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Charlotte FC Is a Mid Team at Midseason

Charlotte FC mascot Sir Minty, a soccer ball wearing a cape and a crown and holding a flag, awaits his chance to run onto the pitch at Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte FC mascot Sir Minty awaits his chance to run onto the pitch at Bank of America Stadium. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

After 23 MLS matches — just over two-thirds of their 2023 campaign — Charlotte FC is down, but not out.

The team sits at 12th place in the Eastern Conference, with 26 points and a 6-9-8 record. While they exited the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with a loss to USL Championship squad Birmingham Legion in May, the team is only five points out of the MLS playoff picture as they begin a month-long break for the MLS All-Star Game and the inaugural Leagues Cup, an international competition between American and Canadian teams from MLS and Mexican teams from Liga MX.

While Charlotte barely missed the playoffs last year, they did finish strong enough to qualify for the Leagues Cup — though the league later decided they would let all teams in, tarnishing that sense of accomplishment a bit. Charlotte will face FC Dallas today at 9 p.m. and Club Necaxa on Saturday, July 29.

Despite fans’ frustration with the team’s quality, Charlotte still has a reasonable shot at making the playoffs; they have 11 matches to close a five-point differential and reach 9th place. The Leagues Cup may be the club’s best chance to get out of their sophomore slump before MLS play resumes on Aug. 20.

“We’re still a very young club and we’ve faced a tremendous amount of adversity, “team president Joe LaBlue told Queen City Nerve on Friday. “It’s been truly unprecedented what our club has been through in the last seven months, and it has had an effect both on and off the pitch in a multitude of ways. That shouldn’t be used as an excuse by any means, but it’s not been easy for anyone throughout the organization.”

LaBlue emphasized that, despite said challenges, Charlotte FC has launched its MLS NEXT Pro team and plans to move into its new training facility near McAlpine Creek Park in southeast Charlotte soon.

“Our goals are still in front of us and nobody is giving up. Lastly, we must acknowledge and praise this fan base. Our supporters have been there with us every step of the way. Charlotte truly is a soccer city and it’s visible in a variety of ways. Whether it’s seeing massive crowds inside our stadium on match day, flags lining neighborhoods, decals on cars, T-shirts and jerseys being worn as a social currency, it’s amazing. Our group doesn’t take for granted the reciprocal love and appreciation we continue to build with this community.”

Charlotte FC head coach Christian Lattanzio stands on the sidelines wearing blue jeans and a white collared shirt.
Charlotte FC head coach Christian Lattanzio in 2022. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

Coach Christian Lattanzio has described the season as one of “frustration, surprise, and growth,” telling reporters at a Leagues Cup press conference that, due to injuries, he hasn’t been able to field the teams he wanted to play with all year.

For a Charlotte FC club that was generally expected to make the playoffs in its second year, however, how did the season become such a source of frustration?

Problems on and off the pitch

It’s hard to imagine Charlotte FC having a worse 2023.

The palpable energy and optimism the club had in the offseason was suddenly dashed by the tragic death of veteran defender Anton Walkes. Walkes left a hole in Charlotte’s back line, and more importantly left behind teammates, a partner and child.

Learn more: Charlotte FC Plagued with Tragedy and Struggles to Start Season 2

A lot has been written about the beloved Walkes and the effect his death had on the team. The emotional impact is hard to overstate, and in interviews and conversations with players throughout the season, they’ll be the first to say they’re still processing the loss.

“To be honest, it hasn’t been easy,” defender Adilson Malanda told Queen City Nerve in an exclusive interview earlier this year. “Despite the fact that we don’t tell each other often, we care about each other, we’re part of the same club, of the same family … it’s true that it hasn’t been easy, but we get back up and we move forward, for him and for the fans too.”

The tragedy may have had a domino effect. In the wake of Walkes’ passing, offensive player Andre Shinyashiki wrote multiple heartfelt social media posts about his friend.

