Charlotte FC have dealt with unexpected change essentially since their inception.
Some of the chaos was out of their control. For example, sporting director Zoran Krneta was hired with the goal of building an entire sporting department and roster of players to be ready within a year, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to push back their inaugural season from 2021 to 2022.
Some of the chaos... well, only they can take accountability for. The club named rising Spanish manager Miguel Angel Ramirez as their first head coach. By the time opening day arrived, it was becoming more and more apparent the match between coach and club was not a good one. There was some internal strife that spilled over, relationships breaking down, and Charlotte parted ways with Ramirez in May, just 14 games into their first season.
Charlotte knew they couldn’t get their second coaching search wrong. After an encouraging 20 matches as interim manager, Italian head coach Christian Lattanzio was officially named full-time manager this week.
“It was very important after potentially not getting the ideal candidate in our first head coach. We wanted to make sure the second one was the right one,” Krneta told MLSsoccer.com. “Chris did a great job of almost leading the boys to the playoffs, but everything else about him, he’s oozing positivity. We’re building for the future and this is what we wanted.”
Latanzio, 51, had previous MLS experience alongside Patrick Vieira at New York City FC (as well as at Ligue 1's OGC Nice when Vieira took that job in 2018) before joining the Charlotte staff as an assistant coach. He also worked in the Manchester City academy and under the likes of Fabio Capello, Gianfranco Zola, and Roberto Mancini. He is renowned for his developmental work, something evident by increased performances by the likes of Karol Swiderski, Derrick Jones, Daniel Rios, Kamil Jozwiak and others in the Charlotte squad as the season went on.
“I’m very proud and very happy. I’ve said it in the past so it’s easy to repeat it, I really like this league,” Lattanzio said. “It’s one of the most interesting leagues and it’s growing. It’s very challenging in many different ways. To be part of this, it makes me particularly proud.”
Seeds of success
Charlotte improved under Lattanzio, both by way of picking up more points as well as underlying numbers, but there’s still work to be done to ensure the positive foundation is built upon. This winter will be key for that.
Naming Lattanzio head coach at the end of a coaching search – “there were some interesting candidates, but Lattanzio stood above everybody else,” Krneta said – was the first big decision. Now, they enter the offseason with a ton of flexibility to add to the playing squad.
“We have to continue building,” Krneta said. “We signed three players in the summer, who all fit very well. We have some missing pieces — maybe three or four — and we’ll be a club who are ready for the playoffs. We always said it’s not going to be one year, it’s going to be a building process. We’re building a community, a fan base, and relationships with fans.”
Charlotte have a core built around Swiderski, Guzman Corujo (who will miss the beginning of next season with an ACL injury), Adilson Malanda, Kristijan Kahlina, Brandt Bronico, Jozwiak, and more as signings are added to the group.
“People last year were calling the roster weak. I disagree with that,” Krneta said. “It’s a roster without recognizable names, but it’s not my problem if someone doesn’t know Karol Swiderski. That’s not fair for the club, there are a lot of players who they didn’t recognize by name.”
Ready to spend
Charlotte can add at least one Designated Player this winter and possibly two. Both Jordy Alcivar and Jozwiak can be bought down off their DP spots, while they have another U22 Initiative slot open as well. Currently, 26 players are under contract for 2023.
“We have flexibility to make changes and we will make changes,” Krneta said. “We will. We’ll spend money where it’s necessary, we were not the biggest spender last year, but we’ll improve on that this year. We have clear targets and know what we need.”
Charlotte also may be more active in the intraleague market this winter.
They weren’t without MLS experience in their inaugural season – Harrison Afful was an elite fullback for years and won MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew, Andre Shinyashiki was the 2019 MLS Rookie of the Year, while Bronico, Anton Walkes, Rios, and Jones have been in the league for numerous years, though not always as consistent starters — but it wasn’t a focal point of the group.
Charlotte were active in trade talks, but couldn’t find matching valuations for some bigger players they inquired about, while being very close to adding Paul Arriola and Sebastian Lletget in trades, only for both to end up at FC Dallas.
“One very smart guy coaching in the league once said to me it’s not the foreign players that will determine your club’s fortunes, it’s whether you get the right domestic players,” Krneta said. “Unfortunately in the previous regime, we didn’t have a chance to bring many players because there were very few they liked. Now, Lattanzio knows the league and has discussed MLS-based players he likes, who have experience in the league, the stadiums, all the difficulties this league presents.”
A culture fit for the Crown
After Lattanzio took over in June, he said he tried to tweak the team in his philosophy. This is not an easy process for any coach taking over on the fly.
“It’s difficult for any coach that takes over during the season, you’re trying to do that while preparing games,” Lattanzio said. “You need to get results but at the same time trying to change some principles of play, trying to give new information. This is a challenge, but it’s a challenge you have to embrace. I found a group of players that were versatile and clever, giving this football club their best. That was a big help.”
Lattanzio introduced some tweaks, including playing Swiderski as an attacking midfielder with another forward ahead of him, which worked really well. Swiderski delivered dynamic, all-around performances in a new role, while Rios benefitted with goals over the last six weeks of the season as Charlotte stuck around the playoff race.
He also tried new players and was unafraid to change the group.
“The work in training determines who plays,” Krneta said. “There were a lot of players who started, then went to the bench or the other way. For Lattanzio, it’s how you train during the week whether you get the chance or not. That was not the case with the previous head coach we had. The boys responded, they really liked it. They thought it was fair. That’s one cultural change that was welcomed by the front office and players.”
Now, the goal is to maintain and build on their positive moments at the end of the season.
“The sign of an average player is always the one who starts to do well, you take your foot off the gas,” Lattanzio said. “The one who goes to have a great career, and I’ve had a chance to witness great players at big clubs, they change the standards. When they do well, it becomes the new minimum. The challenge we all have is we need this run of form as our new standard. I want everyone to play better this year."