This isn’t the start Charlotte FC was expecting in its sophomore campaign.
With a three-match losing streak to start the season on top of the tragic and incalculable loss of defender Anton Walkes, morale on Mint Street is low. The team has looked disorganized on the pitch, has only one goal all season, and is sitting in last place as of this writing.
On the bright side, the club has only played this of this MLS season’s 34 matches and calls from frustrated fans to fire the coach or clean house are at best premature and at worst immature. However, there are questions as to whether or not the club’s style of play is working, and unless the three match losing streak is a fluke, some sort of correction is needed before a season full of possibilities becomes harder to salvage.
A look at Charlotte FC’s offseason
During the offseason, Charlotte made significant moves indicative of a club with playoff aspirations. Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio’s squad added talented European players while trading and releasing many of the Latin American players who were part of the original lineup, continuing a trend that started when Lattanzio took over after inaugural coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez was fired in the middle of last season.
Perhaps the biggest change was the loss of Daniel Rios, who had not only the first (and still only) hat trick in Charlotte history last season, but even added another goal on top of that against Philadelphia last fall for the club’s most memorable win in their short history.
The exception to that trend was the signing of Enzo Copetti from legendary Argentinian soccer team Racing Club de Avellaneda. Copetti’s signing was arguably the most important postseason decision since he would be Charlotte’s striker, or 9, and take a designated player spot on the roster (each Major League Soccer team has three designated player spots that have no salary restrictions; Charlotte’s other two DPs are Karol Świderski and Kamil Jóźwiak).
Whether or not Copetti’s signing was the most important move for the team, it certainly generated the most excitement. After an inaugural season that exceeded all expectations and almost found Charlotte in the playoffs, the mood surrounding Charlotte FC was exuberant.
Then came Jan. 18.
The passing of Anton Walkes
Days before Charlotte FC was scheduled to play a preseason friendly against expansion team St. Louis City SC, defender Anton Walkes was involved in a boating accident off the coast of Miami-Dade County, Florida. He died a day after the accident on Jan. 19.
In a video recorded in Florida shortly before the accident, Walkes is excited for the future, saying, “Let’s go. Here’s to a good season.” Those words are now part of the myriad memorials to Walkes in Bank of America Stadium and on the road.
The tragic passing of Walkes has already defined the season for Charlotte. Memorials appeared in public and on social media. The club hosted a public celebration of Walkes’ life, and every home match this season will feature tributes on the pitch and on the kits of Charlotte FC players.
The league celebrated Walkes’ life as well, with moments of silence during each team’s first home game. When Queen City Nerve spoke with MLS commissioner Don Garber in St. Louis before the regular season match on March 3, he said “[Anton Walkes] wasn’t just another player, he wasn’t just a teammate; he just really was a super guy. I hope this club can rally around what Anton represented. It’s a terrible tragedy and I feel for the club, and I feel for his family.”
A system in question
Charlotte FC looked good in their first home match against the New England Revolution on Feb. 25. Though the Revolution scored in the 89th minute to win 0-1, the result could have easily gone the other way. Winger Kerwin Vargas was six inches away from landing a beautiful header in the final minutes and was impressive off the bench.
When Nerve caught up with Vargas after the following loss to St. Louis, he said via a translator, “I bring a lot of intensity, and when I’m not in the game I try to keep my head in the game mentally … We feel the weight of the missed opportunities, but if we stay in it and keep trying, the goals will come.”
Charlotte was leading 0-1 against St. Louis before two unlucky plays and an unforced error made it a 3-1 loss for the Crown. Adilson Malanda, the right fullback who contributed to Charlotte’s strength down the stretch last year, gave up a goal from an error while playing the ball back to goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega, who has been filling in for an injured Kristijan Kahlina.
After the loss in St. Louis, Lattanzio was visibly frustrated and uncharacteristically critical of the officials. “There is anger in the [locker] room … the referee in our opinion was very poor.”
To his point and his credit, with some slightly different luck his team could have won or drawn their first two matches. However, the March 11 loss to Atlanta United FC wasn’t bad luck; it was a nadir.
At home against Atlanta, Charlotte gave up two goals in the first 15 minutes. Players were out of position and the team looked lost in transition from offense to defense. It was some of the worst soccer the team has ever played.
“We had issues in transition, let’s say, that’s where two of the three goals came from [against Atlanta], and we worked on that a lot this week also to prevent that from happening,” Malanda told Nerve via a translator at a March 15 press conference.
Charlotte has given up a total of seven goals this season, including an own goal and multiple goals due to defensive breakdowns; though it’s worth noting that at this point last season, Charlotte also had three losses and only one goal.
In fact, Charlotte’s 2022 and 2023 home openers were both 0-1 losses due to heartbreaking goals late in the match. Charlotte, though, is no longer a new team, and the expansion excuse is weaker than ever since St. Louis started their inaugural season with three wins.
Matthew Doyle of MLSSoccer.com thinks the problem is Lattanzio’s system. “Every rotation is complex, and thus every rotation is late … Lattanzio wants this team to use the ball and I’m always a fan of that, but he’s gone about it in such a mad scientist way that his dudes are just lost out there.”
When Nerve asked Malanda about Doyle’s theory, he confirmed some of the analyst’s concerns:
“We may have preferences as far as playing in one system or another, in any case, it’s the coach who decides … I think that it’s a good system. We need to learn it, maybe we needed more time to learn it correctly for each player. Each player has a different understanding of the system, so it’s true that we need to think the same thing so that it’s reproduced on the field.
At a March 16 press conference, Lattanzio pushed back against the idea that Charlotte’s system was too complex for the players, or that he was being too creative with his lineups.
“I saw signs starting in preseason that we were ready, capable to execute. I don’t want to find excuses, but I think that all the players that were put in [different] positions can play in those positions … we just have to put the head down and work.”
Adrian Singerman contributed French and Spanish translations for this story.
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