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Charlotte FC Hosts Atlanta This Week, but What Happened in Philly?

During Charlotte Football Club’s first five weeks, there was never a time I felt disappointed. I was frustrated by some bad calls, and sad about some bad luck, but for the most part I was alternately content, optimistic, and excited about the play on the field.

Then I watched the first 20 minutes of Charlotte FC’s away match against Philadelphia Union, and like a parent who “isn’t mad,” I was just disappointed. 

The match at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, came after a two-game winning streak powered by the trio of Polish forward Karol Świderski, American midfielder Ben Bender, and Croatian goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina. 

Unfortunately, the City of Brotherly Love was not friendly to Charlotte this past weekend; not only did Philadelphia Union beat an uncharacteristically weak Charlotte FC team, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the playoff-bound Charlotte Hornets in a Saturday afternoon game. 

I’ll be honest: after the first half of the Philadelphia Union match, I switched to the instant-classic UNC/Duke Final Four game, and had to watch the second half of the soccer match on DVR. Knowing the final score and knowing the poor play continued did not make it a joyful viewing experience. Hopefully, it gets better from here.

I’ll break down the win against FC Cincinnati, the loss to Philadelphia Union, and Charlotte FC’s prospects in the team’s first-ever rematch below.

The real Queen City

After winning their first game in Week 4, Charlotte played FC Cincinnati at home, debuting their black and mint-colored community kit for the first time.

The first bit of good news came from the starting 11: Świderski took the field despite injury worries that are keeping him in the United States and away from international play. 

The striker scored both of Charlotte’s goals – the first one coming off an assist from Bender. Kahlina finally earned his first (and so far only) clean sheet, and was the Man of the Match. While Cincinnati had multiple chances during the match, Kahlina stood between FC Cincinnati and any hope of leaving Charlotte with a win or a draw.

Charlotte FC
Charlotte FC beat the Cincinatti Union in a shutout at Bank of America Stadium on March 26. (Photo by Sam Spencer)

The second win immediately catapulted Charlotte to 8th in the MLS table, one spot ahead of FC Cincinnati due to tiebreakers. Charlotte’s goal differential was down to -1 after slowly recovering from dropping three unanswered goals in the first game of the season against DC United – though it would be back down to -3 after the Philadelphia match.

Surprisingly, no Charlotte player made the MLS Team of the Week after both Świderski and Charlotte coach Miguel Angel Ramirez made the team in Week 4. Just as Queen City Nerve is the real QCN, Charlotte FC demonstrated why our Queen City is the real Queen City.

A full analysis of the match is available on my Substack, Sam’s Soccer Sheet.

Real problems

At some point, Charlotte was going to have a bad day; and after two matches in which they scored in fewer than seven minutes, the Crown Club learned what it felt like to be demoralized early.

Until Saturday, Charlotte hadn’t given up a goal in any game until the 37th minute at the earliest, and they hadn’t given up a non-penalty goal until the 6th minute of first half stoppage time. As both of those were against DC United, Charlotte hadn’t given up a goal in the first half in four straight games – pretty good for an expansion club.

Philly was quick to take advantage of Charlotte’s early disorganization. In only the 4th minute of the match, an amazing pass from Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner to forward Sérgio Santos landed right in front of his boot downfield. Santos passed to Philadelphia forward Julián Carranza right in front of the goal. Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina wasn’t prepared for an early assault. Philadelphia scored, and it all went downhill from there.

Charlotte FC
Goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

That’s not to be critical of the first-half play of Kahlina, who currently leads the league in saves with 25. He should have never felt that much pressure that early in the match, and it’s inexcusable that Charlotte gave up a goal so quickly with so many defensive players.

For the first 20 minutes, Philadelphia’s defense looked impenetrable. Their midfield was playing harder and running faster, holding on to possessions and winning challenges left and right.

Then, in the 20th minute, a foul on Charlotte midfielder Sergio Ruiz and a yellow card on Philadelphia midfielder José Andrés Martínez Torres changed the momentum. A foul on Świderski in the 23rd minute led to a free kick in Union territory, but Charlotte couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Right-back Jaylin Lindsey kept up aggressive play that led to multiple corners for Charlotte, but while the momentum and possession came back to Charlotte for the latter part of the first half, they failed to find good shots on goal.

