Charlotte FC Rides a Rollercoaster into the Home Stretch
Since we last caught up with Charlotte FC, the erratic club has continued to both impress and depress on the pitch. The squad’s shootout win against English Premier League squad Chelsea F.C. in a July 20 friendly will be the high-water mark for many fans who got to see the fairytale debut of 16-year-old academy player Brian Romero. A 3-0 win against DC United on Aug. 3 was a strong result in a must-win game.
On the other hand, Charlotte’s road troubles continued as they blew a 0-2 lead at halftime against Miami, and conceded four goals in the first half in Toronto. As of Aug. 4, the team sits in seventh place on the Eastern Conference table, with 29 points and a 9-12-2 record. The top seven teams in each conference make the MLS playoffs.
Since epic home wins and disappointing road losses are nothing new for the Crown Club, it’s fair to say some of the biggest Charlotte FC news of the past month can be found six miles east of Bank of America Stadium.
David Tepper backs out
On Aug. 3, the City of Charlotte finally broke ground on a new development on the Eastland Mall site, just over 47 years to the day the mall opened its doors in 1975. One big name was missing: Charlotte FC owner David Tepper.
The mall was fondly remembered as the social and commercial center of the community. In its 1980s heyday, the interior resembled the fictional Starcourt Mall from Stranger Things, but instead of a secret underground base Eastland boasted a popular ice rink. However, by the time I was buying Nintendo games there in the late 1990s, the mall’s decline was visible; and by the time I moved to the adjacent Windsor Park neighborhood in 2015, the mall had been demolished for over a year.
Since its closing 12 years ago, Eastland has been a wound both psychic and physical for east Charlotte. Developers and city council members made promises about the site they couldn’t keep. Countless proposals were floated to revive the near-100-acre site, and as a member and later chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission, I participated in the review or rezoning of some of them.
As the mall fell to the wayside, east Charlotte began to change as well. The neighborhoods around Eastland became more diverse and international. Approximately one-fifth of Charlotte residents were born outside the United States, and both the Central Avenue and Albemarle Road corridor are home to significant numbers of immigrants and the businesses they run. Many of these small-business owners began to participate in a popular flea market in the old mall parking lot.
Finally, when billionaire Panthers owner David Tepper brought Major League Soccer to town, it seemed like Charlotte finally had a solution to the Eastland problem. First, developer Crosland Southeast and Tepper Sports & Entertainment proposed hosting the new MLS team’s headquarters at Eastland. Many east Charlotte residents come from countries where soccer is by far the most popular sport, so it was a natural fit.
An assistant city manager for the City of Charlotte said “Tepper Sports will be [the] anchor” of the new Eastland development. In exchange, the city agreed to commit $110 million to soccer.
Later in 2020, Tepper’s involvement was scaled back to a headquarters for the Charlotte FC Elite Academy and public soccer fields. In April 2022, after staff shakeups in the front office, Tepper-controlled GT Real Estate pulled out of building a new headquarters for the Carolina Panthers in Rock Hill, S.C., after construction had already commenced, causing a flurry of lawsuits and bankruptcy filings.
At a May 2022 press conference, Tepper avoided a question from WBTV’s David Hodges about the future of Eastland. The deal kept getting worse.
Then, hours before Charlotte’s victory over Chelsea, Axios Charlotte reporter (and former collegiate soccer player) Ashley Mahoney broke the story that TSE pulled out of Eastland entirely. The city of Charlotte now has 20 acres of land at the site that are in search of a purpose. Despite the withdraw, civic leaders continued to fete Tepper even as the Eastland news broke.
Tepper is yet to tap into the city’s soccer funds, but he has altered the deal, and the city of Charlotte is left to pray he won’t alter it any further.
Crown City or Cloud City?
While David Tepper has set himself up as the Darth Vader to Charlotte’s Lando Calrissian, Charlotte FC’s greatest nemesis as of late has been weather. Lightning delayed the Chelsea match, the second time this season fans were asked to “shelter in place” outside the stadium, with most fans exposed to the elements.
