By Sam Vanolinda
Photo courtesy of CJ Hellner
Charlotte FC did it.
After all of the peaks and valleys within the second season for this team, all the heartbreaking losses, points dropped, questionable decisions from both players and coaches and everything in between, when it mattered most, the team showed up.
Despite patches of pink within the stadium who had come to see the spectacle that is Lionel Messi, the energy from the supporters section to the upper bowl lifted Charlotte FC to a 1-0 win with a conclusion that Shakespeare couldn’t even write up.
Kristijan Kahlina proved that football is a game of inches with his heroic late-game saves, which were topped by his fingertip, save-of-the-season-worthy stop from a Leonardo Campana glancing header:
Kerwin Vargas, who had been seeing little playing time until lately, scored the decisive goal in the first half. Brecht Dejaegere pulled the strings in a creative role. Brandt Bronico hustled across the pitch. Adilson Malanda made some key blocks and tackles after having to play on a yellow card for most of the game. Jere Uronen came back and provided an incredible performance, helping slow down Messi himself - the entire team stepped up to the moment and should be proud of the result they produced.
As well as the energy from the fans in the stadium encouraging the team, Anton Walkes' daughter was led out onto the field by captain Ashley Westwood before the game, and Kahlina attributes the late heroics to her support:
“When I saw her in front of me…it gives me some bigger power,” Kahlina said post-game.
Despite the euphoria of this result and Wildcard qualification, there is now a playoff game to focus on, which will be away versus New York Red Bulls - who dramatically snatched the 8th spot from Charlotte FC Saturday when they scored an extra-time penalty versus Nashville.
This is incredibly their 14th straight playoff appearance, so the matchup will include a club with tons of playoff pedigree against a second-year team with their first taste of playoff action.
The winner of this wildcard game in New York will go on to face Cincinnati in a three-game away-home-away series on the road towards the Audi Cup.
Here are the keys to Wednesday’s game:
Players to Watch
21-year-old U.S Mens National Team prospect John Tolkin already has the composure of a veteran player after he buried the extra-time penalty versus Nashville, saving the team's season in the dying seconds.
He highlights an impressive backline that is the key to any success for the club. The Jersey-born Tolkin has shown impressive offensive numbers this season, with three goals and six assists.
In the attacking third, Brazilian attacking midfielder Luquinhas and American Frankie Amaya are players that Charlotte’s backline should key in on; they have combined for eight goals and nine assists this year.
The Red Bulls don't have a dominant forward like Charlotte has with Świderski. The goals have been spread around the team this year, so Charlotte should be prepared for offense to come from any opposing players on the field.
It is obvious that the Red Bulls pride themselves on defense, as they showed against an amazing Nashville team on Saturday, holding them to a clean sheet.
They have only scored 36 goals this year, nine less than Charlotte, but they have only given up 39, compared to 52 for the Crown. This match looks to be a defensive battle, as Charlotte’s defense has picked up in the latter stages of the season.
Dealing with the Press
All eyes will be on the ability of Andrew Privett and Adilson Malanda to deal with the pressure that the Red Bulls will put on the back line.
They did a great job Saturday against Inter Miami, showing composure and building attacks– that will be needed again, especially in a playoff atmosphere on the road.
Red Bulls will try to be aggressive and catch Charlotte making mistakes, as many teams have this season. That being said, if Charlotte can make it through that high press, they will have a lot of space in behind.
The Crown will look to take advantage of the opportunities that they have when they break the Red Bulls press, so it will be important for Charlotte's wingers and Świderski in the middle to push forward with intelligence in those situations.
Enzo Copetti will also be key. If he times his runs right, he will have the opportunity to make a mark on this match.
Charlotte will miss Ben Bender, as it was announced today by Lattanzio that Bender would be having knee surgery today. He has three goals total against the Red Bulls and can thrive with space on that right-hand side.
Charlotte FC has never beaten the Red Bulls on the road. They had a two-goal lead erased in the road matchup earlier this season – the odds may not be in the Crown’s favor again.
That being said, Charlotte has been all about making history this season. Charlotte FC beat reporter Caleb Adams, on Twitter, pointed out that “Charlotte FC’s Decision Day win was the first time Inter Miami lost a match when Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba made appearances since their arrival in the MLS.”
This team had its backs against the wall after a draw in Miami and got the result against a historically good MLS lineup. Who says they can’t shock a few more people and make a cup run?
It all starts in New Jersey Wednesday, at 7:30 pm.