By Brian Maurer
Image courtesy of Charlotte FC
Charlotte FC’s first four months have been a pretty wild ride. They have established themselves as a team with quotes and words from staff that quickly go viral. “Screwed” and “speculate” are both words that will trigger many fans’ memories of the ups and downs of this inaugural season. Through all the off-field concerns and discussions, the Black and Blues have shown a lot of competitive spirit and resolve.
This energy presents itself strongest when Charlotte FC plays at home. Currently, Charlotte FC have accrued the fourth most points at home in MLS. If they beat Austin FC today, they will have the most points at home of any team in MLS this season. An impressive start for a team that was picked as a wooden spoon contender by many MLS pundits.
Taking a look back through the first half of the season, I am going to take a deeper dive into four phases of play, and how Charlotte FC has fared in each so far. I will also discuss part of Charlotte FC’s struggles on the road, and why there is reason for optimism on away matches during the second half of the season.
In a podcast episode of Soccer 101*, Joe Lowery discussed four continuous phases of play within a football match. These phases are possession, defensive transition, defending, and attacking transition. All phases are used in every match. The question is how effective have Charlotte FC been in these four phases throughout the first half of the season.
Images courtesy of Charlotte FC
As a squad, Charlotte FC are tenth in MLS in touches per 90 minutes, showing that they are having some success in their desired possession style of play. However, it is important to look at where Charlotte is getting their touches. Charlotte FC has the third most touches in their defensive third. The eleventh most touches in the middle third, and the twenty-first most touches in the attacking third.
Charlotte might be able to possess the ball well, but they are struggling to get the ball forward, and possess it in more aggressive areas of the pitch.
Charlotte FC will need to show improvement in their possession play, especially when it comes to possessing the ball in attacking areas, if they are going to earn extra points throughout the second half of the season. Not only will this help the team advance higher up the table, but it is paramount if Charlotte FC are going to truly establish this model of play as their foundational philosophy.
One alarming possession stat that needs to improve is Karol Świderski’s touches in the attacking penalty area. Currently, Świderski is averaging just 4.21 touches in the attacking penalty area per 90 minutes. Having Charlotte FC’s strongest scoring threat get so few touches in dangerous areas limits the ability of the team to produce goals out of their possession.
If Świderski starts to get more touches in the attacking third and, especially, the penalty area, the Black and Blues’ possession stats and goal production from possession should improve through the second half of the season.
Images courtesy of Charlotte FC
The defensive transition phase will be the second most important phase for Charlotte FC’s ideal style of play. As this will be the phase where Charlotte quickly tries to regain possession after they lose it. Using an effective counter press can help a team increase how much they possess the ball, as counter pressing helps regain possession quickly.
Halfway through the season, Charlotte FC are ninth in MLS in total pressing. However, Charlotte FC are only nineteenth in successful pressure percentage (28.6%). What this suggests is that Charlotte FC are showing a willingness to press their opponents, but they are not pressing efficiently. Efficiency should come with time playing together as a unit.
Three players who could play a big part in helping improve the efficiency of the press for the remainder of the season are Titi Ortiz, Andre Shinyashiki, and Kamil Jozwiak. All three have shown a desire to press opponents often, and in limited minutes all three of them have shown an ability to press well. Ortiz leads the team in attempted presses per 90 minutes (23.8), Shinyashiki is also high on Charlotte FC’s pressing list with 19.8.
Jozwiak is one of the team’s more effective pressers with a 30.6% successful press rate. If Charlotte FC are to impose their possession type style of play on opponents they will need to continue to develop an effective counter press. All three of these players will likely play a vital role in whether that effective press does transpire during the second half of the season.
The development of Charlotte FC’s defensive shape has been one of the brighter spots of the team as the season has progressed. Charlotte FC have only conceded 15 goals in their last 14 matches. They have also not had an expected goals against (xGA) in a match higher than 1.5 since matchday six. While there were some bumps on the road early, the defensive structure of the team appears to be stabilizing.
A major contributor to this defensive stability is Guzman Corujo. He is the only player on the roster who has played every MLS minute for Charlotte FC thus far. He has also made many clutch tackles, and is one of the leaders on the team in several defensive statistics. What has also been impressive about Corujo is that even though he has played every minute he has only made one error leading to an opponent's shot.
Anton Walkes, who has just recently become Corujo’s backline partner, has also yet to put a foot wrong since becoming a weekly starter. If this partnership continues to flourish, Charlotte FC may have found a stabilizing defensive pairing for several years, as both Corujo and Walkes are about to enter the primes of their careers.
Another key contributor to Charlotte FC’s defense is their keeper, Kristijan Kahlina. Kahlina provided many clutch saves early on in the season, and has continued his strong play. He just has not had to make as many saves as he did early on as the defense has become more stable. Kahlina is currently in the top ten of MLS keepers in both save percentage (76.8%) and post shot expected goals (PSxG)** minus goals against (GA) per 90 minutes (.14).
