By Brian Maurer
Images courtesy of Charlotte FC
During the preseason, former Charlotte FC head coach, Miguel Angel Ramirez (MAR), told the world that his team was “screwed”. After making this public comment to TopBin90, he reported that he was frustrated by a deal falling through and attempted to apologize to the players. Many MLS pundits and other football media outlets ran with this headline, predicting the Black and Blues to be competing for last place in the table.
While many in the national media consider the ex-coach’s statement as fact, it is worth considering other takes regarding Charlotte’s potential. Christian Fuchs, the team captain, stated in his recent press conference that the team was “underperforming” with MAR at the helm. Newly promoted head coach, Christian Lattanzio, evaluated the team by saying “this group of players, in my opinion, is a group of players, talented, and with a lot of qualities” to interviewer, Eric Krakauer.
The inaugural head coach, MAR, could not see these qualities in the squad, and thus claimed that he was being limited in what he could achieve. This claim led national media pundits to believe that MAR was overachieving. However, Fuchs and Lattanzio are currently preaching a message that this team, as it stands, has the quality to achieve more. Which is opposite to the sentiment MAR and many MLS pundits have been saying since preseason.
What is curious is the willingness with which people went along with the narrative that MAR presented, and still continue to do so. The belief by many MLS pundits, especially after MAR’s preseason comments, is that the Charlotte FC roster is weak, and that MAR punched above his weight.
Lattanzio’s resume of evaluating and developing world class talent can compete with most other coaches who have worked in football development. And Fuchs has played at some of the highest levels in world football.
Lattanzio has now taken the reins of Charlotte FC, and with his promotion has come more doubters. The important thing is the players believe in him. “We have a great coach with Christian Lattanzio who has vast experience, for decades. He won the Premier League with Mancini, with Manchester City, I don’t think there is anything else I need to add,” Fuchs said on his impression of Lattanzio.
That belief showed on the pitch when Charlotte FC got a dominant win against a highly ranked New York Red Bulls (NYRB) side. This commanding win, it should be said, was done without a single designated player (DP). In fact, Charlotte FC had not been able to get a result without both Karol Swiderski and Fuchs in the lineup. Until Lattanzio was promoted.
Is There Quality In The Squad?
According to many MLS pundits, MAR was dealt a shorthand with the roster. “You look at that roster that he had to put out his final game there are maybe two guys there who you would look at and say ‘that’s an MLS caliber starter,’” said Matt Doyle, an MLS analyst.
MAR had been making similar remarks about the roster for months. He said, “I am not Harry Potter,” meaning that he would have to be a wizard to succeed with the roster he was given. However, if you were to ask Lattanzio or Fuchs the team does have quality. That quality was on full display at home versus NYRB.
While there are still plenty of doubters regarding the roster construction, Charlotte FC’s potential is slowly starting to get recognized outside of the Carolinas, thanks in part to an ABC broadcast. “I tell you this, Ben Bender and [McKinzie Gaines] were very good today. Both of them, different types of players, and different skill sets, but do a lot of good things for this team”, said ESPN analyst, Alejandro Moreno, during the broadcast.
Image courtesy of Charlotte FC
Moreno focused on the potential of McKinzie Gaines. “This is what I’ll say to McKinzie Gaines, ‘Buddy, you clean the last part of your game, that final decision. You clean it up, and complete the passes, put the crosses into dangerous areas with more consistency, you are going to be a big player in this league for a while”.
One player who is starting to fulfill some of his potential is Ben Bender. Bender has put up three goals and three assists so far this season, his ability to attack space is something that MLS fans outside of Charlotte are starting to notice.
“He [Bender] is a space merchant, he has the vision to see space, and the foresight to find space before it opens up…against the Red Bulls he consistently played in the half space behind Frankie Amaya and in front of the Red Bull backline…he is an absolute game breaker, Ben Bender is a space merchant, and the most influential player for the expansion side Charlotte FC” said MLS Gone Wild host, Blake Eshelman, on a recent podcast episode.
