By Vaughn Pollman
Brandt Bronico, image courtesy of Charlotte FC
Welcome to part 3 of 4 of the TopBin90 positional analysis series where we take a deep look at each positional group, how they performed in 2022, and what to expect from the offseason and beyond. Today we will hone in on Charlotte FC’s midfielders as we continue to progress up the field from goalkeepers and defenders.
It is safe to say that throughout the Crown’s inaugural season the midfield player selections were the most varied and performances most volatile among the team’s position groups. Midfield players that were signed and since moved on from the club include Riley McGree, Sergio Ruiz, Alan Franco, Titi Ortiz, and Jordy Alcívar. For much of last offseason those five were viewed as the midfield core. That mass exodus of presumed starters all within a year is not particularly normal and has seen a near complete overhaul to that part of the roster already.
Brandt Bronico emerged and excelled as the most reliable, versatile, and consistent midfield starter. He led the entire team in minutes across all competitions (2,969’) while also being the only member of the team to play in all 34 regular season games. Bronico proved to be the one constant variable in an otherwise turbulent experiment to find the right mix of players throughout the season.
Multiple players were given opportunities with stretches of games to earn their place with the baton being passed for who would rise to the occasion. Aside from the players who have since departed, the other players who were in the mix fighting for their spot in the starting midfield lineup were primarily Ben Bender, Derrick Jones, Quinn McNeill, Nuno Santos, and Karol Świderski.
Bender had a fast start to his rookie season and then a fast burn as the rigors of the season seemed to wear on the #1 SuperDraft pick. Despite his drop in form and drop in consistent minutes his 3 goals and 6 assists were the most goal contributions by a #1 pick since Abu Danladi’s 10 (8 goals, 2 assists) in 2017 for Minnesota United.
Bender acknowledged in an interview that the physicality of the league and his ability to recover after intense training sessions became a challenge for him as the season drew on. It will be interesting to see how he regains minutes and form with the apparent congestion of quality starting-level players in the midfield between him, Bronico, Jones, and Santos.
Jones was added to the team soon after the start of the season but waited until late on to get consistent playing time. Once he settled into being a go-to starter, the team’s form improved. McNeill, an undrafted rookie, earned midsummer minutes as players departed leaving the midfield depth thin until the end of summer transfer window when Santos joined the ranks.
Eventually Świderski was moved into the midfield in the season’s final push and we saw the most fruitful rotation of players with Jones, Bronico, Santos and Świderski. These regulars, paired with a shift in formation, proved to be pivotal.
In both the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1, there is a midfield pivot. In the 4-3-3 it is with the use of “dual 8’s” who are two-way players that play box-to-box and look to exchange opportunities pushing into the attacking line or dropping back into a distribution role when in possession. Their freedom of movement is allowed by a lone defensive midfielder playing underneath them, positionally. In the 4-2-3-1 there is a pairing of “dual 6’s” who play from a deeper central defensive posture and alternate opportunities to make advancing runs into vacated space.
For most of the season Brandt Bronico was tasked with being the lone defensive midfielder with a pivot of rotating midfield pairings playing ahead of him. This led to Bronico having to cover a lot of ground defensively and limiting his ability to get forward into the attack without leaving the team vulnerable in transition moments. Those mishmash midfield pairings proved to be largely hit or miss with no real consistency and many games coming down to our inability to control possession in the middle of the park.
Once Lattanzio made the critical shift to the 4-2-3-1 (honestly a close relative to the 4-3-3), a few things happened. First, it saw Świderski, arguably the team’s most technically gifted player, put into a creative midfield role. Not as a traditional playmaking 10 role, but not far from it. It allowed Świderski to be more involved with more touches than when he was deployed on the forward line.
Secondly it saw Jones and Bronico paired together in a deeper-lying pivot with Bronico having more freedom in a box-to-box role to get forward and make late-arriving runs either into space vacated by the wingers or by making late-arriving runs into the box, to great effect. This freedom of range was largely possible due to Jones’ stalwart defending, ability to win aerial duels due to his size, and propensity to maintain possession with the ball at his feet, often using his strength to hold off pressuring defenders. That size and physicality was unique to Jones’ skillset and something the midfield lacked without his inclusion.
How Jordy Alcívar’s Departure Changes Things
Jordy Alcívar was recently sold to Ecuadorian side Independiente del Valle. The move allows him to return to his home country and pursue more regular minutes while providing Charlotte FC some rather significant roster relief and flexibility. Alcívar’s minutes and impact on the field were a bit mercurial and ultimately fell short of the expectations for a typical Young Designated Player. His role on the club just diminished over time.
