While I was watching Charlotte FC’s 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ on Saturday, I felt like a high school senior after AP exams. Charlotte had already missed the playoffs due to their loss in the previous match; that wasn’t going to change. The match had to be played, but grades had already been turned in; and in my estimation, despite the playoff disappointment, Charlotte FC’s first season was a success.
While I’m no fan of the Red Bulls, they have a lot to be proud of. They have an enviable purpose-built soccer stadium. They’re consistently in the MLS playoffs. Their supporters’ section is loud, built as standing room only like many European clubs. They’re in the largest metropolitan area in the United States, with demographic diversity that is a perfect fit for soccer.
There are so many reasons they should be drawing crowds, but as I looked around the stadium, the 25,000-seat arena was nowhere close to full. About 100 Charlotte FC ultras made the journey to the final match — due to the relatively low attendance, it was easy to pick out guys like “La Muerte” in the crowd.
By comparison, average attendance for Charlotte FC in Charlotte this season was 35,244 — second in the league. The 2-0 loss wasn’t a great result, but after the match players and fans both were happy and looking forward to 2023.
“The home games really stick out — the fans were unbelievable for us this year,” midfielder Ben Bender told us after the match. “We had a lot of ups and downs, it was a tough way to go out … we want to work hard the next couple of weeks to get prepared for the next season, and we want to be a winning team and be consistent.”
“We have good players everywhere,” winger McKinze Gaines added. “I think that we have a really strong roster around us … I do think we found an identity, something we can build upon for next year.”
Mint Street Blues
It’s hard not to compare where Charlotte FC is right now to Charlotte’s other football team: the Carolina Panthers. Charlotte FC had a good-though-not-great season; is finalizing a long-term contract with its coach; ended the year with a stronger team than ever; and has a growing, energetic fan base. The team has an identity, something interim head coach Christian Lattanzio has been talking about for months.
On the flip side of the same pitch (or field), the same day Charlotte FC ended their season, the Panthers fell to 1-3 with a 37-15 loss at home. The stadium was full of the opposing team’s fans, and Panthers coach Matt Rhule was fired the next day. The Panthers now have an interim coach, but they still haven’t figured out a long-term solution at quarterback. Panthers fans are not happy, and their team hasn’t been to the playoffs in 5 years.
Even without all the other currents that cast doubt on the future of the NFL, I’d much rather be the soccer team.
Then on Monday, the owner of both teams, David Tepper, spoke to the press. It didn’t go well, leading Charlotte Observer columnist David Fowler to instruct Tepper to “be a better owner” and “fix the [Panthers]. And don’t ask for any public money until you do it.”
Fowler’s column is the cherry on top of a bad press year for Tepper. The billionaire has reshuffled his staff multiple times, fired two coaches, is currently being sued by two South Carolina governments, and backed out of commitments to east Charlotte. However, while we at Queen City Nerve believe billionaires shouldn’t exist and represent a public policy failure, what Tepper did with Charlotte FC worked and the team is on the right track for success next year.
With that in mind, here are my final grades for Charlotte FC’s inaugural season.
Record: 42 points, 13 wins, 18 losses, 3 draws
Christian Lattanzio deserves to be promoted to permanent coach after taking over midseason. As a perennial #2 man, Lattanzio had never been a head coach before, but he brought years of experience to the role. Perhaps most valuable was his years of talent development experience, which gave him the skills and the confidence to help players like Brandt Bronico grow into team leaders. Most of the locker room came with him on the journey, and he took a roster that frustrated his predecessor, improved it, and made it his own. Unlike many coaches, his gravitas doesn’t come from volume or anger, which is refreshing in the world of sports. He’s also done a good enough job that Tepper is giving him more money to play with next season.
Front Office: B
The team’s roster got off to a rocky start but the front office made good choices to make the team better, bringing on Karol Świderski, Andre Shinyashiki, Nuno Santos, Adilson Malanda, and Nathan Byrne during the campaign. They could have handled the firing of Miguel Ángel Ramírez better, but the decision itself was the right move and they didn’t wait too long to do it. However, during the offseason they need to strengthen their depth chart at midfield and in goal.
Sir Minty was ranked the scariest mascot in MLS, but he also clearly loves you. Like Sir Purr, he has been knighted; like Homer the Dragon you can imagine someone stealing the costume for a night on the town and being the life of the party. He’s weird like Gritty without being anything like Gritty; he fits the club’s team but he’s also a soccer ball.
I haven’t run into David Tepper at a Panthers game, but he’s always having fun at Charlotte FC matches. He wants Charlotte FC to win and has been there to support the team at big moments. He’s let the coach and the front office make (mostly) good choices. Nevertheless, Charlotte FC tickets are some of the most expensive in the league, and most clubs don’t have the additional personal seat license fee. He also backed out of anchoring the Eastland redevelopment in east Charlotte, taking the path of least resistance instead by putting the team’s HQ at their existing practice facilities in south Charlotte (Note: this grade doesn’t include the Panthers).
Is Charlotte’s roster so good they could regularly beat English Premier League clubs? No (though we’ll always have that Chelsea win). So, to be clear, this grade is about more than just skill.
The players have done right by Charlotte. In general, they’ve been generous with their time for fans, the community, and the media. Players like Karol Świderski and Brandt Bronico have grown into leadership roles, while veterans like Christian Fuchs have led the team on and off the field. Andre Shinyashiki scored multiple goals in the middle of the season, keeping the team afloat. Before his injury, Guzmán Corujo was one of the most exciting defenders to watch in all of MLS.
By the end of the season, Ben Bender was named to the MLS 22 Under 22 list, Świderski and Daniel Ríos won back-to-back MLS player of the week honors, and Świderski earned his designated player tag by becoming a versatile player at center attacking midfielder while still leading the team in goals scored.
On the other hand, the team finished out of the playoffs, and there is absolutely room for improvement. For most of the year, Charlotte fielded an inexperienced midfield that struggled. Goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina has had some struggles in goal and ended up on the wrong side of an MLS record in a critical match. There are players on the back line near the end of their careers, which means that while they make up for it with experience they will get beat by fast, young strikers. The best players will be working hard in the offseason to secure their minutes and better the team.
Supporters’ Groups: A-
Charlotte FC has great fans, and the supporters’ groups have contributed to that experience. They’re loud and proud at every match, and they travel. Despite the party atmosphere, there haven’t been reports of violence or hooliganism. The only reason this isn’t an “A” is because of the truly weird Twitter bot cheating in a fan poll “scandal.”
Extra Credit: Checkmark
I’ve always thought soccer had the potential to be a big success in Charlotte, but this year exceeded my expectations. The fanbase stayed with the team through everything. The players never gave up, and there was an exciting finish to the season for a team that had been written off. In July, halfway through the season, I wrote “The club has shown that it can win at home and on the road. When the team is good, they’re really good — and fun to watch.”
They lived up to that midterm review through the end of the season.
Final Grade: A-