Since Queen City Nerve last wrote about Charlotte Football Club, the 2022 campaign has gone relatively well. Charlotte won the revenge match at home against Atlanta thanks in part to the absence of Atlanta striker Josef Martinez, but mostly due to Charlotte midfielder Jordy Alcivar’s Olimpico.
The next week, Charlotte was on the other side of the revenge sword as they gave up an away match to the New England Revolution, and an away win in MLS play continues to be elusive.
Last week, Charlotte won its first-ever away match in the U.S. Open Cup, a knockout tournament that runs concurrently during the MLS season, and on Saturday the club finally won a point away from home, earning a high-altitude draw against the Colorado Rapids. When you’re an expansion team, you get to experience a lot of “firsts,” for better or worse.
After nine MLS matches – and one U.S. Open Cup match – we’re getting a much better idea of what to expect from the Charlotte Football Club. Aside from the 0-1 loss to the LA Galaxy early in the season, Charlotte hasn’t conceded a point at home, and has only allowed one goal in three home fixtures.
While home-field advantage is important, Charlotte has won only one point in five away matches and only scored two goals away from Bank of America Stadium in MLS play.
Another way of putting it: The games I’ve seen in person have been a lot more fun than the ones I’ve caught on TV. On the bright side, Charlotte is currently 8th in Eastern Conference standings, firmly in the playoff race.
Let’s break down the past, present, and future …
Atlanta United… again
Right now, no team in the MLS wants to face Charlotte at home. There were 32,496 fans in attendance for the April 10 home fixture against Atlanta, and as soon as Alcivar scored a franchise-first Olimpico (a goal scored by a player taking a direct shot from a corner kick) in the 11th minute of play, the match was Charlotte’s to lose. The Olimpico came on the third successive corner kick for Charlotte; the team’s early pressure on Atlanta created a lead that was never challenged.
The game also saw a breakout performance from defender Jaylin Lindsay, who inked a long-term deal to stay in Charlotte the week before the Atlanta match. Along with other young players like Ben Bender, Charlotte native Lindsay represents the future of the club – and based on his play against Atlanta, that future is bright.
Revolution No. 13
Back in March, Charlotte handedly defeated the New England Revolution 3-1 at home, and the team currently sits in second-to-last place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. All the ingredients were there for Charlotte to pick up its first road win, but it was not to be. The match was hampered by rain, which kept fans out of the stands but added a new element for Charlotte FC to contend with on the pitch.
Then, after an energetic start from New England, Charlotte dropped a goal in the first 8 minutes to the Revolution’s 25-year-old Polish designated player (sound familiar?) Adam Buksa. A couple of passes got the ball to wide-open New England defender Brandon Bye on the right corner of the 18-yard box, and Bye executed a perfect chip to the 6-yard line that led to an accurate Buksa header.
Charlotte didn’t score in the first half, but did well otherwise. Lindsay and Charlotte captain Christian Fuchs made plays and attempts downfield, and the defense spanned the pitch with the vitality of a European team. Designated player Karol Świderski had two good looks in the first 30 minutes, including a monster shot on target from a free kick. While goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina couldn’t keep the early header out, he came up with characteristic big saves, like this quick response to a volley from New England midfielder Matt Polster.
After 71 minutes, Polster finally made it through due to a defensive breakdown in the 6-yard box. New England midfielder Carles Gil used a free kick to pass to midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who took a wide-open shot from 20 yards out. Kahlina saved the ball but didn’t catch it, and it bounced out to defender Guzmán Corujo, who proceeded to make one of the bigger unforced errors of Charlotte’s first campaign. Instead of clearing the ball to the left or right, Corujo tried to kick it forward, causing the ball to ricochet right off Polster and into the goal.
Christian “Titi” Ortiz came in for Jordy Alcivar, and in the 85th minute took a huge shot from 20 yards out off a Sergio Ruiz assist, scoring a joker goal for Charlotte and making the 72nd minute mix-up even more tragic. With only five minutes plus stoppage time left to play, Charlotte didn’t have time to score an equalizer and yet again walked off an opposing team’s pitch with no points to show for it.
Another I-85 rivalry is born
On Wednesday, April 20, Charlotte traveled down to Greenville for its first match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The match was hosted by the USL1 (the third tier of US soccer) Greenville Triumph at a small venue with a sellout crowd of 4,064, a team record.
If you’re wondering why an MLS team (top tier) is playing the soccer equivalent of a Double-A baseball team, in addition to league play (MLS, EPL, Bundesliga, etc), many countries have a knockout cup tournament that is slightly less prestigious than league play (the Open Cup in the US, the Football Association Cup in England, and the DFB-Pokal in Germany).
