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Charlotte FC's Queen's Gambit

By Brian Maurer and Tyler Trent

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

One of the oldest chess openings is the queen’s gambit. The idea behind it is that you sacrifice one of your pawns in order to gain an early advantage over the center of the board. By making one sacrifice, one can potentially gain control of the rest of the game. Charlotte FC may have made their own version of the queen’s gambit.

After Charlotte FC’s dominant 4-1 win over Nashville SC in July, Charlotte had 26 points and were right in the mix to make a playoff spot in their inaugural season. Since that game Charlotte FC have been on a major skid winning only two of their last nine MLS games. With only five matches remaining, Charlotte FC are all but out of the playoffs.

During the current poor run of form, the team have also sold multiple players and were rumored to be shopping winger Yordy Reyna. Reyna is one of the more technically gifted players on the roster, and has also been one of the better goal creators on the team. The rumors and sales during the summer transfer window could be taken as a team that was willing to sacrifice the hopes of the playoffs in 2022 in order to set up the roster for the 2023 season and beyond. The question remains, is that type of decision making worth it? Especially when making the playoffs appeared to be well in reach back in July.

The MAR Midfielders and Makoun

Upon being hired as Charlotte FC’s inaugural manager, Miguel Angel Ramirez (MAR) had several players who he was interested in being a part of the initial project. After MAR was fired several of these players no longer seemed to fit into the team. Midfielders Christian Ortiz and Alan Franco both appeared to be on the outs once interim head coach Christian Lattanzio took over. Franco seemed to want out, as he refused to travel with the team to an away match in Montreal. Ortiz was considered to be a key player by Lattanzio, but after giving him multiple starts the new culture and intensity in training set by Lattanzio did not seem to gel with Ortiz and his playing time started to dwindle until he was eventually transferred out.

Makoun had been a regular starter under MAR, but when Lattanzio took over he showed an immediate preference for Anton Walkes at center back. With the reduction in minutes Makoun was traded to the New England Revolution for general allocation money (GAM).

All three of these moves seemed inevitable once the decision was made by the front office to switch directions with their coach. Ortiz and Franco were brought in specifically because MAR wanted them, and once he was fired their interest in the expansion team appeared to also diminish. Makoun was likely expecting to have regular playing time which he was getting under MAR. Without MAR the desire to find a new opportunity where more minutes were available seems like the key to his departure.

While all three of these moves hurt Charlotte FC’s depth in their inaugural season, the inevitable nature of these moves, and the need to set a standard of a new direction and culture makes them appear to be a necessary sacrifice for the progression of the club. Especially since the team received a substantial amount of GAM for Makoun which can be utilized during the winter transfer window. However, making that sacrifice during the summer window may be one of the reasons that Charlotte FC lost out on the playoffs as midfield depth is where the team has been lacking the most.

Sergio Ruiz Leaving

The departure of Charlotte FC’s first ever signing, Sergio Ruiz, came as an unexpected midseason blow. Rumors of Ruiz wanting to go back to his home country had swept through the news prior to his departure, but signs seemed to point to the Spanish midfielder staying with the team for the rest of the season.

Ruiz’s homesickness seemed to make a move back to Spain his mission. The Charlotte FC Front Office was ultimately put into an awkward situation with an already depleted midfield. They could either deny Sergio Ruiz and force him to stay with the team when he wasn’t mentally up for it, or they could allow him to leave and deal with an even more depleted midfield for the rest of the season.

Charlotte made the decision to allow Sergio Ruiz to return home. Despite the backlash, Charlotte ultimately made a profit on Sergio Ruiz after selling him to Granada in La Liga 2. This was another profitable move made by the club, but again, it sacrificed their current midfield depth and could easily be another move that led to the downward spiral the team is currently on.

Yordy Reyna Rumors The Sign of a Restructuring Season

Image courtesy of Getty Images

A recent rumor reported by Manuel Vaquero stated that Charlotte FC were actively shopping their winger, Yordy Reyna, during the summer transfer window. This rumor is a strong example of the sacrifice to the current season the club was willing to make in order to try and restructure the roster for the following season. This is because Reyna is one of the clubs most technically gifted players and who is one of the better goal contributors on the current roster. A willingness to sell him shows the team was willing to sacrifice goals this season in order to change the culture and roster with the belief that the team would have a chance to be set up for greater success in 2023.

A culture change is likely one of the main reasons that Reyna was being shopped around. Since Lattanzio has taken over as interim head coach one of the main philosophy changes has been an increase in intensity in training. Since the coaching change, gifted technical players like Reyna and Jordy Alcívar have struggled to maintain regular minutes.

Looking to shop Reyna during the summer is a strong sign that the front office evaluated the 2022 season as lost in terms of playoff hopes and were willing to make some salary cap cuts and change direction midseason with the hopes that that change would pay off in 2023. These types of decisions will not be fully realized until the start of 2023 as to whether they are the right ones or not. However, it does seem to be something worth addressing now as many of the moves, and rumored moves, show a very strong restructuring that could have cost the team points in 2022.

