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Three Important Questions for Charlotte FC

The road to the Open Cup is about to get tougher

Charlotte FC
Derrick Jones coming at ya. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

Charlotte FC played in its second-ever Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup game against the Richmond Kickers on Wednesday. Richmond debuted a new “Midnight Cookie” kit based on a beloved baked good from their sponsor, Ukrop’s, and they came out of the gate super strong.

It was all downhill for the Kickers from there as Charlotte scored five goals to one and advanced to the round of 16 in the Open Cup.

While the Kickers are a third-division team and Charlotte would always be favored in this matchup, even on the road and without Karol Świderski on the front line or Kristijan Kahlina in goal, Charlotte FC was dominant for the entire match.

While Richmond had more shots on goal, goalkeeper George Marks had some terrific saves, punching a shot out of play in the 29th minute and keeping a clean sheet until an unlucky shot by Richmond’s Zacarías Morán deflected off Charlotte defender Jan Sobociński, changed paths, and went into the goal.

Charlotte FC, McKinze Gaines
McKinze Gaines scored two (count ’em, two) in Charlotte FC’s Open Cup match against the Richmond Kickers. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

Daniel Ríos (assisted by Yordy Reyna), Reyna (assisted by Christian Ortiz), and Andre Shinyashiki (a joker) all scored for Charlotte, and McKinze Gaines brought home a brace (assisted by Reyna both times). After two Open Cup matches, Gaines is Charlotte’s lead scorer with two goals, and Reyna leads the team with three assists. You can watch all the highlights here.

Three major questions

After 11 MLS fixtures and two Open Cup appearances, I have more questions than answers about Charlotte FC. At home, this team looks great. New addition Andre Shinyashiki, in from Colorado, made it clear this week that he believes the fans are the difference. When I talked to Andre at Saturday’s postgame press conference, I wanted to know how his experience with the Rapids — a notoriously hard team to face at home — would translate to Charlotte, where the fan base is intent on being the difference maker at home. 

“In Colorado, when teams came to play there we knew they were going to struggle in the end because of the altitude. Here in Charlotte, it’s the fans – they get loud, it’s suffocating for teams to come here,” said Shinyashiki. Or to put it as Coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez did, “What’s going on here is simply amazing. The atmosphere that you’ve got here in this stadium is amazing.”

On the road, however, Charlotte hasn’t found a way to put the pieces together. In spite of the big win in Richmond, they don’t have a road win yet in MLS play. The team’s weakness away from Charlotte is making me skeptical of their playoff chances.

Here are my burning questions as we approach the halfway mark in Charlotte FC’s inaugural campaign:

Can Charlotte FC be the first top-flight expansion team in the Queen City to make the playoffs in their first campaign?

Let’s take the most important question first. My answer is “Yes, but…”

Charlotte has the skill and the coach to be a playoff team. Their record at home is 4-0-1 for 12 points out of a possible 15. They’ve defeated two teams that are ahead of them on the Eastern Conference table, and Charlotte is only one spot (8th) out of the playoffs.

There are some clear breakout starts on this team, and Coach Ramírez has made some adjustments to give the squad more depth and resilience to injuries and exhaustion. Players like former Rookie of the Year Andre Shinyashiki are here because they want to be here.

Charlotte FC defender Harrison Afful in Wednesday’s match against Richmond. (Photo by Taylor Banner/FC)

However, Charlotte keeps forcing me to ask this question due to their play away from Bank of America Stadium. Their record in MLS away matches stands at 0-1-5; 1 point out of a possible 18. Ironically, their only road point this season came from a draw in Colorado, a notoriously hard place to play due to the altitude. In addition to the point, they came back with a new player from the Colorado Rapids (Shinyashiki), who already has a goal for the team.

The time between June 25 to July 9 will be a critical stretch for the team, with four MLS fixtures in 15 days. If Charlotte qualifies for the Open Cup semifinal things get tougher: a monster five MLS fixtures and one Open Cup appearance from June 18 to July 9, with the Open Cup opponent likely to be an MLS club as well. 

The toughest opponents Charlotte will face during this stretch are CF Montréal, currently third in the East, on Canadian soil; and Austin FC, currently second in the West, at home. These stretches will test whether or not Coach Ramírez added enough depth to pick up points away and remain resilient at home.

Can Charlotte FC win the Open Cup in their first year?

I’ve gone over the stakes of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before, but it bears repeating: the Open Cup winner plays internationally, winning a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental qualifier for the FIFA Club World Cup. This year’s Champions League tournament just wrapped, with MLS squad the Seattle Sounders crowned champions over Mexico City’s Club Universidad Nacional, A.C. Pumas.

Charlotte played relatively poorly in their first Open Cup game against Greenville, but much of that performance had to do with fielding a weaker team to give the starters a break. Goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and forward Karol Świderski were benched, among others. This isn’t uncommon; MLS clubs tend to prioritize league play, and Charlotte was saving its starters for a tough road match in Colorado.

