By Sam Vanolinda
Enzo Copetti (Photo courtesy of CJ Hellner)
As we roll towards the 2024 MLS season, the second preseason training camp in California will give Charlotte FC fans a good taste of what the Dean Smith era will bring to the Queen City.
This preseason will be particularly interesting as we begin to find out what style of play, and what players Smith prefers. Fans will also be able to watch some of Charlotte's young exciting prospects as they get some valuable game time.
Players will be looking to impress their new coach and move up the depth chart, which will be what Charlotte fans should be truly focused on, rather than the final score.
Charlotte will be heading west to the Coachella Valley later this week, not to see Frank Ocean or Bad Bunny, but to participate in the Coachella Valley Invitational.
The Invitational will be played at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, home to the famed music festivals Coachella and Stagecoach.
Charlotte will face LA Galaxy on February 7th, San Jose Earthquakes on February 10th, and Minnesota United on February 17th; these games should provide a good test against Western opposition that the team doesn’t encounter often.
Here are some positional depth battles that you may want to focus on as the team heads into their preseason games:
With Jere Uronen locking down the left side, it will be a battle between Jaylin Lindsey and Nathan Byrne for the right-back position.
Byrne had some excellent showings towards the end of last season and would seemingly be the favorite as of now, but fan favorite Lindsey still has plenty to show in MLS, if he can impress in preseason he could force Smith’s hand.
In the closed-door friendly this past Friday Byrne and Lindsey each started a half. This split-time competition between the two fullbacks will likely continue in California.
Smith has multiple options up top if the roster stays the way it is.
Karol Świderski, Enzo Copetti, and Patrick Agyemang all bring qualities as a lone striker or as a partnership.
There is also the question of whether Świderski will remain in the 10 role he filled for much of last season. If Smith wants him to remain in the more creative role, then Copetti and Agyemang could split time in the striker position based on how they perform.
Świderski could also be given a striker role, and Copetti could wind up on the wing or vice versa. Smith has a lot of directions to choose how to play his strikers and this will likely be one of the most anticipated lineup decisions fans are waiting for as the season approaches.
There has been a lot of shake-up on the wings, and there could still be some reinforcements before the season starts.
With Kamil Jóźwiak reportedly on the way out, Justin Meram gone, and Ben Bender and Brandon Cambridge hurt, it looks like rookies and midfielders could be given a chance on the wing this preseason.
First-round draft pick, Tyger Smalls, will be competing for a roster spot. The likelihood of him earning a supplemental roster spot slightly increased with the number of changes and injuries currently plaguing Charlotte’s wings.
Brecht Dejaegere can play many attacking positions and could be slotted in on the right wing. With the lack of depth, Dejaegere could be one of Smith’s only starting-caliber options on the right to start the year.
Świderski could also be an option if Smith ends up preferring him there over playing a more centralized role.
The players earning right-wing minutes over the next three preseason matches will be a top situation to watch unless a new signing is made.
This all comes down to how Smith decides to shape his midfield. Does he opt for a single or double pivot? Based on current player availability, a double pivot could be in play especially if Dejaegere ends up on the wing.
Club Captain Ashley Westwood will be an obvious choice as a holding midfielder. The question is, who rotates as depth or plays in a double pivot alongside Westwood?
It could be Brandt Bronico, who Christian Lattanzio was a big fan of and had earned over 2500 MLS minutes for the second straight year. Another option is Andrew Privett, who could slide up into his more natural position and fill a midfield role.
If Smith opts for a single pivot with Westwood, then Scott Arfield could be the play in a more advanced position.
Charlotte FC could add more depth or a starter at left center-back as Smith mentioned the position as an area of need in his most recent presser.
Currently, the spot looks like a wide-open competition between Privett, Bill Tuiloma, and the newly promoted João Pedro.
2023 First-Round pick, Hamady Diop, also earned minutes in the closed-door friendly last Friday and he could be in the mix for minutes at center-back.
Will a Crown Legacy prospect step up?
It's always incredible as a fan to watch a young player step into the scene, And the preseason is a chance for one of The Crown’s starlets to prove himself to the masses.
Pedro, who was already mentioned, is the most likely to make a big impact because of his quality and experience with Crown Legacy FC. He also plays a position where Charlotte is going to have an open competition.
Despite being only 15 years old, Nimfasha Berchimas is one of the best talents in all of America, and he could earn his first senior team minutes with a solid preseason.
Chituru Odunze is a goalkeeper who was signed to Charlotte FC from Crown Legacy as well. He will likely be competing with George Marks and recently signed David Bingham for the backup goalkeeper spot.
Nikola Petković is another youngster who will get some run out West. The Serbian is another center-midfielder who could slot into that No. 6 or No. 8 role if Charlotte signs him to a first-team contract.
The preseason will be a chance for fans to get an idea about the season ahead for this franchise. Also, starting a new era with some MLS preseason action could help wash away the poor result of the Wildcard game that ended the 2023 season.
There is nothing but new beginnings here in 2024 for Charlotte FC. A new manager and some young prospects will inject some life and energy into the fanbase, hoping for improvement in the regular season.
This will also be an opportunity for more veteran players to earn themselves a bigger role as Smith continues to report he wants an open competition going into the preseason friendlies.
For a city starving for sporting success, the preseason could create some positive feelings around sports in Charlotte.