By Brian Maurer
Anton Walkes (Image courtesy of Charlotte FC)
Charlotte FC’s defensive line had some highs and lows during their inaugural campaign. One of their top moments was putting up a clean sheet against the 2021 MLS Cup champions, NYCFC, while down to ten men. While one of the lowest moments was facing the current MLS Cup champions, LAFC, and giving up five second half goals.
The defensive line also had a decent amount of overhaul and changes throughout the course of the season. Charlotte FC signed two players, Nathan Byrne and Adilson Malanda, who both ended up sliding right into starting positions on the backline by the season's end.
Christian Makoun, who was a regular contributor under Miguel Ángel Ramírez (MAR), was sold to the New England Revolution; and Christian Fuchs, Harrison Afful, and Koa Santos have all had their options declined. Here is an estimation of what Charlotte’s defensive line depth chart looks like going into the winter window:
Right Center Back
Left Center Back
Corujo could easily wind up back in a starting role once he has recovered from his surgery. At this point, however, Malanda and Walkes look primed to be the starters at center back (CB) going into the 2023 season. Byrne also looked like a capable MLS starter in his short stints and will likely maintain a starting spot at right back (RB). Ideally Lindsey and Byrne will provide each other with some competition in training to help improve their performances throughout the 2023 season.
The biggest hole on the defensive line for Charlotte FC is left back (LB). With Fuchs and Afful both having their options declined, and having both spent several minutes at LB this past season, there is going to be some game time up for grabs at LB. Mora started sporadically throughout the season, while Armour missed the majority of the season due to an unfortunate knee injury. This means that unless one of these two makes a major step up in 2023 that Charlotte is likely to spend some money on some LB help. They should definitely have the salary cap space to make a deal happen.
Guaranteed Compensation Reported by MLSPA
Pct of Def. Salary
The table above shows that the LB position currently has the least amount of money invested in it out of all the positions on the Charlotte FC roster. Only 9.7% of the defensive players salary has been devoted to the LB position (compared to 31% for RBs, and 59.3% for CBs). This signals that a LB addition is likely coming.
Charlotte FC should easily have the resources available. When they declined the options of Fuchs, Afful, and Santos they freed up around $750,000 in salary space. While I would not expect all of this salary to be allocated towards an upgrade at LB, I would expect significant investment put towards this position.
Center Back Pairings
Charlotte FC used a 4-back system in all but three of their MLS games in 2022. Out of those 31 games they had five different center back pairings. Here is the list of different pairings with a few advanced stats*.
Times Used (Record)
Makoun & Corujo
9 (2 PK)
Fuchs & Corujo
5 (0 PK)
Walkes & Corujo
11 (1 PK)
Walkes & Sobociński
10 (0 PK)
Walkes & Malanda
8 (0 PK)
Some of the drastic differences in team results points to the value of having stability in a defensive backline especially with the CB pairing. When there are this many different CB pairings playing this many games it can be difficult to find any stability.
For a comparison, the Philadelphia Union used one CB pairing (Glesnes and Elliott) over 30 times this past season. The Union only used one other pairing and that was for two games. They went on to having a tremendous season that ended with a loss in the MLS Cup final. While having defensive stability from their CB pairing was not the only reason for their success, it can definitely be said that this CB pairing being counted on week in and week out was a driving force for them defensively.
Top 7 teams in 2022 MLS Supporters Shield standings
Frequency of most used CB pairing (CB names)
7 games (Murillo & Ibeagha)
32 games (Glesnes & Elliott)
27 games (Gabrielsen & Cascante)
15 games (Callens & Martins)
23 (Hedges & Gil)
Several of the top teams in 2022 had a regular CB pairing that they were able to turn to week in and week out. It should be noted that the two top teams that did not have a regular CB pairing (LAFC and NYCFC) both have a lot of depth at many different positions which is likely a reason they were able to have a decent amount of defensive line rotation and still produce results.
Ideally in Charlotte FC’s second season they find a similar level of consistency from their CB pairing. While some changes are unavoidable, such as Corujo’s season ending injury, the constant adjusting at CB that occurred throughout the season likely hurt the team’s cohesiveness.
However, this was likely going to be unavoidable in an inaugural season, as the entire team was a new face in the organization. The advantage Charlotte FC has going into year two is that they will have four CBs returning to training camp in January. If head coach Christian Lattanzio can decide on his starting CB pairing going into week 1, and is able to stick with it for the majority of the season, I think this would greatly improve Charlotte FC’s chances of having a big year two jump.
In the modern game, especially for a team that wants to possess and progress the ball to attack, full backs are asked to be involved in ball progression as well as their defensive duties. Here is a look at how Charlotte FC’s fullbacks performed in a few different defensive and attacking areas***.
Comp. Passes (final 1/3)/90
Comp. Passes (pen. box)/90
+/- per 90⁺
Tackles Won %
More concerning than any of the underlying advanced statistics is that Charlotte FC fullbacks produced only one assist in total. If Charlotte FC truly want to be able to demonstrate a progressive possession style of soccer they are likely going to need to see more final third production from their fullbacks when they take their chances going forward.
Byrne, in a very small sample size, completed a lot of passes in the final third. Between him and Lindsey, there should be some year two improvement in terms of ball progression and being able to support the attack down the right hand side. I would expect this improvement to be more apparent as Byrne’s playing time increases and as the competition for minutes between both Byrne and Lindsey heats up.
The left hand side is the greater question mark. With Afful and Fuchs getting their options declined Mora and Armour are the only LBs on the roster. Mora’s underlying passing statistics and ball progression statistics were not great. However, he is, statistically, one of the better 1 v 1 tacklers on the team. If Charlotte FC want more of an attacking threat coming down the left hand side they will likely need to shop for some additional support.
Overall, Charlotte FC’s defensive line is probably where they have the fewest amount of question marks. They have four CBs who have all shown an ability to start in MLS. The only real question regarding the CB group is staying healthy and finding the main pairing that will solidify the backline, and that can provide the team with more stability week in and week out. If Charlotte FC can get 20-25 starts out of their main CB pairing next season (compared to only 9 in 2022) then their defense should provide some more consistent results.
Regarding Charlotte FC’s FBs, they are also close to set in terms of need. Their current options at RB appear set, and their options at LB are also capable of filling the role, with some caveats. If Charlotte chooses to improve their defensive line it will most likely happen at LB. They should have the money to make some changes there if they choose to do so.
My final thought on the defensive line is that it was put together quite soundly. As you can see in the guaranteed salary table, above, there is a real balance in spending among all the defensive positions which allows for flexibility and adjustments to be made if the team ever feels the need to do so. This is because Charlotte FC did not overspend on any one player in the defensive line. The players that they did spend more salary on (Corujo and Byrne) are compensated easily by other players that they got good value on (like Walkes and Malanda). With this line being solidified Charlotte FC will likely spend the majority of their attention this offseason on upgrading the attack.
*All stats pulled from FBref unless otherwise reported.
**Excluded CF Montreal and RBNY as they used back 3 formations frequently
***I excluded Christian Fuchs as he spent a lot of time at both CB and LB this past season.
⁺ This stat is referring to the amount of goals that Charlotte FC had minus the amount of goals they conceded while this specific player was on the pitch per 90 minutes.