Several of the players on the Charlotte FC roster have been considered less than starting caliber quality. However, the team has been playing many of these players because they have raw potential and special traits and abilities. Currently, this strategy has been working.
From the off, Charlotte FC’s front office has expressed their desire to develop stars in the Carolinas. “We want to create our own stars,” Charlotte FC’s head of scouting, Thomas Schaling, told writer Ryan Bailey back in January. This concept was always going to look rough to some analysts who focus on the results and statistical success of many of the prospects that Charlotte signed to their roster throughout the early part of roster construction.
Most of Charlotte’s roster has been filled with prospects and journeymen. To many, this would not be a method for early success. However, there appears to be a vision in place, and the players have reported a belief in this vision, and that they, themselves, can fulfill the start to it.
Finding capable prospects, who can become stars, requires players who have traits or abilities that can be honed and developed into more complete players with time. Bender has a very capable touch on the ball and strong understanding of space. However, those abilities can get challenged as the game speeds up at a higher level.
Image courtesy of Charlotte FC
Bender himself has mentioned that the speed of MLS has taken him some time to adjust to. As his processing speed increases, his ability and results are likely to do the same. Gaines has immense physical attributes, especially his pace. Pace is something that cannot be coached. But, final third competency can. If, like Moreno reported on ABC, Gaines can develop his final third competency to compliment his pacey play, he will become a force on the wing.
The goal of the roster build in Charlotte was never to look initially pretty on paper. The goal appears to be to bring in players with special qualities that can be enhanced and developed. That development will be what fans in Charlotte notice first, and the league at-large notices second. Bender and Gaines, for example, were not discussed as potential key pieces to this team by MLS pundits and analysts at the beginning of the season. With time, that narrative has started to shift.
A Chip On Their Shoulder
Another trait that stands out starkly about this Charlotte FC team, that is difficult to analyze, is the amount of players that have a proverbial “chip on their shoulder”. Many had been pushed out of regularly playing in their primary role, such as Andre Shinyashiki at Colorado. Others lost out on valuable playing time due to injuries, like Jaylin Lindsey.
However, Charlotte has provided a haven, an opportunity, for players with special traits and skill sets to hone their talent and prove some critics wrong. This attitude of the team is contagious, and is shown in the competitive nature of the squad on the pitch. Something that even MAR, who rated the team poorly, could not miss.
In fact, one of the main critiques Fuchs reported the players had was that they wanted more intense training sessions. If there is one statement that stands out about the competitive nature of this group of players, it is that they are calling for more intensity in training.
Many of the players on this squad have also been turned aside by other clubs, who opted to take a different direction. Players like Gaines, Shinyashiki, Brandt Bronico, Daniel Rios, and Derrick Jones have all shown an ability to perform well at varying professional levels in the United States. However, the MLS teams they played for were clearly not interested in attempting to allow these players the time to develop, to see if their potential can actually materialize.
Charlotte FC has provided an opportunity for these players. Bronico and Rios have become regular contributors to the success of the Black and Blues. Shinyashiki has scored four goals since joining the club. Gaines has shown flashes of some truly remarkable traits, especially his pace. In Lattanzio’s first game as coach, Jones scored his first ever MLS goal.
Image courtesy of Charlotte FC
The trait that stands out amongst some of Charlotte FC’s players from abroad is that they are all hungry, and appear determined to push their careers up to a higher level of competition. Some of these players include Kerwin Vargas, Jan Sobocinski, and Guzman Corujo. Of these players, Corujo has solidified himself as an assistant captain and one of the first names put on the lineup.
Sobocinski was also finally given his MLS debut during the match against NYRB. Vargas, in limited minutes, has shown very high charisma and personality in attack with the ball. The limited production levels for some of these players may shift under interim coach Lattanzio, who seems more willing to change tactics based on his players’ skill sets.
