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Charlotte FC Adapts to Lattanzio System, Eyes Playoff Run

A woman with the Charlotte FC logo painted on her face and blue hair extensions roots on the team from the stands
Charlotte FC remains in contention for the playoffs with seven matches left. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

As of this writing, Charlotte FC is in a familiar position. The club has just seven matches left to play in the campaign and they’re a couple points out of playoff position. 

It wouldn’t take a miracle for them to make the playoffs; all they need is good play and good luck, neither of which was present in Saturday’s scoreless draw against D.C. United at Bank of America Stadium. 

What has changed from last year — and from earlier this season — is that the Crown is a better team, with more quality players and more depth in key positions. Charlotte has only lost one of their last 10 league matches.

The Charlotte team we’ve seen since the Leagues Cup ended has exceeded expectations. They beat LAFC, the defending champions and one of the best teams in the league. They went ahead against third-place Orlando City SC and seventh-place Nashville SC — and would have beaten both teams but for last minute goals. 

Both matches ended as 1-1 draws; however, their second half against Nashville was some of the most beautiful, cohesive play the team has shown all year.

Players get in position as a ball floats overhead during a match
Front-of-goal action in the Charlotte FC vs. LA FC match. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

“When they were building the play, they were magnificent,” head coach Christian Lattanzio said after that draw. “The second half was magnificent.” 

The team enjoyed a two-week international break before returning to the pitch against ninth-place D.C. United on Sept. 16. A win could have put them in playoff position — the first 9 teams in each conference make the playoffs, with eighth and ninth place facing off in an elimination Wild Card Match — but for now they languish in the 11th spot. And yet hope remains. 

Setting the table

For their last seven matches, Charlotte faces only Eastern Conference opponents. First-place FC Cincinnati is mathematically out of reach; second-place New England Revolution and fourth-place Philadelphia Union will almost certainly finish ahead of Charlotte. Similarly, last place Toronto FC will probably finish behind Charlotte. 

However, the other three matches are with teams that are close to Charlotte in the standings. With 32 points from seven wins, nine losses, and 11 draws, Charlotte remains only three points behind D.C. United and one point behind Chicago Fire FC, their Oct. 7 opponent, as they were heading into Saturday’s game.  

When Charlotte plays their final match of the regular season on MLS’s Decision Day, they’ll be facing Inter Miami CF for the third time this year. Because of a scheduling conflict, Charlotte will play Miami (and, most likely, superstar Lionel Messi) twice in four days to close out the season — first in Florida on Wednesday, Oct. 18, then at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 21.

Following a 5-2 loss to Atlanta United on Saturday, Miami is in 14th place, four points behind Charlotte with eight matches to play. The pair of fixtures between Charlotte and Miami could be why either team — or neither team — makes the playoffs this year.

How Charlotte got here

In July, Queen City Nerve opined Charlotte FC was a “mid” team at midseason. They had shown flashes of brilliance but been plagued by injuries, scandal, embarrassing mistakes and bad luck.

However, we also pointed out Leagues Cup “may be the club’s best chance to get out of their sophomore slump,” and that seems to have happened. Charlotte won four straight matches in the Leagues Cup despite only playing one match at home. The Crown was eventually eliminated by the Messi-fied Miami. 

Over the course of Leagues Cup, Charlotte demonstrated their quality with standout performances from veteran defender Nathan Byrne and two new faces: forward Patrick Agyemang and defender Andrew Privett, both of whom started the season with Charlotte’s second team, Crown Legacy FC.

Wearing a Brooklyn Nets jersey, Patrick Agyemang poses for a photo with fans holding a Blue Furia banner
Patrick Agyemang meets with fans. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

The 31-year-old Byrne played soccer in England for years before coming to Charlotte from Derby County. He has been with the team since last year when he joined before the club’s end-of-season playoff chase. He’s focused on what the team still needs to accomplish this year.

“I think we’ve got a lot of positives to build on from the Leagues Cup and we’re looking to take that on into the [last games] and get into the playoffs,” said Byrne in an exclusive interview with Queen City Nerve. “The boys gave it a good go, and now the main focus is getting wins and getting ourselves into the playoffs.”

“A lot of the older guys, including Nathan, are very supportive and that goes a long way and keeps our confidence high,” added the 23-year-old Privett. “We played well defensively across Leagues Cup and I think that helped us in the end.”

Total Football

Lattanzio’s system for Charlotte FC has its roots in the Total Football philosophy popularized by Amsterdam’s Ajax and the Netherlands men’s national football team. 

At the risk of being reductive, total football is a fluid way of playing, with an emphasis on players being able to move in and out of any position on the field. It requires players to have a high soccer IQ and well-rounded technical abilities so they can play defense, midfield, and offense.

Pep Guardiola, widely considered one of the best soccer coaches of all time, built on the philosophy at FC Barcelona and later at Manchester City. While Lattanzio left Manchester City as Guardiola arrived, he remained with City Football Group as the assistant manager of New York City FC, Manchester’s sister club. 

Ashley Westwood with the corner kick.
Ashley Westwood with the corner kick. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

Both Total Football and City Football Group’s philosophies had a major impact on Lattanzio’s style. After the Nashville match, I asked him about his system.

“Nobody has a magic wand, it’s just the work on a daily basis … and then eventually, certain things click,” Lattanzio said. “As long as we occupy certain spaces it doesn’t matter who plays where. As long as we are in position where we can play, we can counter-press, we can create chances, and we can minimize the transitions.”

Lattanzio’s system has been criticized by the fan base for starting players out of their natural position. In interviews with players earlier this year, they remarked that Lattanzio’s style of play was something they were getting used to.

However, it seems like things are coming together for Charlotte at exactly the right time, with the right mix of old and new players — including veteran European imports who are more familiar with Lattanzio’s style of soccer. 

“I think they are moving in the right direction,” said Lattanzio. “The [intensity], the passion that we put into the training will determine how far we can go.”

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