How does Charlotte FC recover from a month like May?
Let’s quickly review why such a question is necessary:
- Star designated player Karol Świderski hasn’t scored a goal in MLS play since March.
- Montreal ended Charlotte’s home winning streak at home on May 14.
- The team was eliminated from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on May 25, shutting the door on the (admittedly slim) chance of earning a spot in international play.
- The club’s inaugural coach, Miguel Ángel Ramírez, was unceremoniously fired on the last day of the month, leading to significant speculation and the airing of some dirty laundry.
- Many additional members of the coaching staff left with Ramírez, necessitating a complete rebuild.
- Tepper Sports & Entertainment, Charlotte FC’s parent company, had a big and very public fight with the fifth largest city in South Carolina, resulting in a canceled multi-million-dollar project and a bankruptcy. You can listen to a great summary of all of the problems dogging TS&E here.
- Most major sports sites predict Charlotte FC will not make the playoffs.
June isn’t looking any easier. Charlotte faces the New York Red Bulls at home on June 11 after losing to them in Open Cup play. The team has road matches against Columbus and Montreal, the latter of which beat Charlotte at home. Finally, Charlotte hosts Austin on the last day of June; the Texas team is in 4th place in the Western Conference and is tied with Montreal for the second most goals scored in the league at 28.
Buckle up for more doom and gloom than I’m used to dishing out, though not without silver linings.
Where does Charlotte FC go from here?
The downsides of a midseason coaching change are myriad; it says there was a major problem that could only be resolved with a disruptive firing; it means the team will have to adjust to a new style of play; and in this case, it means that much of the technical coaching staff must be rebuilt. Charlotte has 20 matches left to secure a playoff spot and it’s likely both gameplay and lineups will be different from the first 14 games.
Assistant coach Christian Lattanzio has taken over from Ramírez as interim head coach, though at a press conference last week Charlotte FC’s sporting director Zoran Krneta challenged the “interim” nature of the appointment and emphasized to the media that Lattanzio is the coach.
Lattanzio has many strengths as a coach and significant MLS experience, including a playoff appearance as an assistant coach with New York FC. He has the experience and expertise to be successful, so that’s a silver lining.
While the coaching change will certainly affect who plays where and when, the entire roster is still here. Charlotte FC’s most valuable player — goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina — even kept his goalkeeping coach. It will be up to Lattanzio now to address the problems with the roster that made Ramírez say, “We’re screwed,” including Charlotte’s weakness in the midfield and their continued struggles to get the ball up front and finish.
However, I spoke with team captain Christian Fuchs during a Tuesday press conference, and in addition to giving justification for Ramírez’s ouster, he’s optimistic about the future:
“We have a new coach, yes, the benefit that we have is that this coach was with us [and knows us],” he said. “I think there’s something really good happening right now. Honestly, I might or might not be able to play this weekend, but whoever is going to be out there is going to kick some ass.”
When asked if he agreed with Fuchs’ assessment during his own press conference on Thursday, Lattanzio said, “I hope so,” remarking that he expects the team to be competitive against the Red Bulls.
The words are coming out all weird
When Charlotte FC announced Lattanzio’s hiring last year, they made a point of mentioning that the (then-assistant) coach could communicate with a diverse locker room, stating “the multilingual Italian coach will play a key role in helping create a winning team with a roster that already includes players from Australia, Austria, Spain, Poland and the U.S.”
This is a clear contrast with Miguel Ángel Ramírez’s colorful commentary, which was mentioned as a serious point of contention for Charlotte FC owner David Tepper, the front office, and even some players.
Additionally, reports claimed that Ramírez avoided the locker room after defeats and had additional communications challenges. Those reports were confirmed when captain Christian Fuchs said at a Tuesday press conference that leadership after losses was “nonexistent.” However, Fuchs also tried to put one rumor to rest when he said no one was refusing to play if Ramírez remained coach.
During his press conference on Thursday, Lattanzio emphasized the open-door policy he plans to keep for all players. “I would like them to think that I am there for them.”
We’ll see how that plays out, as communication with the media hasn’t been much better than with the players. Ramírez learned about his firing shortly before the official announcement. Krneta’s press conference announcing the decision was cryptic and fueled additional speculation.
Before Thursday’s press conference, my request for a face-to-face interview with Lattanzio was turned down and Ramírez didn’t have the chance to address the public until June 5.