A cup championship is often the gateway to international play; the U.S. Open Cup winner wins a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, which covers North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The only other way for an MLS team to make it into the Champions League is to win the MLS Cup playoff or have the best regular season record in one of the two MLS conferences. Those outcomes are unlikely for Charlotte FC in the team’s infancy.
For an expansion team like Charlotte to make it into international play, the Open Cup is a much more plausible path than having one of the best records in MLS play. MLS teams have an added benefit; they enter the tournament in the third or fourth round. The match against Greenville took place in the tournament’s third round.
Knowing they’d have a tough match in Colorado, Charlotte deployed their B-squad for cup play. After 59 minutes, the match was tied 1-1 and Charlotte brought in their usual starters, though stars like goalkeeper Kahlina and striker Świderski weren’t on the roster for the match. Ben Bender, Brandt Bronico, Daniel Ríos and — for the first time — Polish designated player Kamil Jóźwiak all came on in the 64th minute. Ríos was so eager to get on the field that he jumped the gun and earned a yellow card before even getting the chance to play.
Even with the starters, even with the difference in skill levels, even with the loud presence of the Mint City Collective and other supporters groups that made the short trip to Greenville, Charlotte still played like a team that struggles away from home. Because the game was an elimination match, it went to extra time, and it took Charlotte until the 106th minute to find the goal they needed to advance to the fourth round.
Charlotte will face the Richmond Kickers away at 6:30 p.m. on May 11th in their next Open Cup match. No, not that Richmond.
Mile High after 4/20
After the Open Cup match, Charlotte flew to Denver with their usual starting squad intact, but didn’t bring Jóźwiak. Meanwhile, the Colorado Rapids debuted their new designated player, U.S. National Team striker Gyasi Zardes, whom they acquired last week from the Columbus Crew. Despite the new firepower for Colorado and the usual suspects back on the field for Charlotte, neither side scored a goal during a hard-fought but mostly uneventful match.
While Charlotte may have been the better team on Saturday, the 0-0 draw was not an unexpected result; the Rapids are notoriously good at home due to their mastery of high-altitude play. In fact, the result extended Colorado’s streak to 20 games without a loss at home — the 7th longest streak of its kind in MLS history. To Charlotte’s credit, they picked up a point on the road for the first time in MLS play — a draw on the road against a tough opponent is nothing to sulk at.
Charlotte FC’s defense played well, and Kahlina’s usual heroics in goal weren’t required. In the other net, Colorado goalkeeper William Yarbrough was clearly the man of the match, denying Charlotte’s attacks with six saves throughout the night. The final one of those saves — in the first minute of stoppage time — denied a goal to McKinze Gaines, who came off the bench and created a play by sprinting past Colorado’s defenses to take an open shot from the right side of the 18-yard box.
Gaines’ decision was immediately controversial. Świderski had broken free as well and was wide open in front of the goal; it would be an understatement to say fans were not happy. In Gaines’ defense, his sprint made the play possible, and he may have decided to go for the winning goal if he thought Świderski was offsides; but not passing to an open player (much less the team’s star striker) at a critical moment is always going to rub some of the fan base the wrong way, especially if it’s the difference between a win and a draw.
The Florida fixtures
Charlotte FC plays Orlando City SC in Florida on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., then comes back to host Inter Miami CF on Saturday, May 7 at 3:30 p.m. in Bank of America Stadium. Orlando City is coming off a 0-3 loss on Sunday to the New York [Energy Drinks], but despite the loss they still occupy the third spot in Eastern Conference standings. Inter Miami started the season poorly, but just pulled off an unexpected upset of Atlanta United at home and have improved to 9th on the table.
For whatever reason, Orlando City isn’t playing well at home, and have lost three of five fixtures at home this campaign with a goal differential of -3. Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato (who also goes by the mononym “Pato”) has scored the most goals at home for Orlando City this season, and the former AC Milan player is joined up front by Austrian designated player Ercan Kara, who joined Orlando City this year. If Orlando continues to play poorly at home, Charlotte has another chance at earning their first road win.
Inter Miami has been completely unpredictable this year. The last time Queen City Nerve published an article about soccer on April 7, Miami had 1 point and no wins in MLS play. Now, they’re on a three-game winning streak, having defeated the Revolution, the Seattle Sounders, and Atlanta. It will be interesting to see which Inter Miami team shows up on May 7; if you want to attend, we’re giving away another pair of tickets for the upcoming Charlotte FC game.
Hopefully, I’ll see you there.