By Vaughn Pollman and Brian Maurer
Christian Lattanzio (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC)
Overall Record: (3-3-5), Home: (2-2-2), Away (1-1-3) - 12th in Eastern Conference standings
11 down, 23 to go. Charlotte Football Club has played essentially one-third of its 2023 campaign. Results have been mixed, and the season has been punctuated by loss, adversity, injuries, individual errors, and off-field…distractions. While the melodrama has remained entertaining, the actual on-field product has left much to be desired as the Crown has struggled to find consistency and claw its way to relevancy in the standings.
As turbulent as the results have been, so too has been the emotional stability of the fanbase, with the broadening spectrum of fans calling for better quality at all levels to those grasping at straws to find silver linings. While the club sits a mere two points below the playoff line and has earned results in eight of their last ten contests across all competitions, the underlying numbers do not shine favorably on the team’s long-term prospects.
Those numbers can be taken with a grain of salt with all of the adversity faced, but time is of the essence to get the numbers trending in another direction. Thankfully a lot can change quickly in Major League Soccer’s never-ending soap opera. So, now is a time for reflection on the good, bad, and ugly and a glance ahead at what the balance of the season has in store for the club.
The off-field challenges for the club have delivered blow after blow to the season’s results leaving the team mightily black and blue, bruised by adversity.
These non-football-related factors make contextualizing the season more complicated. With that said, excuses grow tired. Expectations of fans, players, and staff should not be compromised by these outside forces, though their impact is undeniable. Beyond just this season, through the first 15 months of competition, the club has lacked stability and, thus, consistency.
Through 11 games sitting on 12 points with a minus-eight Goal Differential. This time a year ago, the club was coming off a 1-0 home win against Inter Miami and found themselves with a record of 4W-6L-1D and 13 points. So right now, in year two, the Crown is ever so slightly off their pace from last season. The Eastern Conference standings are tight as ever with three points separating fifth place from 13th. That means that anything can happen over the next five and a half months and 23 games.
Rather than reviewing the highs and lows of position groups, individual players, or games in a vacuum, let us look through the lens of and analyze phases of play. What has worked, what hasn’t, and what needs to change moving forward? In soccer analysis, there are four primary phases of play: attacking, transition-to-defense, defending, and transition-to-attack. These phases can be further broken down to include subcategories like build-up play, ball progression, and set plays, for example, but in the run of play, these four phases are the major subsets.
Starting with the attack phase, Charlotte FC has been particularly hot and cold. The season began with a clear reliance on crosses. Now the club has tried to produce more from methodical build-up play, which against organized defensive teams, has led to a dry well of chance creation and goal-scoring opportunities. It would be a fair assessment to say that the attacking phase has lacked being dynamic. Meaning the attack has often looked predictable and one-dimensional.
Based on Opta Analytics data, Charlotte FC is ranked 22nd in the league in open play xG (8.38). They are 21st in set piece xG (2.50).
A glimmer of hope was that the club did see a recent stretch of six straight games where the team scored. This was a team-best through their short history, with goal contributions coming from many key attacking players like Enzo Copetti, Karol Świderski, Kamil Jóźwiak, and Kerwin Vargas, all of whom were tied with two goals apiece ahead of this past weekend’s tilt against NYCFC. Copetti took the team lead, moving his tally to four with his brace against The Pigeons in his Team of the Matchday performance.
Quick recovery defending is a real Achilles heel for the club through 11 matches. Opponents have been effective in catching Charlotte FC out of shape with quick switches of play, often targeting the space vacated by their inverted fullbacks. Opponents have also been absolutely clinical in finishing chances from these transition moments, whether by design or from capitalizing on unexpected moments like Nathan Byrne letting a simple backpass roll under his foot or Adilson Malanda passing the ball to João Klauss.
Charlotte FC currently leads MLS in defensive shot-creating actions against. This stat signifies that Charlotte FC is both struggling with possession in their half and that they are not recovering their shape well when they do commit turnovers in their half. This has led to a number of quick counter chances from opponents through the early portion of the season.
Based on Opta Analytics data, Charlotte FC is ranked fifth most in MLS in open play xG against (12.29). They are 12th in set piece xG against (2.90). They have also allowed the most goals in all of MLS. A major piece to this is the number of injuries throughout the early portion of the season along the backline. The injuries, plus a new signing in Bill Tuiloma, have caused a schism in the team's ability to build a cohesive unit.
It may be weird and unpopular to say for a club near league-worst in xGA (expected goals against), but the defense has not been all that bad. There have been bad individual moments, but the defense, once set, is not being played through often. In 1-v-1 situations, defenders are doing well. The main things that could improve in team defending are closing space more aggressively to deny entry crosses and passes, and earning more blocks.
Charlotte FC creates plenty of transition opportunities with pressure, but they are not quick enough in transition with the ball. Other teams have been clinical against us in transition. This is where they have fallen short in being opportunistic.
Charlotte FC creates the sixth most high turnovers in MLS. Their efficiency in these high transition moments, however, is poor as they have yet to score from a high turnover. One area where Charlotte FC has shown an ability to do is to win the ball up high and counter. Their counterattacks have not been good enough. With Charlotte FC accruing the number of chances from high turnovers, they have an opportunity to take advantage of these if they can speed up their counter-attack speed.
Constant Injury Concerns
Charlotte FC has had to stretch its depth with all the injuries they have been plagued with. Kristijan Kahlina has just returned after missing the first ten games of the season. Guzmán Corujo remains sidelined during his recovery from surgery last season Tuiloma has missed three games so far and looks to be out for a little while. Adilson Malanda, who has been a constant in the starting 11, went down with an injury this past weekend. Joseph Mora is recovering from an injury but looks to be returning soon. This is all just along the backline.
