Charlotte FC’s playoff chances were on life support going into their Aug. 17 match against New York City FC. The Crown Club suffered two defeats in a row, including an embarrassing 5-0 loss to Los Angeles FC on Aug. 13, and had fallen close to the bottom of the Eastern Conference table.
So, Charlotte went to New York and did what they seem to do best by completely changing the direction of the season with one performance.
Designated player Karol Świderski picked up a goal in the first five minutes of Wednesday’s game. He followed that up later with an assist — a beautiful, seemingly effortless tap to midfielder Brandt Bronico, who finally picked up his first goal of the season after being the hardest working man on Charlotte’s squad all year.
Goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina put in one of his better efforts despite losing the clean sheet; he had two heroic saves that prevented NYCFC from equalizing the score, and the only goal he conceded was to a perfect shot by New York City’s Maxime Chanot that’s an early contender for goal of the week.
Not to be outdone, captain Christian Fuchs made the cross to set up Świderski’s assist, then took a penalty kick to earn his third goal of the year and make the final score 1-3 in Charlotte’s favor. The victory represented another rare road win for Charlotte FC — something they’ve struggled with all season.
As of press time, Charlotte (10-14-2, 32 points) is 10th in the Eastern Conference, but the table can be deceiving. Three teams — Toronto, Chicago, and Atlanta — are all within one win of catching up to Charlotte in points. On the flip side, with one more win, Charlotte would sit in 5th place with a superior tiebreaker. Since only the top seven teams in the conference make the playoffs, what does Charlotte FC need to do to make that a reality?
Charlotte is backed into a corner of sorts, but even in 10th place they still control their playoff destiny. Of the teams that are within 3 points of Charlotte FC, they play Orlando at home next on Aug. 21, then Toronto at home on Aug. 27, then Cincinnati away on Sept. 3.
After hosting NYCFC at home they play Chicago away on Sept. 17, and after hosting Philadelphia at home they will resume their suspended game against Columbus on Oct. 5 before traveling back to New Jersey for their final match of the regular season in Red Bull Arena.
Over a month ago, I predicted Charlotte FC would end the season with 44 points (plus or minus a win), far from first place but good enough for the playoffs. A lot has changed since then: Defender Guzmán Corujo is out with a season-ending injury, and Charlotte suffered two bad losses with a combined goal differential of -9.
Assuming no draws, to reach the 44-point mark Charlotte needs to win four matches. To make the playoffs they need a little luck, and they need their wins to be against teams in the playoff race. Expect to hear the words “must-win” used to describe almost every match going forward.
Here’s my revised breakdown of Charlotte FC’s playoff chances:
Working in Charlotte’s favor
- Five of the last eight matches are at home; the team has played much stronger at Bank of America stadium than they have anywhere else. It’s hard to imagine they won’t come away with at least 8 or 9 points at home in the final stretch.
- Of their remaining away opponents, Charlotte FC has wins against Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls. Charlotte can beat or draw those teams at home and pick up some points.
- Charlotte FC has very few draws. While this means there are only two teams in MLS with more losses than Charlotte, only four Eastern Conference teams have more wins. Unlike in many other top-flight football leagues where goal differential is the first tiebreaker, it’s the second tiebreaker in MLS — after total wins. With how close the middle of the table is in points, Charlotte’s wins might sneak them into the playoffs.
- Karol Świderski is out of the mid-season doldrums. He’s playing better, getting more opportunities, and currently leads the team with eight goals on the season. At this rate he could finish the season with 10-12 goals, and he also has four assists.
- Jan Sobociński has done a good job filling some of Charlotte’s defensive holes and isn’t afraid to get rid of the ball when he gets in trouble — something that Charlotte’s defense has struggled with, leading to goals for the opposition.
- The team has multiple offensive options who are dangerous, including Andre Shinyashiki (five goals, one assist), Ben Bender (three goals and a team-leading six assists), and Yordy Reyna (three goals, two assists).
- Hot Take Alert: Coach Christian Lattanzio is doing a better job than his predecessor. Aside from having a better record and higher win percentage, the team seems more cohesive, and Lattanzio hasn’t been afraid to trade or cut loose players who aren’t part of his plans.
- Right now, the biggest unknown for Charlotte is their three recent signings during MLS’s secondary transfer window: Portuguese attacking midfielder Nuno Santos and defenders Nathan Byrne and Adilson Malanda. Santos could be an important addition to a club that has struggled with getting the ball from the midfield to its forwards. However, visa issues have prevented the three from starting for the club thus far.
- While Charlotte is focused on its must-wins, their playoff path is easier if the middle of the table keeps posting draws. The Eastern Conference has seen more draws (93) than the Western Conference (87), and two teams within three points of Charlotte – Columbus and New England – lead the Eastern Conference in draws with 10. Remember, a team that wins only three of its last eight matches comes away with more playoff points than a team that draws all eight.
Working against Charlotte FC
- The remainder of Charlotte’s schedule isn’t easy. Toronto and Cincinnati had great transfer windows and brought on strong talent, with Cincinnati picking up a strong defensive option in U.S. Men’s National Team center back Matt Miazga. Charlotte’s home matches include Philadelphia (#1 in the East), NYCFC (#3 in the east), and Toronto, which demolished them 4-0 a couple weeks ago. Their last match of the season is against the #4 NY Red Bulls in New Jersey. There’s a scenario where Charlotte falls apart and ends up with 39 points.
- Guzmán Corujo had more starts and more minutes on the pitch than any other player in the club. Coach Lattanzio called him a defensive “talisman,” he was the backup captain for the team, and in addition to his skill and leadership he was incredibly fun to watch. Luckily, his recent surgery went well and he’s expected to make a full recovery, but he’s out for the rest of the season right when Charlotte needs him most.
- Speaking of Corujo, he is one of the most consistent players on a squad that is anything but. Aside from him, Bronico, and a few others, we’ve seen bad-to-embarrassing performances from many members of the team on multiple occasions.
- With Corujo’s injury and the Makoun trade, Charlotte is looking weak in back. When Harrison Afful came off the field in a stretcher during Charlotte’s disastrous loss against LAFC, things really looked bleak (luckily Afful recovered enough to come in as a substitute against NYCFC). Even with the upcoming arrival of Byrne and Malanda, Charlotte’s defense is on rocky ground.
- While I think Lattanzio is doing a better job than his ousted predecessor, he’s kept the team’s number two scorer, Andre Shinyashiki, on the bench a lot. He has a lot of confidence in Polish winger Kamil Jóźwiak, who has yet to notch a goal or assist in 12 appearances (though if you ask Lattanzio, one of his earlier plays should have counted as an assist). Similarly, forward McKinze Gaines has 19 appearances, but no goals and two assists. Shinyashiki, however, has five goals in only 14 appearances and 657 minutes played – that’s better than one goal for every three halves of play. It’s confusing to me, but less so when I remember that I am not a soccer coach who spent the past two decades working with some of the top teams in international football — and Lattanzio is.
I’m an optimist, so I think Charlotte still has it in them to make it to the playoffs. However, they need more skill, more consistency, and more luck than they’ve had lately to make a real run.
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