A fan takes a knee in front of a shrine to Charlotte FC player Anton Walkes outside of Bank of America Stadium.
Charlotte FC fans paid tribute to Anton Walkes outside of Bank of America Stadium on Jan. 20. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“I don’t know how I’m going to look in to your locker and not see you, I don’t know how I’m going to get through training everyday with you not being there. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, I will forever love you and will honor your name while I can,” Shinyashiki wrote in a Jan. 19 Facebook post.

Soon after, the former MLS Rookie of the Year would effectively end his career with Charlotte FC.

Sources with knowledge of the situation say Shinyashiki was partying heavily as the season began — something that’s frowned upon if not forbidden on soccer clubs given the athletic nature of the sport. The Charlotte Ledger first reported that on March 2, he and teammate Nuno Santos were connected to a police report of a sexual assault in Charlotte.

No charges were filed, and Shinyashiki and his agent claimed that he was cleared to play by an MLS investigation, but neither he nor Santos has played for the squad since before the story broke. Santos has since been traded away, and though all Charlotte FC players are MLS employees, Major League Soccer has ignored multiple requests for comment from Queen City Nerve.

The effective suspension of Shinyashiki and Santos cost Charlotte FC over $1 million in payroll, which is important to the club’s recruiting prospects since MLS rules limit the amount teams can spend on player salaries outside of three “designated players” that are not subject to salary caps.

The losses of Walkes, Shinyashiki and Santos as options have also hurt the team on the pitch as they struggle with injuries and shifting lineups.

Whose lineup is it anyway?

Incredibly, Charlotte FC has had a different defensive starting line for almost every match this season. At various times, defenders or defensive options including Malanda, Derrick Jones, and Bill Tuiloma have been injured. Goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina had back surgery during the offseason and missed the first weeks of the season.

Guzmán Corujo, a key piece of Charlotte’s back line in 2022, has struggled to come back from a season-ending injury last year, and is out for weeks as of this writing.

Unable to field a consistent defensive lineup, Charlotte has conceded more goals than any other MLS team this season.

Karol Świderski celebrates his first of two goals against Cincinnati on July 8
Karol Świderski celebrates his first of two goals against Cincinnati on July 8. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

The defense isn’t the only place where the club has struggled with injuries. Of Charlotte’s three designated players — Karol Świderski, Kamil Jóźwiak and Enzo Copetti — only Świderski has kept a clean bill of health.

With all of the changes, the squad has struggled to build chemistry. That’s important in any sport, but in soccer — with the constant play, acrobatic shots, and high cost of mistakes — it’s make-or-break. Even more so for Charlotte, where coach Lattanzio’s style of play involves a slow buildup with multiple members of the team touching the ball before creating chances.

That team identity, however, becomes dangerous when the team isn’t cohesive. The slow buildup often encourages a press from the other team. If Charlotte FC’s style of play is working, that pulls the opponents out of position and creates space for Charlotte’s attack. If the buildup doesn’t work, small mistakes can create big opportunities for opponents who are already pressing and deep in Charlotte’s half of the pitch.

This season, Charlotte’s defensive mistakes have outnumbered the moments of offensive brilliance. Early leads have become draws and evenly matched contests have become brutal losses, costing Charlotte a solid playoff position in the process.

Someone to blame

Charlotte FC hasn’t won a match since May 27. Since then, they’ve lost three matches and drawn five.

Many fans and members of Charlotte FC supporters groups have taken their frustration out on coach Lattanzio and Sporting Director Zoran Krneta. Earlier in the season I saw Lattanzio sign a “Latty Daddy” T-shirt after an Open Cup win; these days Charlotte FC’s ultras are selling “Lattanzio Out!” T-shirts at tailgates and in Facebook groups.

Complaints against Lattanzio include not liking his style of play or the starting lineups he chooses, though Lattanzio too has been frustrated with his lineups, which he sees as the result of necessity, not choice. Complaints about Krneta include how the roster was built and concerns that Enzo Copetti’s performance hasn’t lived up to his quality as a player.

