and Austin got lucky. More matches like that, and Charlotte misses the playoffs with a respectable but unimpressive first season.
Then there’s the explosive 4-1 win against Nashville on June 9. If Charlotte FC keeps playing like they did that Saturday night, then they’ll be the first major league team in Charlotte history to make the playoffs in their first year.
A foundation for fandom
Charlotte FC’s first season was supposed to take place in 2021, but COVID-19 got in the way. However, even before Panthers owner David Tepper paid MLS a record $325-million franchise fee, professional soccer was an inevitability for Charlotte.
The foundation for a fan base was already here; hundreds of Charlotteans belong to supporters clubs for international teams like Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Bayern. Many Charlotte millennials, myself included, spent more time playing youth soccer than any other sport growing up. Twenty percent of Charlotteans were born in a country other than the United States, in most of which football — and not American football — is the most popular sport.
Marcus Smith, son of late Charlotte billionaire and NASCAR titan Bruton Smith, already tried to bring MLS to Charlotte. While that attempt failed, it brought together what would become the first Charlotte FC supporters group, the Queen’s Firm.
In 2021, as Charlotte FC built its bench, the club lent players to minor league Charlotte Independence to prepare for 2022, including captain Christian Fuchs, box-to-box midfielder Brandt Bronico, and defender Adam Armour.
In addition to signing players, the community and the club prepared for soccer to be a success in Charlotte. Supporter group Mint City Collective (MCC) was founded in 2019, six months before Charlotte FC was officially announced. Groups like MCC, Blue Furia, and Southbound and Crown built community and the infrastructure for Charlotte’s soccer fandom, including a Supporters Council and a tifo committee.
On the club side, Miguel Ángel Ramírez was appointed head coach on July 7 and experienced assistant coach Christian Lattanzio came aboard the next week. Through the rest of 2021, Charlotte FC added players to the roster, including three MLS veterans: forward McKinze Gaines, defender Anton Walkes, and defender Joseph Mora.
Then 2022 brought the MLS SuperDraft. With their first pick, Charlotte chose midfielder Ben Bender, who would become one of the squad’s most popular players. After a long search for a designated player, Charlotte signed Polish striker Karol Świderski just a month before the season started.
However, by mid-February Ramírez still didn’t think he had put all the pieces together. In response to a media question about making the playoffs, he admitted his squad wasn’t ready yet and that he was still building the roster. He should have stopped there, but he added, “Right now, we’re screwed.”
Charlotte FC finally takes the pitch
Technically, Charlotte FC lost their first MLS match to DC United 3-0, but the match that set the tone and expectations for the season was the first home fixture against LA Galaxy. An MLS recod 74,479 fans witnessed the match, and Lattanzio would later tell me that crowd and its energy was one of his favorite moments from the season.
The match could have gone either way until Galaxy’s Efraín Álvarez came off the bench and broke the deadlock in the 77th minute. The goal was perfect — Álvarez hit the upper ninety from outside the box, denying goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina a save — so Charlotte fans couldn’t feel too bad about the 0-1 loss.
The supporters section was rowdy and the team received a standing ovation at the end, but the most important moment for the club’s culture was when a microphone went out during the national anthem and the crowd took over, a tradition that has continued at Bank of America Stadium throughout the season.
In that moment, it was clear that soccer was here to stay.
After the first home fixture, the young club continued to celebrate “firsts” — Adam Armour scored the team’s first-ever goal against Atlanta before being sidelined for the season with a knee injury. At home against New England Revolution, Charlotte earned its first win, Świderski got his first brace (two goals in a match), and Ben Bender kicked his first corner flag after a goal.
The next week, Kahlina would earn his first clean sheet and Świderski would pick up a second brace in a dominant 2-0 win over Cincinnati. Two weeks later, Charlotte would best Atlanta 1-0 at home as Jordy Alcivar scored the team’s first olimpico (a direct goal from a corner kick), in what is still my choice for Charlotte’s goal of the year.
The mood on Mint Street after the Atlanta match was optimistic. The club was exceeding expectations and looked to have a superstar in Świderski, who was easily leading the team in goals. Fans and supporters were behind Ramírez. The team continued to be winless on the road but got their first draw in Colorado.
By the end of April, Charlotte was 0-5-1 in MLS matches away from the Bank, as opposed to their 3-1-0 record at home. Going into May, the team had 10 points in 10 games and was 10th in the Eastern Conference, two points out of the playoffs. Things looked … above expectations.
May changes everything
Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 31, Charlotte FC’s communications department sent out an email with a subject line few were expecting: “Charlotte FC Announces Miguel Ángel Ramírez Will Not Continue As Head Coach.”
The front office had informed Ramírez he was fired that morning, while also announcing that Christian Lattanzio would serve as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2022 season. Most of the coaching staff would leave with him, and within a month, midfielder (and Ramírez ally) Alan Franco would leave as well.
