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Does Dean Smith have a solution to the 10 role?

By Brian Maurer

Dean Smith (Photo courtesy of CJ Hellner/TopBin90)

Through nine games the lack of attacking creativity in Charlotte FC’s midfield has become nothing short of resounding. According to FBRef, Charlotte's starting attacking midfielders have only led the team in key passes once this season. That was when Scott Arfield had two in a 3-2 victory over Toronto FC.

The position has become the biggest issue for Head Coach Dean Smith as there has been more rotation at the attacking midfield spot than anywhere else on the field. The rotation has not led to any consistent solutions as of yet.

Smith starts with the Belgian

Smith started with Belgian international Brecht Dejaegere for the first three games. While the creativity of the team was lacking, the issue was covered up by the number of one-on-one chances that were missed, a penalty miss, and the team earning early season points.

The rotation begins

After three starts from Dejaegere, Smith opted to rotate and try Arfield at the ten when The Crown traveled to Nashville. This was the first change Smith had made to his starting XI that was not due to an injury. 

Arfield did not provide much in the way of creative solutions in his first start, but again the creativity issue was diluted by the chances Charlotte FC missed to equalize late in the game. A point at least looked to be on the table for Charlotte and lack of finishing was again taking the blame.

Charlotte returned home after the loss to Nashville and Smith opted to start Arfield again. This was likely also due to Smith looking for a new solution on the left-wing as he opted to start Dejaegere on the left over Iuri Tavares who had been the LW starter until then.

The Crown earned a 2-0 result but the lack of creativity started to become apparent in this game as they were up a man for about 70 minutes and only had six shots from open play during that time. 

The points were won but at this point, the creativity issues started to look like a major red flag. The matter was made worse by Arfield picking up an injury and having to be subbed out at halftime.

Petkovic is given a chance

With Arfield being out the following week, Smith started U-22 Initiative signee Nikola Petkovic against FC Cincinnati. After 60 minutes he was subbed off to make way for new Designated Player Liel Abada's debut. This game was about as threatening as Charlotte has looked all season but Petkovic’s direct involvement as an attacking midfielder was limited.

Smith continues rotating between Dejaegere and Arfield

With Abada joining the starting eleven, Smith opted to go back to Dejaegere as the 10 on the road against New England. The team finished with six total shots. But again, the lack of attacking opportunities in total was easy for fans to overlook because of the big miss by Patrick Agyemang early on. 

The lack of attacking opportunities did not get overlooked by Smith as he rotated the position again when the team came home to play Toronto as he went back to Arfield to try and spark some more life into the attack. The Crown earned the win and for the first time this season, an attacking midfielder in Charlotte led the team in chances created (Arfield had two key passes). It's not a resounding number, but a first is a first.

At this point, optimism about Charlotte’s attack was trending up. It looked like the finishing woes were dissipating. Djibril Diani made a penalty, and the team scored three goals in front of their home crowd.

A lot of that optimism came crashing down after Charlotte suffered a 3-0 beatdown by Minnesota United the following week. The Crown had no creative solutions which made it impossible for them to find a way back into the game after falling behind. The lack of creativity was so apparent that Smith opted to sub out Dejaegere in the 53’ for Agyemang.

Is this Bender’s big chance to break through?

The attacking midfield position looks to be where Smith is having the most difficulty knowing who to trust. It is the only position where the Englishman has started three different players (Dejaegere, Arfield, and Petkovic). It is also one of the only three starting positions where he has made a non-injury-related change.

A lack of results makes this position wide open for players to try and earn that trust from Smith. One player who has to be chomping at the bit to get back out there is Ben Bender. He has been injured since last year and has been watching a limited number of goals coming from his primary position.

Bender may not have the traditional string-pulling creator playing style of a Lucho Acosta or Carles Gil, but he has shown an ability to find goals. His 14 goal contributions (6g/8a) in 30 career MLS starts makes him easily the most goal-dangerous midfielder in the club’s short history.

Smith stated in a recent press conference that he thinks Bender will need some time with MLS NEXT Pro-side Crown Legacy FC before returning to the First Team, but if he can get back to full health and fitness before the secondary transfer window opens this could be the biggest moment in Bender’s career.

Petkovic’s minutes

A final concern about Charlotte’s midfield is Petkovic’s minutes. The Serbian was signed to a reported $3 million transfer fee last year and has not broken through into regular minutes with the First Team, even with the creativity struggles.

While he is still a young player, his transfer fee and the lack of consistent performances from other attacking midfielders make the current state of Petkovic’s situation a bit concerning. The main question that will need to be asked if Dejaegere and Arfield continue to struggle to create chances is why Petkovic isn’t getting an opportunity.