In the midfield, Ashley Westwood has already missed five games due to injury. Jóźwiak also missed a couple of weeks due to a knock during their first US Open Cup match. However, they both look fully fit after beating Orlando City on Tuesday.
The amount of rotation is largely due to the team's injury-related problems. Their performances and final results should improve as Charlotte FC’s roster gains health.
New Signing Justin Meram
Charlotte FC brought in Justin Meram as wing depth right before the transfer window closed. Meram is a veteran who has shown an ability to jump right in and impact games. However, because of the injury issues that Charlotte FC has faced, Meram was put in the starting 11 and showed out with his two-way wing play and set-piece delivery.
In the graphic below Meram showed his ability to recognize a dangerous situation and prevent it from turning into a clear scoring opportunity. Against NYCFC, Charlotte FC gave the ball away in their own half, which turned into a quick transition opportunity for New York. Meram recognized the danger from the far side run and tracked it back all the way to the six-yard box and cut out the pass when it arrived. This action prevented a tap-in for NYCFC.
Meram’s ability to recognize problems will be a key veteran trait to a team that has lacked a bit of veteran experience during the early stages of the season.
Key Players - Derrick Jones and Kamil Jozwiak
Derrick Jones has cemented himself as a key piece in Charlotte FC’s midfield. The Crown has not earned a point in MLS without Jones at the six since last August (8/3/22 in a 3-0 win against DC United was the last time Charlotte earned points without Jones in the starting 11). Jones’ ability to hold the ball up strongly and maintain possession and his stable defensive positioning has made him a rock in helping Charlotte FC maintain any semblance of a defensive shape. He is leading the team in tackles won (14) and interceptions (16), which exemplifies some of the work he has done in trying to protect the backline.
Jóźwiak is another player who not only seems to have found his stride individually, but his performances are improving the team overall. Both in the defensive and attacking halves.
Jóźwiak's defensive actions versus Columbus Crew (Graphic found on MLSsoccer.com)
Jóźwiak's passes versus Columbus Crew (Graphic found on MLSsoccer.com)
In the team’s first shutout of the season against the Columbus Crew, Jóźwiak was active on both sides of the ball. As you can see based on his passing and his defensive actions, he is willing to be active anywhere he is needed on the field. In the attack, Jóźwiak has been key in getting Charlotte FC into attacking positions. He leads the team in progressive carries (21) and carries into the final third (16).
Players Trending up - Enzo Copetti, Karol Swiderski, and Ashley Westwood
Copetti has played every MLS minute so far for Charlotte FC. His goal-scoring has been sporadic since the start of the campaign, but his influence helps involve the other attackers. Especially the wingers. It is likely no fluke that the signing of Copetti has played a role in the recent surge of production on both wings. As the season progresses, Copetti could easily become one of if not the most influential player for Charlotte FC. One could also argue that it's his responsibility to do so given his designated player status and transfer fee.
Świderski has been a real beacon for Charlotte FC in the last couple of games. He has started to show the creativity and spark that was so crucial for the club towards the end of last season. If he can maintain this level for an extended period Charlotte FC’s ceiling can rise dramatically in the attacking third.
Świderski’s attacking actions versus NYCFC (Graphic found on MLSsoccer.com)
Świderski’s actions against NYCFC show how capable he was of getting involved in possession in multiple areas of the field, especially in the right half-space and zone 14, which are the two spots where many of his dangerous moments come from.
Westwood has returned to the starting 11 and made an immediate impact in his first match back. What he demonstrated this past weekend and what his passing stats already show in a short time in Charlotte provide a solid basis for why Westwood is also worthy of being in the discussion as one of the most key players for Charlotte FC over the next stretch of games. Westwood provides progressive passes. In fact, he is averaging more than double the number of progressive passes per 90 compared to any other regularly contributing Charlotte FC midfielders (6.85 versus 3.12 by Brandt Bronico).
Westwood's passes versus NYCFC (Graphic found on MLSsoccer.com)
A look at all the different passes Westwood made in last weekend's match (graphic above) demonstrates how he can help this team progress the ball into attacking areas.
For those looking for silver linings, it may be best to look beyond the first team. While Charlotte FC has struggled, Crown Legacy has thrived. Through seven games, Crown Legacy FC remains undefeated, sits atop the MLS Next Pro standings, and shows a certain level of quality, resolve, and self-belief. Simply put, they have not put many feet wrong to date.
Their early fortunes are a clear sign of the organizational intent and ambition and a way for the club to supplement the first team roster long-term while also building the cultural foundation of the greater whole. Last season’s MLS Next Pro championship side was Columbus Crew 2. This season, they have seen multiple contributors from that side move up to the first team, earn minutes, and help see the team comfortably in the Eastern Conference contender’s tier. Those players include 2022 MLS Next Pro MVP and Golden Boot winner Jacen Russell-Rowe, Patrick Shulte, and Mo Farsi.
The new and shiny Crown has shown signs of tarnish, but it is important to remember that even a tarnished Crown can be polished to shine again. Despite all the struggles, the club sits a mere two points below a playoff spot and three points out of fifth place in the East. The bare minimum goal is to qualify for the playoffs, and the greater goal is to cause a stir once there and challenge for silverware. Thankfully it is a long season, and those goals can still be achieved. For leading the league in goals conceded, any level of improvement in the important metrics should see Charlotte well in the mix in the final two-thirds of the campaign. Check back around mid-July to see if the club has made the necessary improvements and progress.