By Brian Maurer
Newly hired head coach Dean Smith (left), David Tepper, Nicole Tepper, Zoran Krneta, and Joe LaBue (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC)
Bill Tuiloma’s first season in Charlotte FC was difficult on many levels. The Crown announced the Tuiloma trade nine days before their home opener against the New England Revolution (which he started in). It’s never an easy task to up and move to a new club.
If transitioning to a new team was the only challenge that Tuiloma faced, fans might have a different view of the player today. That was just the tip of the iceberg. He came into a team whose backline had just lost a key figure to a tragic accident (likely one of the reasons the trade happened in the first place). Then he was asked to be one of the veterans in a backline with limited to no experience implementing the system that former head coach Christian Lattanzio wanted. Defenders Adilson Malanda and Jaylin Lindsey both stated in press conferences during the season that they were struggling in the system and that they were adjusting to it.
Besides those two points, he was also asked to start at left center back. This task required him to play partnered next to a left back. The issue with that in Charlotte in 2023 was they only started a true left back twice through their first 24 MLS matches. Lattanzio gave as many starts to midfielder Brandt Bronico at left back as he did to an actual left back until September. Part of that isn’t on Lattanzio as Joseph Mora was the only left back on the roster, and he inherited that signing when he took the job. Sporting director Zoran Krneta also can take part of the blame for that as he opted to not sign one until the summer transfer window. The main point is that none of that circumstance falls on Tuiloma.
When looking back at the 2023 season Charlotte’s roster consisted primarily of five center backs who were used (Malanda, Tuiloma, Andrew Privett, Guzmán Corujo, and Jan Sobociński). The club also traded up to pick a Generation Adidas center back, Hamady Diop, first overall in the SuperDraft.
Many fans were open about the fact that they considered Corujo as their Charlotte FC Player of the Year before his injury in 2022. Malanda was talked about by MLS pundits across the nation as one of the brightest young prospects in all of MLS. There were even reports that he should have been on the MLS 22 under 22 list in 2022 even though he had just arrived that summer. Tuiloma was considered a dark horse to win 2022 Defender of the Year by American soccer pundit Joseph Lowery for his work in Portland before being traded to The Crown. All three of these players’ stock went down in 2023.
If the only center back on Charlotte FC whose resume improved last year was a converted center back who was drafted in the third round of the SuperDraft as a midfielder there’s a problem. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that the three center backs previously mentioned were all successful the season before.
This was not only an issue for the center backs in Charlotte. It’s difficult to make the argument that any player on the roster's stock improved in 2023. The best examples are probably Ashley Westwood and Kerwin Vargas. Westwood was recovering from a bad ankle injury so his performances were likely attributing to him getting closer and closer to being himself throughout the year. Vargas’ stock went up in the last month or so of the year. But, for Vargas, many had him as a locked-in week one starter which was not how his entire season went.
Besides Malanda, many other notable young players' stocks went down in 2023. Ben Bender did not progress in terms of his role with the team. Lindsey didn’t even make the squad for the play-in game let alone being an actual playing contributor, and First Round SuperDraft pick Patrick Agyemang kept showing an ability to make an impact off the bench but had his potential capped with a limited role.
Charlotte’s record transfer, Enzo Copetti, also showed little to no progression throughout the season. Tuiloma was far from alone in terms of team fit and personal progression in 2023.
Now enter Dean Smith. In Smith’s introductory press conference yesterday he stated “It’s evolution, not revolution”. As things stand the club is looking to evolve. That evolution will include many players already on the roster. "First and foremost it's to come in and assess the squad and see how adaptable they are" said Smith when asked about his coaching philosophy. His stance in the presser was to give players already on the roster a chance to earn their role. Tuiloma and many of his teammates should see this preseason as a major opportunity to make an impact and reignite their careers and their roles on the team.