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As Charlotte FC Eyes Its First Playoff Run, Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Midfielder Brecht Dejaegere handles the ball through traffic as defender Jere Uronen looks on during Charlotte FC’s Oct. 4 match against Toronto FC
Midfielder Brecht Dejaegere handles the ball through traffic as defender Jere Uronen looks on during Charlotte FC’s Oct. 4 match against Toronto FC. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

Charlotte FC is in a familiar spot: win the last two matches of the season, and they’re in the playoffs. 

The path that led the club here this year, however, has been anything but familiar. If the 2022 season was about celebration and building culture, 2023 was defined by tragedy and turmoil — at least until Charlotte’s impressive run in the Leagues Cup, a competition between top-flight American, Canadian, and Mexican clubs. 

Charlotte was knocked out of that competition by Inter Miami CF and Lionel Messi, who went on to win the Cup. 

Now Inter Miami — perhaps without Messi this time — is all that stands between Charlotte and making the Major League Soccer playoffs for the first time. If Charlotte succeeds, they’ll be the Queen City’s first major-league team to play in the postseason since the Carolina Panthers in 2017.

The playoff path

Last week, Charlotte FC played some of their best soccer of the year, winning two crucial matches against Toronto FC and the Chicago Fire without allowing a single goal. Karol Świderski scored three penalties between the two matches, while Brecht Dejaegere and team captain Ashley Westwood scored two of the best goals the team has produced all season. 

Dejaegere’s “scorpion kick” has been submitted by the club as their nominee for MLS Goal of the Year; both goals were chosen by fans as the MLS Goal of the Matchday.

The team is in the best form they’ve been in all year, though there’s a case to be made they would have already clinched their first-ever playoff berth if not for bad luck and some heartbreaking wins that became draws — and draws that became losses.

“I think we play good football. We are really good with the ball, but sometimes we have problems with the last pass, with our crosses,” Charlotte FC designated player Karol Świderski told Nerve after scoring two goals in Charlotte’s 3-0 home victory over Toronto on Oct. 4. “But if we play like we played today, I think we can achieve the playoffs.”

Despite constant criticism and second-guessing, Charlotte FC head coach Christian Lattanzio has never wavered from the belief that “the boys” have had exceptional performances on the pitch despite the lack of wins and goals. 

Charlotte FC Goalkeeper George Marks during warmups on Oct. 4.
Charlotte FC Goalkeeper George Marks during warmups on Oct. 4. (Sam Spencer)

“Ultimately it’s about focusing on performance and process,” said goalkeeper George Marks, who echoed Lattanzio’s point of view when he spoke to Queen City Nerve on Oct. 9, the first weekday of an international break for MLS.

After said break, Charlotte plays Miami in Florida on Wednesday, Oct. 18, then again at home on MLS’s “Decision Day,” Saturday, Oct. 21. Due to responsibilities with their national teams during the break, Miami is expected to be without many top players — including Messi — for the first match. 

This is a must-win match for Charlotte, especially due to the anticipated weakness of Miami’s squad. While Miami is expected to be back up to full strength for the final match of the season in Charlotte, Messi is dealing with a hamstring injury of unknown severity. 

Let’s do the math

Sport is full of cliches, so apologies if you’ve heard this one: Charlotte FC controls its own destiny. Though they’re currently in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 39 points and a 9-11-12 record, they have two matches left to play — one more than every other team in the East still in the playoff race.

What that means is that if the team wins its remaining matches, no other result from another team changes their playoff path. With two more wins, Charlotte will finish the season in eighth place with 45 points, with the added bonus of hosting the MLS Eastern Conference Wild Card Match at Bank of America Stadium.

If it seems unusual that both of Charlotte’s final matches are against the same opponent, it’s because it is. The Crown is in this position because their original match in Miami — meant for August — was rescheduled due to a scheduling conflict with the Leagues Cup. If Charlotte had faced Miami then, the result may have been much like their 4-0 loss to Messi’s squad in the tournament. 

Last year, on the Wednesday before Decision Day, Charlotte resumed a weather-postponed match against the Columbus Crew. A win would have kept Charlotte alive; their eventual draw against the Crew eliminated them from playoff contention, making their 2022 Decision Day loss a disappointing denouement. 

Unlike last year, Charlotte’s hopes are still alive if they lose or draw the first match in Miami, but the playoff picture gets murkier. CF Montréal and either the Chicago Fire or New York City FC are guaranteed to finish the season with 41 points. 

Karol Swiderski lines up to take a penalty kick
Charlotte FC designated player Karol Swiderski moments prior to scoring his first of two penalties against Toronto FC. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

Charlotte can reach 41 points with two draws, but will lose the first tiebreaker (wins) to both Montreal and Chicago, and the second tiebreaker (goal differential) to NYC if they reach 41 points. 

Additionally, Chicago and the New York Red Bulls can both end the season with up to 43 points, and Montréal can end the season with as many as 24.

With one win against Miami, Charlotte’s situation improves significantly but still requires luck. With 42 points, Charlotte would need Montreal, the Red Bulls, and Chicago to all lose on Decision Day to finish in eighth place and host the Wild Card match. 

If only one of the three teams win (or Montréal draws), Charlotte finishes in ninth; if two of those three teams win (or one wins and Montréal draws), a 42-point Charlotte is out of the playoffs.

If Charlotte manages a win and a draw in its final two matches, the scenario is the same as above, except that Montréal needs a win on Decision Day — not a draw — in all scenarios.

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