Lattanzio also doesn’t act like a typical coach, which may be the result of his decades of experience in the No. 2 two position (Charlotte FC is his first head coaching role). On many occasions he has said his focus is on the performance and development of the players he calls “the boys,” not the final result of the game. He gives time and attention to his players, though he told me in May he doesn’t get involved in their personal lives. He doesn’t scream, and he eschews toxic masculinity.

His detractors see those qualities as betraying a lack of urgency.

In recent weeks, rumors about Lattanzio leaving the club picked up steam. After Charlotte’s 2-0 loss at Montreal we asked the club or LaBue to comment on Lattanzio’s future with the club; a spokesperson for Charlotte FC declined to comment, though it’s clear Lattanzio will lead the team during the Leagues Cup, at least.

His future with the team may depend on the club’s performance in the tournament, where Charlotte is guaranteed at least two group stage games before elimination rounds.

Frustration, surprise and growth

Lattanzio’s description of his team’s season as one of “frustration, surprise, and growth” rings true.

The frustration is clear, and it won’t go away without strong performances in the Leagues Cup and a playoff run in the last 11 matches of the season. Unfortunately, the Football Gods and the status of Charlotte’s injured players may have more to do with success than anything Lattanzio can do.

What he meant by surprise, however, was the surprise performances of young players, especially those called up from Charlotte FC’s second team, Crown Legacy FC, currently leading the MLS Next Pro season standings.

Brandon Cambridge sits in a throne among the fan section, as supporters place a crown on his head
Brandon Cambridge is coronated as Man of the Match on May 20. (Photo by Jesse Kimmel)

Brandon Cambridge quickly moved from the second team to the first team, becoming the hero of Charlotte’s 2-1 home win over Chicago by delivering both the equalizer and the decisive goal after coming on in the second half. Patrick Agyemang became the first player in MLS history to score goals with both an MLS team and an MLS Next Pro team in the same weekend when he scored the final equalizer in Charlotte FC’s 3-3 draw against the Seattle Sounders on June 10, then scored a goal for Crown Legacy FC the next day.

The team has grown significantly as well. Jóźwiak has been a more reliable contributor on offense this year, scoring goals and earning assists after a weak first season. Świderski is playing like the prince who was promised when he was signed as the team’s first designated player. Ashley Westwood has taken over the role of captain from Christian Fuchs and grown into a needed leader on the pitch. Because of both adversity and Lattanzio’s lineups, players have learned to be versatile and flexible.

Perhaps the biggest revelation has been Derrick Jones, who has played both midfield and defensive positions this year. Jones has been one of Charlotte’s most consistent players and one of the hardest workers from box to box. If Jones stays healthy and avoids disciplinary suspensions down the stretch, Charlotte supporters can sleep more soundly.

Lionel Messi’s first MLS match

When Charlotte returns to MLS Play on Aug. 20, their first opponent will be Inter Miami CF, featuring superstar Lionel Messi in his first regular season MLS match. Not satisfied with Messi alone, Miami is adding significant talent during the Leagues Cup break, including familiar names to fans of European football.

If Charlotte can set the tone with a win on the road against the Pink G.O.A.T., they’ll enter their final 10 matches with the knowledge they can beat the greatest — something they’ll also have to do in their final match of the season when they host Miami at home.

There have been rumors that Messi will refuse to play on artificial turf, which is currently what covers the pitch at Bank of America Stadium, as he hasn’t played a single match out of 1,000+ on his career on that troublesome surface.

Regardless, team officials don’t appear ready to cater to the legendary player. A team spokesperson on Thursday said, “All of our Major League Soccer matches are scheduled to be played on turf and there is no plan to change to natural grass.”

Out of 33 potential points Charlotte has left in MLS play, they’ll need 16 (at least four wins and four draws or five wins and one draw) to match the 42 points they posted last year. Anything above that, and they’re likely a lock for the playoff play-in game.

Anything below that, and Charlotte FC supporters may have to start hoping the third season is the charm.

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