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Charlotte FC Drops Out of Playoff Contention with Draw

No joy in Banktown

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Adam Armour, wearing a light blue Charlotte FC jersey, makes contact with a Columbus Crew player in a yellow jersey as they both chase after a soccer ball in the foreground.
McKinze Gaines tangles with a Columbus Crew player during Wednesday night’s Charlotte FC match at Bank of America Stadium. (Photo by Elizabeth Otten/Charlotte FC)

An old saying in American sports is that a tie is like kissing your sister. Rarely, however, is a tie as disappointing as Charlotte FC’s 2-2 draw with the Columbus Crew on Wednesday night. Charlotte needed an outright win to stay in playoff contention; with the draw, Charlotte FC (13-17-3) goes into their final match of the season with 42 points but is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

Since the match was a continuation of a postponed fixture from July, it started at the 16-minute mark with the same players who were on the pitch in July (albeit with a substitution allowed for the injured Guzmán Corujo). Due to Major League Soccer rules, Charlotte could not add any players to the bench who had joined the team, nor could they replace Christian Makoun who left the team during the last transfer window.

This was especially disappointing for Charlotte fans who had seen recent acquisitions Adilson Malanda, Nuno Santos, and Nathan Byrne elevate the club’s level of play in a three-match win streak. Forward Daniel Ríos, named MLS Player of the Week on Monday following a four-goal match over the weekend, was part of the roster for the original Columbus match and took over striker duties for the second half. 

Charlotte went down 0-2 early, but Ríos carried the energy that led to his four goals against Philadelphia on Saturday into Charlotte’s first goal of the night, scoring a header off a Yordy Reyna assist. Later, Karol Świderski was tackled in the penalty box and cried for a foul but did not receive a penalty kick from the referee.

That was the last straw for some fans. Already the night had been pierced by chants of “Ref, you suck!” due to many previous calls that didn’t go Charlotte’s way. Now, for the first time all season, beer cans and other projectiles were thrown onto the pitch in a way more reminiscent of European football than American soccer. For Charlotte FC’s ultras and supporters, it felt like the coda to an amazing first season was being stolen right beneath their eyes.

As Charlotte’s playoff hopes began to fade to black, Ríos assisted a goal from Andre Shinyashiki during stoppage time. With that, Charlotte had a couple minutes left to change the course of their season but fell one goal short of going into MLS’s Decision Day with a shot at postseason glory.

A Lesson in Leadership

After the match, interim head coach Christian Lattanzio received significant criticism from a frustrated fan base for his substitution decisions. Ben Bender and Quinn McNeill, frequent starters and substitutes in the middle of the season, had fallen out of favor in recent weeks and played like they were a little rusty.

Before Columbus scored their first goal, Bender had an opportunity for a tap-in right in front of the goal and missed the shot; on other plays, it seemed like he wasn’t connecting with Świderski, who has moved to a center attacking midfielder role in recent matches.

Karol Świderski. (Photo by Krista Jasso/Charlotte FC)

In the Monday Morning Quarterback (Thursday Morning Goalkeeper?) department, however, no play haunts Charlotte FC more than the first Columbus goal, in which the Crew followed up on a 50-yard shot from Bender with their own long shot — more than 55 yards — by Lucas Zelarayán, catching Kahlina too far out from the net and putting Charlotte behind.  

It was clear after Charlotte went down a goal in the first half that Ríos would come in for Bender and recent midfield standout Derrick Jones would come in for McNeill. However, under the continuation rules, Ríos and Jones could have started the match instead of Bender and McNeill — a criticism made by many in the fanbase.

Naturally, I asked Coach Lattanzio about this, and what he gave me in return was an unexpected lesson in leadership: “I feel very sorry for Quinn and for Ben because they didn’t deserve to be taken out … but unfortunately, because we needed a result [I had to make the change]. The team, like everything in life, evolves.”

“We have a group of players that work well, work hard,” he continued. “They deserve respect from me, and if I make a substitution [before the match], I might as well not bring the guys who were in that game here … I thought that it was fair on our boys to start and give a chance to players [like Bender and McNeill] because we trust them … I know it’s easy to talk after the event, but the decision has to be taken before the event and also we have to be coherent with the messages me and my coaching staff give to the boys.”

When we spoke with Anton Walkes after the match, he (and every other player I spoke with) agreed with Lattanzio’s decision to keep the original starters in. Though frustrated with the result, Walkes said, “I wouldn’t replace anybody with anybody who wasn’t playing, because I wouldn’t want them to do that to me. I feel like everyone deserved the opportunity.”

A Charlotte FC player grips his water bottle between his arm and torso and claps while walking off the field
Anton Walkes. (Photo by Krista Jasso/Charlotte FC)

Both Walkes and Lattanzio’s answers were understandable, and make it clear the coach and team were aligned on the lineup decisions, even if fans will always wonder what could have been had Ríos and others started. As a frustrated Walkes told us, “To fall short, as close as we did, is very painful.”

Though also frustrated with the result (and the MLS rules), a hoarse Lattanzio had nothing but praise for his team after the match.

“It would be easy to be shaky [after going down 0-2], but our boys, they were very mature and very aggressive in their play, they went toe-to-toe [and] if anything they went even more aggressive as the game went on. There was a belief to score goals, we scored two. The second one, unfortunately, just came a little bit too late.”

“I am not proud – I’m very, very proud of this team,” Lattanzio concluded.

Looking Ahead to 2023

Charlotte has one more match against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey on Sunday. Lattanzio, Walkes, and every other player we spoke to is going north with the intent to win. However, the team is already looking forward to next year.

“I think it’s just a good expansion year all around. I think there’s still more to come. I can see it, and obviously with our coach, he’s put so much effort and time into the team and I honestly believe we can do more for him. In the last four games we have,” said Walkes.

Coach Lattanzio watches over the game wearing a white and grey pullover with a Charlotte FC logo
Coach Christian Lattanzio is expected to stay on for 2023. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

The club has recognized that as well, with Charlotte FC president Joe LaBue confirming to us that Lattanzio and the core of the club will be back in 2023. “Christian’s done an amazing job, you saw it tonight, you’ve seen it throughout the year. We’ve gone through a process, and there will be more to come after the season’s over,” said LaBue.

Expectations are high. After a roller coaster expansion season, Charlotte FC is ready to play for more than just the playoffs in 2023. The team expects to contend for the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup next year.

“I wouldn’t want to play for the bare minimum,” said Walkes.


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