By Jacob Sokol
Gearing up for the 2023 MLS season, Charlotte FC players are reporting back to the club after the holiday break. In 2022, a plethora of lineup variations were attempted between two different head coaches. Many players have left the club, while several new faces have joined. As we all get ready for the first match of the season on February 25, let’s take a look at some of the position battles that head coach, Christian Lattanzio, will have to whittle down to a formidable starting lineup.
Right Wing - Vargas/Gaines
Kerwin Vargas left- photo courtesy of Kerwin Vargas Twitter account
McKinze Gaines right- photo courtesy of McKinze Gaines Twitter account
Kerwin Vargas and McKinze Gaines are both dynamic attacking options on the wing. Vargas brings more of a technical approach, taking players on with fancy footwork, while Gaines brings raw speed to the table. Vargas will dribble at a player, taking touch after touch before a quick burst leads to an open shot. Gaines does a lot of his best work off the ball, making runs in behind defenders that have no hope of keeping up.
In 2022, Gaines managed 24 appearances in MLS, generating 1 goal and 4 assists. Vargas, who joined the team during the summer transfer window, had 13 appearances with no goals or assists. While these numbers seem insignificant, they don’t paint the whole picture.
Gaines played a total of 1,068 minutes as only 11 of his 24 appearances were as a starter. In that time, Gaines provided an average of 5 crosses every 90 minutes, 1 assist every 270 minutes, and 54% of his shots were on target. If Gaines kept the same form and managed to play as much time as Designated Player, Karol Swiderski, he could have 9 assists on the season. That would put him in the top 10 assist leaders in the league.
A couple areas where Vargas holds similarities with Gaines is productivity with crossing, providing 6.82 every 90 minutes, and shots on target at 47%. Another element Vargas brings to the table is his ability to provide a corner kick. Unfortunately Vargas wasn’t a part of any goal scoring opportunities in 2022, though he came close on several occasions.
When it comes to the starting lineup for Charlotte FC’s home opener, Gaines has the slight edge to start. With more experience under his belt, more time on the team, and more goals created, Gaines appears to be the stronger option on paper. At the end of the day the game is played on grass or turf, and whichever player finds himself on the bench will provide great depth as a substitute.
Adilson Malanda left- Photo courtesy of Kevin young of the 5 and 2 project
Guzmán Corujo right- Photo courtesy of 90min.com
After Guzmán Corujo suffered a season ending ACL injury, Charlotte FC needed to find a replacement fast. That replacement came in the form of Ligue 2 regular, Adilson Malanda. Playing out the last 6 matches of the season, Malanda provided a steady presence in the back line. Now with Corujo on the mend, the question is- will he earn back his starting position?
Corujo, when healthy, was one of the better center backs in MLS. He was in the 96th percentile for tackles won in the defensive 3rd, 90th percentile for dribbles contested, and 84th percentile for blocks among MLS defenders.
Malanda plays a different game. The amount of tackles and blocks made per game are some of the worst in the league, but the score line wasn’t any worse because of it. Malanda likes to control the game, having the potential to be one of the best passing defenders in the league. In the 6 games he played, Malanda completed 87% of his passes, with a rate above 93% for both short and medium passes. Malanda also doesn’t seem to make errors with the ball at his feet. He didn’t have a single miscontrol or was dispossessed in any of the games he played in. He might take the ball half as much as Corujo, but he retains it with much more success.
To start the season, because of fitness, expect to see Malanda in the starting lineup. As the season progresses it is hard to believe that Corujo won’t have a pivotal part to play though. It is even possible that we could see these two playing side by side by the time the season ends.
Midfield - Bronico/Santos/Jones/Westwood
Ashley Westwood top left-photo courtesy of Daily Mail
Nuno Santos top right- photo courtesy of Charlotte FC
Brandt Bronico bottom left-photo courtesy of MLS Soccer
Derrick Jones bottom right- photo courtesy of Sandiegouniontribune.com
The center of the pitch will be the most contested area in Charlotte FC's lineup. With the new addition of Ashley Westwood, Charlotte now has four talented players to fill two positions. Individual player skill is always the main factor, but how two of these four players pair together could be just as important.