Charlotte FC will be hoping that he can maintain his current pace, while also reducing a few of the critical errors he has made playing out of the back.
A surprise defensive standout has been Joseph Mora. While he started his season slowly, he has come on as one of the team’s strongest defensive players. His successful defensive pressure rate is 40%. That stat leads the team among players with ten or more starts.
He also has a dribbler tackle rate of 75%, again the highest on the team among regular starters, while also leading the team in tackles won per 90 minutes (2.22). It will be interesting to see how the captain, Christian Fuchs, gets worked back into the lineup, when fully fit, since the backline has really started to gel even with his absence.
Charlotte FC’s attacking transition is one of their weakest phases of play. They are currently seventeenth in completed passes progressing into the attacking third per 90 minutes (27.4); and they are twenty-third in overall progressive passes per 90 minutes (29.1). Charlotte FC have, simply, not been very good at moving the ball forward into attacking areas with consistency.
While these progressive passing stats do not differentiate between counter situations and more standard possession sequences, these stats still show the limited amount of progression occurring. With a team that wants to press high and win the ball back quickly, there should also be more balls progressed forward. Which is what these progressive stats show is missing in many of Charlotte FC's current performances.
This had been one of the complaints that players had with former coach, Miguel Angel Ramirez’s methods. It will be interesting to keep an eye on whether the current coach, Christian Lattanzio, can improve this phase of play for Charlotte FC in the second half of the season.
If Ortiz continues to earn a starting spot under Lattanzio, his progressive and attacking creativity will be a key to whether Charlotte FC can improve their attacking transition. Currently, Ortiz only averages 2.03 attacking third progressive passes per 90 minutes. He also only puts just over one progressive pass into the penalty area per 90 minutes.
Neither of those numbers are good enough from a starting attacking midfielder. He is only now starting to get regular minutes, so both of those numbers could start to rise.
Another way Charlotte FC could help improve their attacking transition play is if they invest more heavily in attacking midfielders. One of the front office goals that sporting director, Zoran Krneta, set for the summer was to bring in another attacking midfielder. If a signing can be made, and the new player becomes a hit, Charlotte FC’s attacking transition could be much improved through the second half of the season.
The greatest area for overall improvement for Charlotte FC is obviously their road performances. If Charlotte FC were averaging just a half a point from their road matches they would be right at the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. The lack of road results is the primary cause for why they are sitting back in ninth.
There is reason to believe that their road performances should improve over the second half of the season. The primary reason is that they face weaker competition. Charlotte FC have lost seven matches on the road so far this season. Of those seven losses, five of the teams they faced currently sit above the playoff line.
The two teams that do not currently sit above the playoff line are Atlanta United and DC United. Atlanta is very likely a playoff contender once their players get healthier. DC United was Charlotte FC’s week one matchup and at the time they had no designated players (DPs) set to play.
Charlotte FC’s final eight road matches include four teams that are currently sitting outside of the playoffs (Houston, Inter Miami, Toronto FC, and Chicago). One of the teams that Charlotte plays on the road, that are currently above the playoff line, is FC Cincinnati, a team that Charlotte have already been able to beat at home.
When Charlotte has played a team on the road that is not in the current playoff picture, the results are nowhere near as dire.
They are obviously still winless but they have picked up two draws out of their three matches on the road against non-playoff teams. Charlotte FC fans should expect a minimum of four points from their remaining non-playoff road schedule. That number could improve quickly with a first road win against a beatable Houston team over the weekend.
Overall, the second half of the season on the road looks less ominous. It will also be less daunting if Charlotte FC are able to add more pieces during the summer transfer window.
This summer transfer window will be crucial. If Charlotte FC are able to land one of their main targets at attacking midfielder during the summer, they should be able to make a strong push towards the playoffs as the signing would greatly improve the phases of play where Charlotte FC are currently struggling the most.
If they are unable to make a strong attacking midfield signing during the summer, a push for the playoffs becomes significantly harder, and the pressure on the current roster becomes far higher.
*I highly recommend the Soccer 101 podcast, even for people who have followed the beautiful game for a while there are sure to be historical and informative facts and stories that will entertain people with all varying levels of understanding of the sport.
**PSxG-GA is probably the best advanced stat currently available to analyze how well a goalkeeper is playing. This stat takes the total amount of probable goals faced and subtracts it from the actual goals allowed. A positive number signifies a keeper giving up fewer goals than expected, while a negative number indicates a keeper giving up more goals than expected. This stat plus a few others, such as save percentage, help indicate how well a keeper is doing regardless of their teams overall performance.
***All stats for this article were found on FBref.com