At Saturday’s postgame press conference, I asked Coach Ramírez if we were going to see a stronger starting lineup in Charlotte’s second Open Cup match. He said, “It will depend on the recovery … we need to assess them, how they recover after the game and how they’re ready to compete.” On Wednesday, we got an answer as Charlotte fielded important scorers and playmakers Ríos, Reyna, Shinyashiki, and Gaines, but kept Świderski, Kahlina and a recovering Fuchs at home.

They didn’t need the big names to win 1-5, and George Marks was a welcome surprise in goal; however, the path to the Open Cup is significantly rougher from here on out. Of the 16 teams left in the Open Cup, 13 are MLS squads. From the Eastern Conference, the second-place New York Red Bulls and fourth-place Orlando City SC lead the pack after the latter defeated Philadelphia in the round of 32. From the Western Conference, overall league points leader LAFC and third place LA Galaxy lead the pack.

The next match will be on May 25 against the Red Bulls at their stadium in New Jersey. To keep up with that level of competition, Charlotte is going to have to bring out the big guns and play their heart out to find a way to score their first win on the road.

Where has Karol Świderski been?

Speaking of big guns (with apologies to Lloyd Sam, I refuse to call him the “Polish Pistol”), where is Karol Świderski? Recent matches have posed the question, but I’ve been hesitant to talk about this without a larger sample size: Did forward Świderski’s early braces set unrealistic expectations?

The team has put a lot of pressure on Świderski to be Charlotte’s key to victory. He’s a designated player who occupies an international slot on the team. He’s scored four goals this season; the rest of the team has scored six total and no other player has scored more than one. He’s been on the pitch for an average of 85 minutes per game, which is a lot for a forward. 

He leads the team in shots (26) and shots on target (16); the next closest player in each column is Daniel Ríos with 17 shots, and Jordy Alcívar with six shots on target. Alcívar, however, has been the most accurate shooter on the team, with 67% of his shots on target.

Karol Świderski of Charlotte FC
Karol Świderski in a tight situation during Charlotte FC’s March 19 match against the New England Revolution. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

Other teams know Charlotte has built their offense around the Polish prodigy. He’s suffered 22 fouls, almost twice as many as anyone else on the squad. Only defender Guzmán Corujo and forward Christian Ortiz come close, with 12 and 10 fouls committed against them respectively. The focus from opposing defenders may be why he hasn’t scored a goal since his second against Cincinnati on March 26, seven matches ago.

He seems more frustrated on the pitch as of late. Sometimes it seems like Świderski is playing a different game, making beautiful crosses that his teammates can’t get to in time, or getting just open enough to be a threat, but not getting the ball. The midfield often struggles to get him the ball, and after a couple games where the midfield was playing well, Charlotte has started to rely on blasts from the back line to the front line to get things started — skipping the midfield entirely.

It’s not a surprise, then, that Coach Ramírez sought out more offensive firepower. With an admittedly small sample size, Andre Shinyashiki is currently the most efficient player on the roster with one goal in three attempts. 

I asked Coach Ramírez about Shinyashiki’s first game with Charlotte FC after Saturday’s win against Miami. “I’m happy with him and I’m happy for him today,” the coach responded. “He wanted something new in his career and he chose Charlotte … Hopefully it’s just the beginning.” 

Ramírez credited Shinyashiki and other new offensive additions with giving Charlotte the depth to break through Miami’s defense, and the hometown crowd with helping Charlotte improve to a four-game winning streak at home — one away from the MLS expansion record. 

We won’t have to wait long for answers

Charlotte has two Canadian contests coming up, beginning on Saturday, May 14, against CF Montreal, followed by a match on Sunday, May 22, against Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Montreal is third in the Eastern Conference and the match is shaping up to be Charlotte’s hardest at home since the opener against the Galaxy.

Montreal beat Orlando City 4-1 at home a week after Charlotte lost to Orlando 2-1 on the road. They come to Bank of America Stadium with a 2-2-2 record on the road, and with multiple offensive threats. Midfielder Djordje Mihailovic has five goals this season, and four other players have two or more. 

On the other hand, May 22 should be a good game for anyone you’re trying to get to drink the electric-blue-colored Charlotte FC Kool-Aid. Vancouver has two wins and one draw in MLS play this year. They have yet to bring home any points from the road, and they have not one but two matches — a Saturday fixture against San Jose, and a Wednesday match against FC Dallas — between now and the match with Charlotte.

After what should be a tough match against Montreal, Charlotte FC will look forward to meeting a tired team that doesn’t play well on the road.

Unfortunately, the Vancouver match is the first home game I’ll miss (I’ll be watching from a hotel in Germany), so get out there and cheer extra hard for me. What am I saying? The team can’t hear me from the press box anyway.

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