Other players such as Lindsey, Alan Franco, and Kamil Jozwiak arrived in Charlotte after less productive stints at other clubs. In Lindsey and Jozwiak’s case, they were also recovering from injuries. Lindsey and Franco have become regular contributors to the team. Jozwiak has still yet to shine as he recently recovered from an ankle injury and has had limited minutes.
Charlotte FC clearly planned to bring in a variety of players with different skill sets, and from different circumstances. They are also not fully polished and developed into their highest versions of themselves. However, they all have a clear hunger to perform and a desire to compete with each other in Charlotte.
Some of the players mentioned will not develop into stars in MLS, however the competitive nature that has been put in the locker room through these signings will provide the foundational culture for what future signings can expect when joining the club. Future players in Charlotte FC will likely be more unproven, hungry, competitive players with special traits or attributes who are looking to fight their way into a role on the club.
They will also be players looking to show they can compete at the MLS level or higher. While many on the current roster may not be deemed “MLS starting caliber”, Charlotte FC’s squad is full of players with high potential, a chip on their shoulder, and something to prove.
Searching For A Better Fit
Many of the players Charlotte FC have found so far were also in difficult situations before arriving in Charlotte. Jozwiak was on a team, Derby County, that was in a relegation battle. Shinyashiki was playing for the Colorado Rapids, who, over the past couple seasons had struggled to find tactics that provided consistent goal scoring from any of their attackers.
Bronico was a part of a struggling Chicago Fire team before performing well for the Charlotte Independence. Jones arrived after playing for a struggling Houston Dynamo team. Gaines was playing for a first year side, Austin FC, who decided to spend more heavily in the attack rather than to focus on developing attackers such as Gaines.
The point is that many of the players have potential, but were limited by a less than ideal situation for them. Does that mean that Charlotte FC is a guaranteed better situation for all of these players? No. But, it does allow the opportunity for them to reach their potential, as it gives them a chance to see if, indeed, Charlotte is a better fit. Charlotte in turn could reap some serious reward if the potential of some of these players actually does come to fruition.
A chance to compete; this is what Charlotte FC has been able to offer several players with potential who have yet to find a team that fits them well. Many players have gotten that chance. The end results thus far have been encouraging, and the summer transfer window has yet to open. The July window would allow Charlotte another opportunity to provide further competition and depth to a squad that has already shown an ability to compete in MLS.
So? How Good Is The Squad?
According to analysts around MLS, Charlotte FC are not a good team, on paper, and are punching above their weight so far. However, a roster on paper does not fully highlight the final product on the pitch. Inter Miami, for example, provided plenty of big name players to fill a solid on paper roster. However, they are still struggling to find their identity as a team, and have dealt with ramifications for their overambitious strides towards filling a superstar roster.
Nashville SC’s roster is more compact, and includes a massive star playmaker in Hany Mukhtar. However, Mukhtar is about the only player that makes Nashville a watchable team, even though they make the playoffs. This is because they are a defensive minded team that depends on Mukhtar for almost all of their offensive production. Their roster, on paper, is decent, but their entertainment value is not.
What can be seen of Charlotte FC’s roster is not on paper. So far, they have shown a willingness to compete and fight, leading to several strong results at home. The competition in the roster during training has also shown that there are several players with raw potential who can develop into legitimate playmakers if molded correctly.
Having a roster that is willing to compete with each other has led to several unexpected, but welcome, surprises. Such as Bronico becoming an every week starter. Players on the team know that there are opportunities ready to be taken as long as they push for them. This has created a roster full of potential, and with a variety of skill sets that Lattanzio can choose from to make tactical decisions.
The squad is full of lesser known players ready to fight and compete for the Queen City. Just as Schaling said it was going to be. There really should be no surprise that this is how the roster is forming, since it had been stated pretty clearly from the start. With that comes a team bolstered to continue to compete for a playoff spot, and by the end of the season a few of the competitive prospects will likely become stars.
This player development model could make Charlotte FC look good on paper next year, with several “MLS starting caliber” players. This year, they have shown an ability to compete and get results in spite of the pundits’ analysis.