Charlotte FC knew firing the coach was going to be controversial, and it remains to be seen if the overwhelmingly negative response from the club’s fans will translate to game day. However, Fuchs did a lot of heavy lifting for the team this week and seemed to mollify the fanbase with his explanation of Ramírez’s shortcomings.
My take on Ramírez is that he loved the support of the fans, and despite his offhand comments he had genuine love and affection for the players. However, his colorful comments clashed with the front office, and he apparently lost the locker room by not showing up after losses, and not having an open door for players – even the captain. After Fuchs came forward, the tough decision to sack a coach in the middle of a campaign makes a lot more sense.
Where is Karol Świderski?
During the international break, Karol Świderski was off playing for the Polish national team in UEFA Nations League play. He came off the bench against Wales to score a decisive joker goal (off the bench) that put Poland ahead 2 to 1.
Earlier in the year when Świderski was making a splash for Charlotte FC, Poland decided against calling him up due to an injury, but still qualified for the World Cup despite missing key players at the striker position.
However, Świderski hasn’t scored a goal for Charlotte FC since, and his frustration on the field is visible. While Coach Ramírez was criticized for avoiding the locker room on bad nights, I’ve witnessed Świderski making quick exits from Bank of America Stadium after losses as well.
Additionally, one of Ramírez’s most important decisions this season was to bring forward Andre Shinyashiki from Colorado. Since joining the squad he’s had two goals in MLS play and he seems to be at home in Charlotte, where he can be more of an offensive weapon than in his last gig. Along with Kahlina, defender Guzmán Corujo, and midfielder Ben Bender (the team leader in assists), Shinyashiki’s star has been burned brighter than any of Charlotte FC’s designated players in recent games.
All of this to say I believed the scoop when The Athletic reported “one of the club’s designated players let it be known that he would refuse to play for the club after they returned from the ongoing international break if Ramirez remained head coach … the player in question was Polish striker Karol Swiderski.”
That report has been contested, though not on the record by anyone from Charlotte FC’s front office. As mentioned above, Fuchs also denied the rumor. When I reached out to the team for an official comment on the conflicting reports, I did not receive a response by press time.
If Świderski was indeed as frustrated as The Athletic reported (and as he looked on the pitch), hopefully the coaching change will improve his production. Charlotte needs him at peak performance for the tough month ahead.
Next Up: The New York Red Bulls and the Columbus Crew
Charlotte faces the New York Red Bulls this weekend in a midday match at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday. Charlotte lost to the Red Bulls in Open Cup play on May 25 — and I let it be known how I feel about that whole organization in the lead-up to that match — making this a revenge match of sorts. Charlotte is 1-0 so far this year when they faced a club in Charlotte after losing to them on the road.
The last match against the Red Bulls got off to a bad start with a goal in the first two minutes, but forward Daniel Ríos responded with a quick equalizer. Charlotte went into halftime tied but gave up two goals in the second half, including one in extra time — not even the addition of Kahlina to Charlotte’s Open Cup roster could save the day.
Charlotte didn’t play well down the stretch in coach Ramírez’s penultimate game, which may give credence to Fuchs’ criticisms of the former coach’s focus on tactics at the expense of conditioning and fitness.
Right now, FiveThirtyEight ranks the Red Bulls as the 4th most likely team to win the MLS cup (Charlotte is 23rd), and an aggregate of MLS power rankings has them 5th (Charlotte is 24th). The Red Bulls currently lead the league in expected goal differential, and they’re coming off a 4-1 win against DC United. Even with one of the best home-field advantages in all of MLS, this will be a tough game for the Crown Club and a challenge for Lattanzio in his first game as coach.
It won’t get easier the next week as Charlotte travels to Ohio to face the Columbus Crew. While both teams occupy a similar place on the MLS table, Charlotte has yet to win an away game in MLS play. The Crew are a good team at home with a committed fan base (and terrible on the road. Sound familiar?) and they’ll have an additional week of rest before facing Charlotte. On the plus side, Columbus has lost three games at home this season and doesn’t have a striker with the designated player tag.
My prediction? Whatever happens against New York, Lattanzio will go all out to secure the team’s first road win in Columbus – and vindication for the coaching change. I’ll be there.
Sam Spencer is a lifelong soccer fan and supporter of 1. FC Union Berlin in the Bundesliga. His column runs every other week in Queen City Nerve. Follow him on Twitter at @choosesam and for more frequent soccer updates, subscribe to Sam’s Soccer Sheet.
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