Derrick Jones and Ashley Westwood are clearly defensive midfielders. Jones provides a large presence that is incredibly difficult to get past. He’s among the best in the league at tackles in the defensive third and aerial duels won. His passing leaves something to be desired though, as he rarely progresses the ball down field.
Westwood is almost the polar opposite of Jones. Defensively he doesn’t provide the imposing style of play that Jones does, but he is able to thread a lethal pass with precision. The former Burnley FC man was brought in to become a starter, so it is likely he will get the nod over Jones. It is also possible to imagine these two playing side by side to create a balanced duo.
Versatility and consistency will be Brandt Bronico’s biggest strengths as he tries to remain in the starting lineup for 2023. Bronico, who played 34 games for Charlotte in 2022, is hard to imagine on the bench. He was the engine in the inaugural season, constantly playing passes and moving off the ball. With a balanced skill set between passing and defending, it is possible we will see Bronico at the defensive midfielder or central midfield position. With two defensive midfielders already in the mix, it is likely Bronico will go head to head with Nuno Santos for the central midfield position.
Santos, who joined Charlotte late in 2022, only managed 4 appearances so far. In that time he has provided excellent play, even scoring a pivotal goal to keep playoff dreams alive a little longer. When it comes to service, Santos can produce short, medium, and long passes with great accuracy. Luckily he isn’t a defensive midfielder, because defense is the only questionable part of his game. As far as being a central midfielder, or attacking midfielder, Santos has all the right stuff.
With 4 great players to fill two roles, it could come down to the best pairing instead of individual talent. Westwood and Santos would make an incredible duo for attacking purposes, but may leave gaps in defense. Westwood and Jones could provide some balance between passing and defending, but ultimately could be a little too defensive leaning. Bronico and Westwood is another potential pairing, while Bronico keeps the midfield churning, Westwood could open up play with a final pass. It is most likely that we see the pairing of Westwood and Santos, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the ever-working Bronico retains his starting position either.
Players Rotating For Minutes
Ben Bender top left - photo courtesy of Charlotte FC
Jaylin Lindsey top right - photo courtesy of 90min.com
Andre Shinyashiki bottom left - photo courtesy of MLS Soccer
Vinicius Mello bottom right - photo courtesy of Vinicius Mello Twitter
Head to head matchups aside, there are several players who are down on the depth charts but still are likely to receive playing time and have a regular role within the squad. Ben Bender is one of those players, producing 3 goals and 6 assists in 28 appearances. Bender, a young attacking midfielder, is likely to be third string behind Santos and Bronico. Being so young and full of potential, Lattanzio could utilize him as a second half sub.
Andre Shinyashiki was an exciting player in 2022 for Charlotte. He was brought in after the start of the season from the Colorado Rapids and provided an immediate impact. Shinyashiki made his abilities off of the bench well known, scoring 6 times in just 835 minutes played. That makes him the most efficient scorer on the roster. Unfortunately when starting, Shinyashiki’s goals don’t convert as often. He does best coming off the bench, terrorizing tired defenses with fresh legs.
A Charlotte native, Jaylin Lindsey, is also likely to receive minutes. With 18 starts and 26 appearances in 2022, Lindsey has proven himself as a valuable part of the right back depth chart. If an injury were to occur he could find himself in the starting line up.
Many fans have been curious about the young Brazilian striker, Vinicius Mello. Mello suffered an injury that kept him out of the 2022 season. While Mello is yet to prove himself, Lattanzio will want to get him some minutes at some point to show his skills. If he manages a few solid appearances off the bench he could become a team regular.
One thing is certain. Charlotte FC’s 2023 squad holds a great deal more talent than their inaugural season. In 2022, gaps needed to be filled and there were few players to do so. In 2023 Charlotte has managed to acquire solid depth in several positions and with the January transfer window in progress we could see even more talent added on. Having too much talent is a good problem to have.