By Brian Maurer
Image courtesy of Charlotte FC
Ben Bender’s first professional season is almost done. After a successful year, which was capped with being awarded a place on the MLS’ 22 under 22 list this past week, I decided to talk with Bender about his season in Charlotte.
The 22 Under 22 List
A few weeks ago Bender would not have known what the 22 under 22 list meant in MLS. When asked about what it meant about being added to this list as a player from the college ranks Bender said, “Well to be honest, I didn’t even know what it was. Someone texted me a picture and I was like ‘what is this?’ and then I looked it up. And yeah, now I’m super thankful and grateful to be honored in that list. Like some of those players are top, top players. So it is just cool to see my name on that list. But I have so much work. And yeah, it's, it's cool to represent NCAA too.”
Bender is clearly not focused on receiving accolades or praise, but rather he chooses to focus on working and getting better. “I don't really focus on my accomplishments, I just focus on how I can help the team and how I fit in with the system and how consistent I am with working hard every day” Bender said when asked what he felt was his biggest accomplishment of the season.
Learning how to fit into a system is difficult for most rookies, but it can be even more difficult if that system changes as it did when Charlotte FC made a coaching change midseason. “Probably the difference in practice, and training, I think the trainings are very, very intense. My body has not recovered as well as the beginning of the season. And I think that's one of the reasons why I haven't been as consistent. And it's good that it's super intense. Because at the next level, everyone's faster, stronger, and they play at a higher tempo.” Bender says on adjusting to interim coach Christian Lattanzio’s coaching philosophy.
While his accomplishments on the field have been noticed by media pundits and MLS staff, what could easily go unnoticed is the respect and care he shows for his teammates. When discussing the most recent Charlotte FC win he makes sure to mention how nice it was to see his teammate, Karol Świderski, score a brace and get to do it in front of his family.
When asked about his most memorable moments of the season Bender mentions his first career goal, but he also makes sure to mention how special a moment it was to see Sergio Ruiz score a goal against Nashville before he was transferred back to Spain. “I always liked Sergio, he was a super funny guy, but helped me on and off the field,” Bender said of his former teammate. Teammates come and go at the professional level quite often, it's one of the many differences between the college level and the pros.
"It's definitely been interesting, because that's just how cutthroat the business is, like people come and go and now, it's definitely been difficult at times because you know, you try and make connections with the teammates and then they leave and then it's like, you might not ever play with them again. But yeah, that's what the tough part about it is" Bender says about dealing with turnover at the professional level. It's another human part of the game that often goes overlooked. Players like Ruiz and Bender can become well connected teammates one day and then play on different continents the next.
But what remains, regardless of the coming and going of players, is the moments that these teammates share. And for Bender, when presented with opportunities to discuss his own accomplishments, he instead brings up the accomplishments of his teammates and how special it was to share those moments with them.
Continuing to work on his skillset is one of Bender’s primary focuses both for the remainder of the season and through the offseason. “Probably getting shots off quicker and long range shooting” Bender says when asked about his skills that he will focus on during the offseason. “And then also I want to focus on when we’re in the building stage, the building out of the back…like if we just win the ball, and people are closing around [me], I want to be able to secure it and really keep possession”.
Bender is aware that he is not the biggest or strongest player, but he is also aware that there are other ways to improve his skillset to help strengthen his ability to maintain possession when building out of the back. “I think a lot of people think that MLS is just a big, strong athletic league, but really using your body is a skill. That's what the best players have” Bender says about ways to improve his play while in possession and working on maintaining stronger positions with his body to help control the ball when in possession and when dealing with pressure.
Besides the strong work rate and focus that Bender discusses, he also shows humility in acknowledging some of his shortcomings and willingness to improve them. Bender has struggled with his willingness to launch shots at the goal, averaging only 1.29* shots per 90 minutes. Out of his attacking stats, increasing his willingness to shoot as well as his accuracy would go a long way towards helping him become the attacking midfielder he wants to become.
Bender’s willingness to discuss his need to become stronger in possession and maintaining possession when under pressure shows his character as this is definitely an area that has been one of his weaker points of his game. Bender leads Charlotte FC’s midfielders in turnovers with 57**. He also gets dispossessed 2.02 times per 90 and fails to gain possession when attempting to control the ball 2.53 times per 90.
All three of these stats are the highest among Charlotte FC midfielders, and demonstrate Bender’s struggle with controlling possession and managing oppositional pressure. Addressing this flaw head on and talking about it shows both an awareness of his weaknesses and a goal oriented focus towards sharpening these skills if he can follow through with hard work in training and during the offseason.
Bender’s offseason outside of soccer is simple and to the point “spending time with my family and my girlfriend” says Bender about his offseason plans off the field.
The US U-20 men’s team recently qualified for the 2024 Olympics. Bender had spent some of his youth training with a few of the players on the squad during camps in Philadelphia. “Paxton Aaronson actually trained up with my team when I was on the U14 team, he was with the Union Juniors and I played with him a little bit”. Bender recalls from his youth academy years. “I always knew Paxton was gonna be a pro…you could just see he has the game inside of him.”
When asked about the possibility of getting a call up to represent the country for the 2024 Olympics alongside USMNT players, such as Aaronson, Bender said “That would be a huge honor. I mean, that's something that I want to try and work towards. It'd be amazing to represent the country. But for now, I want to just, you know, work on the things that I need to get better at, and maybe that'll happen one day.”
Life In Charlotte
Bender seems to have taken to life well in Charlotte “I mean, I love it here. I love the location of it. The weather's good. The city's not too big. It's relatively small. And I like the beach and the mountains. And it's right in between there. So I've been able to get to the Outer Banks and also been able to get out in the mountains…the Asheville, Pisgah, Cherokee area. So yeah, I really like the location of it and I've adapted really well” Bender says of his new life in Charlotte.
Image courtesy of Charlotte FC
“I actually did like two days ago and caught a handful of fish. It was an experience, smallmouth bass. It's my favorite type of fishing. I like trout fishing too, but smallmouth is my favorite” Bender said of a recent fishing trip to Western North Carolina.
Bender’s transition to life in Charlotte seems to have been a smooth one off the field. Life for the rookie on the field has also been pretty good, which is how he received the accolade of being on the MLS 22 under 22 list. He would be the first to say that the work is far from over and that there is plenty of self improvement for him as a player, and that while there have been plenty of ups there have also been downs.
Bender is quick to acknowledge that struggling is not always a bad thing “It's good to fail and to struggle sometimes. It allows you to get better, allows for improvement” he says about some of the difficulties he has faced throughout the season. The improvement is what many fans will be looking forward to seeing from the young midfielder as he transitions into his second season. While the improvement of any player can not be guaranteed from year-to-year, Bender’s work rate, focus and being a quality teammate is a guarantee.
*All stats found on FBref.com unless otherwise mentioned
**Found on MLSsoccer.com