Others Who Could Follow

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

With the departures previously discussed, who else could be on their way out at Charlotte FC as we move toward year two? Players such as Daniel Ríos, Alcívar, Christian Fuchs, and Harrison Afful are all possibilities for different reasons.

Ríos' departure seemed all but imminent with the Mexican forward seeing very little playtime in the second half of the season. However, an unexpected start against Cincinnati may provide some hope to fans of the Mexican striker that he may stay. With a contract expiring in December, it is likely that Charlotte will move forward with Świderski, Shinyashiki, and hopefully a healthy Vinicius Mello for next season.

Alcívar has been a mystery for Charlotte FC all season. Signed as a Young Designated Player (YDP), expectations were high for him coming in, but signs seem to point to the young Ecuadorian leaving the team as well. In the second half of the season, Alcívar has missed the bench often and received very few minutes when he has made the bench. His time on the pitch has been hit or miss. At times, he has looked like a very technically gifted player and at others a passenger. Charlotte may take a chance on the high potential of Alcívar in year two and buy down his contract, or they may decide to move in a different direction by bringing in more midfielders to supplement the roster alongside new signing Nuno Santos.

Christian Fuchs and Harrison Afful have provided veteran experience for the team this season. Each 36 years old with their current contract expiring in December, their remaining time as starting options are limited. The signing of Nathan Byrne seems to indicate that Afful’s time may be done with Charlotte. Fuchs' time could also be limited as the off-season approaches with the emergence of Malanda, and if Charlotte decide to sign a new left back in the winter. Fuchs could provide an interesting potential as a coach, member of the front office, or potential partner to Charlotte FC with his Fox Soccer Academy.

With so many players potentially leaving at the end of the season, Charlotte FC's front office could be in the middle of a major reconstruction of the roster. By having that reconstruction begin in the summer, in retrospect it appears that the playoff goals for the 2022 season became lost.

The Points That Were Lost

Throughout the season Charlotte FC have had several games where they missed out on points due to mental lapses on defense or lack of composure in attack. Charlotte left a point on the field in their home opener when they could not find a goal and allowed a late golazo to finish them off. This match was the first of several games where points were lost due to lack of composure late in games.

In Atlanta, Charlotte lost out on a point when they gave up a last kick goal. Against Colorado, Charlotte had a break away to end the game but McKinze Gaines did not make the open pass to Świderski, leading to Charlotte only earning a draw. Charlotte also blew a 1-0 lead in Seattle and wound up losing 2-1. In Columbus, Shinyashiki had a 1 v 1 on the last kick but missed putting his shot wide, leaving a win on the field. Świderski missed a chance late for a draw in Montreal.

Charlotte also collapsed in Miami giving up a 2-0 lead and wound up losing 3-2. And gave away points to both Chicago and Orlando City at home.

In total, Charlotte left around ten points on the table due to missed opportunities and lack of defensive composure in key moments.

The amount of close points that were lost, especially near the end of the season shows that Charlotte was very near the capability making the playoffs. Unfortunately they have appeared to lack the depth necessary to keep themselves a float. A lot of that depth was sold during the summer.

The Progression That Needs to Be Made

As Charlotte heads into year two, progression has to be made. The Front Office needs to sign players with intention and purpose. At times in the inaugural season, they have done that well. However, as this article makes clear a large portion of the roster didn’t work out. While many of the players Charlotte signed were high-upside players, attitude and competitive issues hindered those individuals and the team as a whole.

The summer window signings signal good intentions with progression. Adilson Malanda has already proven a valuable asset with lots of upside. Nuno Santos is a midfielder capable of playing multiple positions with a lot of years ahead. Nathan Byrne is a highly attacking modern style right back option with veteran experience and plenty of quality years ahead of him.

Further identifying quality players that will work hard for the team is the main goal heading into year two. Getting business completed as soon as possible should be another goal toward that progress as well.

Can’t Be Fooled Again

During the winter transfer window before the inaugural season began Charlotte FC made several decisions that proved costly to their season and playoff hopes. Not signing more distinguished high quality designated players is one. Losing out on signing designated players at all is another. These missteps led the team to signing lower caliber players by resorting to their plan B or C options at multiple positions.

While finding good value deals was a benefit in finding certain players; Brandt Bronico stands out as one example. It also cost them in instances where a willingness to pay a higher premium may have changed the outcome of the season. Specifically, if they had been more willing to spend bigger in attacking creativity out of the gate, the end result of their inaugural season may have been different, especially once you look at all the points that Charlotte almost had.

Charlotte FC’s front office made a gamble as well in hiring MAR as the coach. That gamble did not pay off. Instead of keeping the pieces from the inaugural roster together to try and push for a playoff spot, they opted to start moving on from several of their initial signings during the summer. Potentially sacrificing the teams playoff hopes in the inaugural season to try and speed up the restructuring process so that the following season and future seasons can have a brighter outlook.

Going into this upcoming winter window, Charlotte FC will need to show an ability to make the right decision when hiring their coach for the 2023 season, as well as an ability to get more of their first choice target options, and a willingness to pay the premium in order to not let those options slip away. Getting these two things right will make it far more likely that the sacrifices made during the inaugural season will end up paying off for the team next year.