Prior to being transferred, the club had indicated that both Alcívar and Kamil Jóźwiak’s salaries were in a range that would allow the club to buy down their Designated Player statuses. Based on Alcívar’s 2022 salary and the publicly available details of his incoming transfer from LDU Quito, Charlotte FC would have needed to budget approximately $125,000 of allocation money to buy down that roster designation. He also was an international player, so without a green card and US domestic status, the club may have needed to spend additional allocation money to acquire additional international roster spots, which the market for that is between $200,000 to $250,000 of allocation money.
By selling Alcívar now, the club recoups their investment in acquiring him and saves upwards of $350,000 of allocation money budget while also vacating the very valuable Designated Player or Young Designated Player roster slot that he occupied.
DP CAM 4 CLTFC?
With Alcívar’s roster spot open, does Charlotte look to bolster their roster this offseason by targeting to sign a center attacking mid to a DP contract? As the offseason began and evaluations of the state of the roster were being made, many have suggested that compared to other teams across the league, Charlotte FC lacks a traditional playmaking center attacking midfielder, or #10.
While Karol Świderski saw minutes in that role in the final stretch of the season, and performed well there, it is not his natural position. So, for the sake of this argument we will not classify Świderski as a DP #10 but as a forward, despite his positional versatility.
When you look across the league most contending teams have a player at the 10 who is a difference maker, gamechanger, and rhythm setter with the ability to lead the team or league in important statistical categories such as key passes, assists, and goals. Just looking across the Eastern Conference you see the likes of Daniel Gazdag, Maxi Moralez, Carles Gil, Alejandro Pozuelo, Lucas Zelarayán, and Lucho Acosta setting the tone for their clubs.
Those are all Designated Players who have led their team to successful campaigns and been included in MLS Best XI or MVP conversations in recent seasons. In MLS there is arguably no position more influential to a team’s ceiling than the #10.
From the outside looking in, the logical approach would be for the club to pursue that true #10 to quickly elevate the club’s chances for success within the league, despite the end of year form.
Instead, the club appears to be pursuing another forward. The transfer rumors have been swirling around Charlotte FC possibly bringing in Racing Club’s Enzo Copetti, who would absolutely be classified as a DP.
He has played primarily as a goal scoring forward in Argentina, meaning if he were added to the current roster, Lattanzio would have to figure out a plan to get both him and Świderski on the field together, assuming Świderski is not transferred out of the club.
Would that require one of them to play as a winger, to shift to a two-striker formation, or continue to play Świderski underneath Copetti as a second striker or attacking midfielder? If that is the case, is Świderski able to have that level of impact of the aforementioned 10’s? Only time will tell as there are still question marks surrounding who is ultimately brought in.
What Is Charlotte FC's Best Midfield Grouping?
Looking at the players who are currently on the squad and the lineups that were working as the season came to a close, it seems the top of the midfield depth chart includes Karol Świderski, Nuno Santos, Derrick Jones, Brandt Bronico, and Ben Bender. Some mix of those five players will most likely earn the bulk of midfield starts, barring additions, injuries, or departures. It seemed clear that a major tenet of Lattanzio’s coaching philosophy involves giving players opportunities in multiple roles.
For example, we saw Świderski play as a striker and as a central midfielder. We saw Bronico as a central defensive midfielder and as a more box-to-box midfielder.
In year two there will likely be more experimenting of roles, but if Lattanzio strikes gold with a certain formation and set of regulars, we can expect to see a more consistent lineup selection and set of tactics.
Based on end-of-year form and balance of skillsets, the best grouping appears to be Jones and Santos in a pivot with Świderski playing ahead of them. This once again places Bronico as the odd man out, but he just does not have the size and physicality of Jones, nor the technical level of Santos.
This does not mean Bronico will not start, just that he could see a regression to the mean in terms of minutes played. His versatility to play both of those roles means he will still get spot starts, could prove to be the full-time starter at one of those roles, and can be a weapon off the bench. He will be an active part of that rotation and so will Bender.
Of course, a lot can change throughout a season, including an overhaul of personnel and tactics, but the midfield players that are on the roster today leave us in an overall better situation heading into year two than what transpired in year one. Players seem to be in better defined roles and their skillsets are both versatile and complement one another. With that we will see if stability in the group pays dividends when it comes to results.