On Saturday, June 18, Charlotte FC played an injured and weakened Columbus Crew team in Ohio. Nine Columbus players were listed as “questionable” in the days leading up to interim coach Christian Lattanzio’s first away match, increasing the chances of Charlotte earning their first-ever road win, so I decided to take a trip to the Buckeye State.
I was wrong, of course; Charlotte came home with a 1-1 draw, not the elusive road win I expected. After the match, Charlotte midfielder Brandt Bronico told me, “I think a point is what we deserved.” Let’s talk about why.
Fun and loving in Columbus with the Crew
When I arrived in Columbus, the sky was a perfect blue — ceiling and visibility unlimited in that other state that claims the Wright Brothers. Pride and Juneteenth events brought an air of celebration to the city that dovetailed into the pregame festivities. Lo and behold, Charlotte and Columbus fans were partying together at a bar called Whistle & Keg, so I donned a bracelet for their self-serve beer taps and mingled with fans and supporters.
One Columbus fan named Stephen is living in the U.S. by way of Wales, having eventually ended up in Ohio. Of the Charlotte FC fan turnout, he told me, “In 12 years of watching Columbus, what you’ve done here is have the first group of an opposing team’s supporters show up as a big group to one of our matches outside one of our supporters bars … and interact and be friendly.”
The welcoming environment extended to the Crew’s home stadium, Level.com Field. The stadium is new, purpose-built for soccer, and has the markings and culture of a club that’s older than many Charlotte FC players. As players arrived in Juneteenth-branded kits, Columbus raised an impressive LGBTQ tifo. Charlotte FC superfan Chico — also known as La Muerte — was in the crowd with his signature mask and sombrero. The atmosphere was one of the friendliest I’ve seen at a professional soccer match.
Once the referees started making calls, however, the attitude turned serious. The sellout crowd of 20,446 was made up of serious soccer fans that wouldn’t let the officials get away with any crowd they disagreed with.
Lattanzio went with the same starting lineup he had for his first victory against the New York Red Bulls. Defender Christian Fuchs was still injured, so the captain’s armband again passed to Guzmán Corujo. It was yet another match without designated player Karol Świderski, who has been out for international play and his May 30 wedding (Charlotte’s other designated player, winger Kamil Jóźwiak, was available as a substitute).
From the beginning of the match, I noticed Charlotte’s defense was playing the ball back to goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina even more than normal. It’s a typical play for Charlotte FC’s defense, which leans on Kahlina; however, other squads have picked up on this and Columbus started putting more pressure on Charlotte’s keeper as the match went on.
In the 41st minute, Charlotte’s defense finally paid for the back and forth with Kahlina. Columbus forward Erik Hurtado took advantage of Kahlina being unable to trap or clear a pass from Charlotte defender Anton Walkes. Hurtado got a wide open goal as Kahlina didn’t have time to correct his position; Walkes was left to watch.
Walkes only has three starts this campaign, but is an experienced defender who started almost every match for Atlanta last year, making the defensive breakdown a surprising mistake in an otherwise even game
At halftime, Lattanzio pumped up the team and they came out ready to score. It took just over four minutes for forward Andre Shinyashiki to score the equalizer off a rebounded save. The goal was Shinyashiki’s third of the campaign, tying midfielder Ben Bender for the second-most goals this season. There was no assist on the goal, so corner flag-kicking specialist Bender continues to lead the team in assists with three.
Bad Blood with Charlotte FC
While there wouldn’t be another goal in the final 40 minutes of play, there was still plenty of drama. Corujo drew the ire of the Columbus supporters by stopping Hurtado from getting a brace. The crowd and Hurtado both believed Corujo should have drawn a foul, referees ruled that Corujo played the ball.
For the rest of the game, the entire stadium filled with boos and jeers whenever Corujo touched the ball. “When the crowd is on to you like that, it means they fear you and have respect,” coach Lattanzio told me after the game, calling Corujo a “talisman.”
Soon after, in the 59th minute, Hurtado responded with a body slam on Corujo that drew a yellow card, but was so flagrant it very well could have drawn a red. Hurtado’s blow left Corujo on the pitch for a long couple of minutes, but Charlotte’s captain would eventually get up, walk it off on the sidelines, and return to the pitch.
After the match, Hurtado came to Charlotte’s locker room to seek out Corujo, and both explained their case to one another, with Guzman pointing to the place where Columbus’ striker hurt his legs.
Hurtado and many of his teammates also came to say hi to Charlotte defender Harrison Afful, who previously played at Columbus. He was a popular guy all night and the last Charlotte player to enter the locker room after the match. Afful also had one of his best nights on the pitch with Charlotte, including a great cross in the 74th minute that could have assisted the go-ahead goal had someone been able to connect with it.
CF Montreal? Not again.
Charlotte has a packed schedule over the next two weeks. They play CF Montreal on the road on Saturday, June 25, then come back to host Austin at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday, then travel to Texas to face Houston on Sunday, July 3.
Montreal is a good team — better than their current 5th place standing on the Eastern Conference table would suggest — and they easily dispatched Charlotte 0-2 at home. In fact, they’re the only team to beat Charlotte at home since the home opener against the LA Galaxy.
Then-coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez believed Montreal was in a class above Charlotte, and while I’d love to be surprised, I don’t think this will be Charlotte’s first road win.
Coach Lattanzio is more optimistic, noting to me that Karol Świderski will be back. “We are going to need to be strong and we need to keep playing our football. Obviously I have big respect for Montreal, but we are there to win.”
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