The Philly façade began to crack in the 29th minute as Philadelphia took a corner kick to nowhere from the right side of Charlotte’s goal. Philadelphia won a free kick in the 32nd minute off a Ben Bender foul, but it was immediately returned to sender. After the disappointing start for Charlotte, the only other notable event was a nice-looking Ben Bender shot that simply wouldn’t go in.

At the beginning of the second half came a defensive mistake so bad it has to be seen to be believed. Philadelphia had Charlotte’s defense under immense pressure after fewer than two minutes of play. Kahlina tried to move the ball upfield by passing to Ruiz, but it quickly came back to him due to Philly’s pressure.

Ben Bender (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

Kahlina was playing far away from the goal on the right wing at that point, and then under pressure himself, he made a terrible pass straight to the boot of Philadelphia midfielder Dániel Gazdag. Charlotte captain Christian Fuchs sprinted towards the open net, but it was too late, and Gazdag took a wide open shot to net Philly’s second goal of the match.

Charlotte got better after this fatal error and ended up having possession for almost 60% of the game in the end. However, Świderski – the key to the offense – didn’t get a shot on target the entire game. What gives?

Charlotte came out of the gate with a defense-focused 5-4-1 formation, with star striker Świderski at the tip of the spear. The conservative formation reminded me of my Bundesliga team 1. FC Union Berlin, except that the Eisern Union is known for their solid defense. So far, Charlotte is not. 

Furthermore, the only other time Charlotte played in a 5-4-1, they gave up three goals to DC United; a similar 4-1-4-1 formation led to the should-have-been-a-draw loss to Atlanta. At halftime, the fan commentary was swift to condemn the formation; that criticism continued after the final result.

Post-game analysis of Charlotte’s passing network showed some issues with this formation. Philadelphia’s strong defense neutralized Świderski, something that might have been harder with a second forward as opposed to a striker-focused foundation.

By effectively taking Charlotte’s star player out of the game, Philadelphia forced bad shots. Charlotte was able to pass the ball all around the midfield, but couldn’t get it to Świderski’s boot. The result? Charlotte took 10 shots, only one (by Ruiz) was on target, and none made it in the goal.

Real opportunities

After six weeks, Charlotte has six points from two wins and sits in 9th place in the Eastern Conference table – two spots out of the playoffs. It’s still early, and while Charlotte FC needs to work on its goal differential in case of eventual tiebreakers, they are still in a good position to be the Queen City’s first major league team to make the playoffs in its inaugural season.

On Sunday, as perhaps the brightest spot in a month of challenging fixtures, Charlotte has its first chance at revenge as Atlanta United comes to Crown Town on April 10. If you recall, Atlanta allowed the first-ever goal for Charlotte FC, and the inaugural rivalry match in ATL was tied until the 96th minute of play.

While Atlanta is 3rd in the Eastern Conference right now, Charlotte will have the home-field advantage and has won two of three matches in the Queen City. The hometown boys have a good shot at a win or draw.

Charlotte FC
Christian ‘Titi’ Ortiz in Charlotte FC’s first match against Atlanta United. (Photo by Taylor Banner/Charlotte FC)

It’s been a little less than a month, but Charlotte FC is a different team than they were the last time they played Atlanta. They’ve had time to figure out what works (Karol Świderski, Ben Bender, Kristijan Kahlina) and what doesn’t (formations with five backs and defense-heavy formations in general). 

This is a team that finds joy and success on offense, and has a midfield that will continue to improve, especially when Charlotte’s other Polish designated player – winger Kamil Jozwiak – finally has the chance to play.

If Charlotte finds a way to break through on offense (giving the midfield another option at forward would help) and neutralize Atlanta striker Josef Martínez, Charlotte could be looking at another winner at home. MLS teams in the same conference play one another twice per regular season, so this is Charlotte’s only chance to split the I-85 series this year – or win it by beating Atlanta by two goals or more.

Sam Spencer is a lifelong soccer fan and supporter of 1. FC Union Berlin in the Bundesliga. His column runs every other week in Queen City Nerve. Follow him on Twitter at @choosesam and for more frequent soccer updates, subscribe to Sam’s Soccer Sheet.

PS: Congratulations to Jarrett Harmon, winner of our first-ever “Score Sam’s Seats” giveaway. If you’re looking for tickets to a future match, I’ll have a couple more giveaways this year, but the only way to win is if you’re subscribed to our soccer coverage.

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