Ramírez had a reputation for making public comments that didn’t make the front office happy and may have been younger and more inexperienced than the club wanted, but the team was doing well for an expansion team. May had been disappointing for the team in some respects; their winning streak at home was broken by CF Montréal, and Charlotte was eliminated from Open Cup play by the New York Red Bulls.
However, while Charlotte FC sporting director Zoran Krneta was tight-lipped at an emergency press conference, the team made it clear the reason for the dismissal wasn’t performance on the pitch.
Additionally, Ramírez had started the month by making one of his most important contributions to the squad: bringing on forward Andre Shinyashiki from the Colorado Rapids. Shinyashiki quickly produced two goals in four appearances. The production was especially important given a surprising drought from Świderski, who hadn’t scored since his second brace on March 26.
Due to the club’s lack of transparency, the initial reaction to Ramírez’s firing was surprise, confusion and condemnation from fans. One media outlet had a source that claimed a designated player, likely Świderski, refused to play unless Ramírez was fired; this report was denied both by the club and individual Charlotte FC players.
Others, myself included, speculated the firing was another erratic decision from a billionaire who was gaining a reputation in Charlotte for erratic decisions. David Tepper had shuffled around the front offices of his teams and their parent company a couple times, and at the time he was engaged in a fight with Rock Hill, South Carolina, over a multi-million-dollar Carolina Panthers HQ project.
Some fans thought Tepper had fired the wrong coach, a reference to the performance of Panthers coach Matt Rhule.
The one silver lining for Charlotte was that the leadership change was made during the international break, so Lattanzio would have two weeks to get the locker room in order. During the break, Charlotte fans and followers were left to wonder what was going on.
On June 7, Charlotte FC captain Christian Fuchs was given the green light to explain the firing of Ramírez. In simple and believable terms, Fuchs explained how Ramírez lost the confidence of the players with his comments, his attitude and his actions.
Fuchs specifically didn’t like how Ramírez avoided the locker room after losses and ran practices that didn’t challenge the team physically. While members of the team have often talked about the former Premier League champion’s leadership on the pitch, his press conference did a lot to rescue the credibility of the club and demonstrated his skill as a spokesperson.
When Fuchs has missed games due to injury or illness, defender Guzmán Corujo fills in as captain. Coach Lattanzio has referred to him as a “talisman,” and on the field his aggressive style of play has disrupted countless defensive opportunities for other teams. He pairs well with fan-favorite goalkeeper Kahlina, who has five clean sheets for Charlotte thus far this year.
Midfielder Brandt Bronico has also emerged as a key leader. When George Marks was called to substitute for Kahlina in goal due to COVID-19 protocols that affected 10 players, he pointed to Bronico and Fuchs as the leaders who helped him as he started his first match in the MLS. Quinn McNeill, called up from the Independence, also pointed to Bronico’s leadership.
Coach Lattanzio is another key presence; he clearly connects with the team and seems to avoid his predecessor’s bad habits. He remains optimistic while setting reasonable expectations. For example, he recommended patience after a winless streak in June: “I have not been in this position as head coach for long so we are still getting to know certain principles of play [that are] a little bit different to what the boys have been used to, so that may take a little bit of time.”
Players have also made it clear they hold his practices, tactics, and strategy in higher esteem than those of Ramírez. As head coach, his record is 3-2-1 as of press time.
Finally, winger Andre Shinyashiki has emerged as the strongest leader in Charlotte’s offensive arsenal. With five goals as of this writing, he’s tied with Świderski for the most goals by a Charlotte player. When he comes off the bench he’s a relentless attacker, and more than any other forward on the team he understands (fictional) coach Ted Lasso’s advice to “be a goldfish” and not fixate on a missed shot or a failed play. Świderski agreed with that assessment (albeit using different words), calling it Andre’s greatest strength.
Be a goldfish
At pre-match day and post-match press conferences, a common refrain from Lattanzio and his players has been that the team takes one match at a time. That’s a good way to live as Charlotte enters its final 14 fixtures with ample time to make the playoffs.
A good example of that philosophy in practice came during Charlotte’s match in Houston. It was the club’s third match in nine days and they had lost the previous two, the starting lineup was impacted by COVID-19 as well as the intense schedule, and Charlotte had lost all nine of their away matches to that point.
In Houston, Charlotte’s offense came together for the first time since Lattanzio’s first match as head coach, and by the 28th minute they had forced an own goal. Shinyashiki came off the bench in the second half and scored within three minutes, putting the match out of reach.
The club has shown that it can win at home and on the road. When the team is good, they’re really good — and fun to watch.
Against Nashville, the team’s most recent match as we go to press, Charlotte played like a new team and Świderski played like a new man, scoring his first goal in almost four months. The win seemed effortless.
Be a goldfish, Charlotte FC.
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