Fans even attempted to crash the gates as they waited for admission.
For Charlotte’s rematch against the Columbus Crew, Bank of America Stadium did a better job handling the crowds. Security screening checkpoints were moved under the safety of the stadium’s roof and most fans were able to make it inside prior to the shelter-in-place order. Plenty of fans got an extra three hours to pregame as the teams kicked off shortly after 10 p.m., long after the original 7 p.m. start time.
The process improvements couldn’t save the match, however; after 16 minutes of play, the match was postponed by MLS until Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. Play will resume in the 16th minute with the same players per MLS rules; Charlotte FC captain Christian Fuchs will continue to be prohibited from playing due to drawing Charlotte’s first-ever red card in Toronto, but he will be available for any other match this season.
An embarrassment in Toronto
Charlotte will remain winless on Canadian soil (and 1-3-0 against Canadian opponents) this year after an embarrassing loss in Toronto on July 23. The 4-0 loss was the worst match I’ve seen Charlotte FC play all year. While there were some questions about the officiating, and Coach Lattanzio remarked after the match, “we got an apology from the ref after the game,” the Crown Club wasn’t going to win this one due to an embarassing first half in which they conceded four goals.
Fuchs had some choice words after the match, calling said first half “complete crap” and responded to one of Queen City Nerve’s questions by saying, “A game like that you should forget as soon as possible … we really messed up today.”
Since Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina had never given up more than three goals in a match prior to Toronto, his play was brought into question as he addressed the press in a mid-week press conference after the loss.
“You can say, ‘OK, we must move on. We must forget this game,’” said Kahlina. “But sometimes, here [in the heart] stays this bad feeling.”
Revenge against DC United
Wednesday was Charlotte FC and DC United’s first meeting since Charlotte’s MLS opener in Washington on Feb. 26. In that match, Charlotte looked to score early but a potential goal was stolen by an offside call; Charlotte ended up losing 3-0.
A lot has changed since then. Charlotte has added more offensive weapons; namely forwards Karol Swiderski and Andre Shinyashiki. Both teams have had mid-season coaching changes, but Charlotte is the only team in playoff contention. Charlotte interim coach Christian Lattanzio called this match a must-win for Charlotte to keep playoff hopes alive.
Charlotte was up to the challenge, equalizing the goal differential between the teams for the season. Midfielder Quinn McNeill — who started the year on the third-tier Charlotte Independence — and Swiderski consistently found themselves open in the box and ready to create opportunities; both picked up goals, and both contributed to the own goal by DC captain Steve Birnbaum early in the match.
Midfielder Yordy Reyna and forward McKinze Gaines were running the length of the field all night to create opportunities. Match captain Guzman Corujo held down the defense for Fuchs, who was likely resting to start days later against the Chicago Fire.
What lies ahead for Charlotte FC
Due to a postponed game against Columbus, the team has six matches left at home and five on the road. Seven of the remaining matches are against teams ranked higher than the Crown Club, so for Charlotte to keep their playoff hopes alive home matches against Columbus, Chicago, and Toronto are must-wins. Additionally, Charlotte must pick up at least one win on the road for the playoff math to work; that win will likely come in Cincinnati or Chicago.
The remaining matches against Orlando, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Chicago take on additional importance as those four clubs — in addition to Inter Miami — are the teams in contention for the final playoff spots. Every time Charlotte wins or draws one of those games, they’re depriving the competition of critical playoff points.
Winning the season series against the Chicago Fire — starting with the match on Saturday, Aug. 6 — would likely neutralize at least one of Charlotte’s competitors for playoff glory, as Chicago’s remaining schedule includes top-three teams in New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal (twice).
If Charlotte can win three at home and two on the road, they’ll be able to meet my July prediction of 44 points and possibly a spot in the playoffs. Anything less and the Crown will have to wait until 2023.
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