"Bigger than three points": Charlotte turn coaching change into win over Red Bulls

A fraught period for Charlotte FC turned upstream, at least for the time being, Saturday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.

That’s when the 2022 MLS expansion club earned a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, securing three points in their first match under interim manager Christian Lattanzio, a former assistant under ex-coach Miguel Angel Ramirez before the Spaniard’s departure on May 31.

Twelve days elapsed between the shockwave-inducing news and beating a top-end Eastern Conference side, and it’s clear to see the emotional lift it’s provided CLTFC.

“In the back of my mind, I knew a win would have been even bigger than three points and a bit of momentum,” center back Anton Walkes told MLSsoccer.com by phone. “It's [Lattanzio’s] first time in charge and there's extra motivation to make sure we play good underneath him.”

Goals came from midfielder Ben Bender just before halftime and substitute Derrick Jones in second-half stoppage time, securing a sixth home win in their inaugural campaign (eight tries total) and beating MLS’s best road team record-wise.

Lattanzio, a longtime right-hand man to ex-NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira, said the result “gives them more belief” they’re on a positive path. For the players, it's inspired faith in the Italian coach.

“It meant a lot to give us confidence, to give him confidence moving forward,” said Bender, the 2022 MLS SuperDraft No. 1 overall pick. “It’s not an easy time, but I think we stepped up and we showed everyone, showed the fans that we’re capable of competing against the best teams.”

Charlotte are now sixth in a jam-packed Eastern Conference table, having played once more than most around them. Saturday’s nationally-televised game also came before 32,064 supporters as the Queen City crowd continues to provide a boost.

They’re all notes that reinforce how Charlotte, amid a coaching departure that caught most of MLS by surprise, aren’t starting from the bedrock. There’s plenty of room to grow, yes, but the group Lattanzio inherits could be far worse off.

The ups and downs of an expansion year especially resonate with Walkes, who experienced Atlanta United’s debut season in 2017 while on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in his native England. He’s one of their most MLS-experienced players, now approaching 80 league appearances.

“I think we had everything settled quicker [in Atlanta], so there was a bit more hype to it and the critics pretty much shrunk rather soon,” Walkes said, contrasting the Five Stripes and Charlotte. “But there's a lot of doubt around us coming into this first year, which takes away some of the pressure. We're happy to keep a few people quiet and we're going to improve so much, I believe, over the next few games.”

Charlotte’s new-coach bump comes as the June international break nears its conclusion; DP forwards Karol Swiderski and Kamil Jozwiak are still with Poland, while Red Bulls center back Aaron Long remains with the US men’s national team.

While there were some marquee absences, Saturday’s result has the potential to reignite CLTFC’s season. Walkes, like his teammates, believes their best days lie ahead and an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spot can be obtained.

“It’s one of those things where you’re an expansion team and it takes time,” Walkes said. “You can use time as an excuse and waste a whole year, then by the time you look around it’s been two, three years and players have moved on. We don’t have that mindset here. We want to get to the best level as soon as possible.

“Things have changed recently with the coaching staff and we’ve got great guys who are going to make sure they’re fully committed to helping us get there. Everyone wants success and we’d rather have it sooner than later.”