Charlotte FC "not fearing anyone" before Audi MLS Cup Playoffs debut

Charlotte FC playoffs - 10.24.23

Charlotte FC are expecting – and aren’t backing down from – a physical encounter in their first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs match when visiting the New York Red Bulls in Wednesday's single-elimination Eastern Conference Wild Card game (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

The Red Bulls' philosophy is clear: play an aggressive, high-intensity and high-pressing style of soccer. But, in a way, The Crown aren't too different.

Charlotte have found success later in 2023 by changing their approach, and the No. 9 seed doesn't want to shy away from it when trying to upset the No. 8 seed.

“We decided that as a team we wanted to be aggressive,” head coach Christian Lattanzio told reporters Tuesday. “It’s still a work in progress – as I said, it’s far from perfect. But I have a group of players here that are willing to try. They also share my philosophy of being a team that wants to be active, always with the ball and without the ball. We don’t want to be passive against anybody.”

The Italian manager added: “We don’t want to lose our identity for the opposition. … [Red Bull] have kept their philosophy, which I credit them for: very aggressive without the ball. In certain things, we are similar, and in certain things, we are different. That’s the beauty of football. We know that we have to be ready for a strong game, and we want to give them a strong game.”

Hitting their stride

Aside from the stylistic similarities, both Red Bulls and Charlotte enter the playoffs in fine form after punching their tickets on Decision Day 2023, persevering through seasons filled with ups and downs.

The Red Bulls went 4W-1L-2D to end the year and snuck into the postseason with homegrown defender John Tolkin scoring a 94th-minute penalty kick at Nashville SC. CLTFC, meanwhile, strung together a four-game unbeaten run (3W-0L-1D) to close out the season, sealed by a gutsy, 1-0 victory over Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF.

For club captain Ashley Westwood, Charlotte are clicking at the perfect time to potentially make noise in the playoffs.

“I think we’re on a good run now,” said the former Premier League midfielder. “I called it after Leagues Cup: we’ve hit form at the right time. We’re there. We’ve got confidence now. We’re playing well. We’re getting clean sheets, which is important. For us, it’s not a fresh start. We’re carrying this momentum on, and we feel like we can go all the way with that confidence.”

Just another game?

Being fearless appears to be embedded into Charlotte’s DNA heading into the postseason. And they’ll need to lean into that since it’s the club’s first MLS Cup Playoffs game since joining the league as an expansion side in 2022.

“It’s a football game. I think that sometimes we hype too much those things. Yeah, it’s an important game, but for me, we have this philosophy at the club that every game is important,” Lattanzio remarked.

“Every game matters, every game is important because it’s an opportunity for growing. … We need to have bravery, we need to be courageous, but we also need to understand our game and we need to play our game. For me, this is the most important thing.”

Charlotte will be led up top by Karol Swiderski – the unquestioned focal point of their attack – after the Polish striker tallied a team-leading 12g/4a this season.

In addition, Lattanzio says having experienced players like Westwood, who has nearly 300 Premier League caps split between Aston Villa and Burnley, along with MLS veterans such as Brandt Bronico and Derrick Jones, will be important to balancing out the playoff inexperience in the squad. For instance, defensively, young center backs Adilson Malanda and Andrew Privett have developed a partnership in front of goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina, who’s coming off a heroic performance against Miami.

As for Westwood’s message to the rest of his squad: “I think it’s just to relax and enjoy the game. We know what we have to do. It’s just like any other football game. It’s 11 against 11, and if we perform well, we win. So, it’s not letting the occasion get to us. … This is a different pressure, it’s an enjoyable pressure.”

Past clashes

Wednesday will mark the third clash between the Red Bulls and Charlotte this season. The previous two encounters ended in draws, including a 2-2 tie at Red Bull Arena on June 21.

While there are obvious takeaways from those meetings, Westwood insists CLTFC are “a different side” than they were a few months ago when RBNY came back from a two-goal deficit and salvaged a point.

“We’ve grown, we’ve matured,” said Westwood. “We’ve learned a lot. I think we control games a lot better now. We’ve gotten a few clean sheets. Now, we’ve played in some really big games, must-win games, and we’ve come through it. We’re growing as a group, we’re maturing, and like I’ve said, we’re playing the best football of our season at the right time.”

“We’re taking teams on; we’re not fearing anyone,” the club captain concluded.