WASHINGTON – Charlotte FC fought the odds on opening day, and the odds won.
Of the eight teams that have joined MLS since 2016, just one, LAFC, have taken points from their inaugural match. And the newcomers from Carolina joined that trend at Audi Field on Saturday evening, suffering just about every unlucky bounce imaginable in a 3-0 loss to D.C. United graced by an impressive pack of some 400 loud away supporters from the Queen City.
As has so often been the case for expansion sides, the joy of taking their first fully competitive steps together was tempered by the cold, hard realities that accompany it.
“It was a privilege to be out there, I mean, for me, especially,” said midfielder and North Carolina native Brandt Bronico postgame. “A dream come true to start and play for this club in the first-ever game and make history. Everybody was very excited. We had a great atmosphere from our traveling fans. And although the result didn’t go our way, I'm proud of the guys and the work they put in.
“I thought we were controlling the majority of the game,” he added, “and if you look at the chances that they had, it was the penalty, a deflection goal and then another deflection off of our goalie that ended up in the goal. So it's not like they were creating a lot of chances.”
CLTFC and their fans jubilantly celebrated what appeared to be their first-ever goal as Titi Ortiz bravely stuck his head into traffic to beat D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid in the 19th minute, only for a Video Review offside decision to erase it. Then the hosts were gifted a penalty kick – converted by Michael Estrada – on a very harsh handball decision against Bronico, with Charlotte frustrated by what they considered an uncalled foul on United in the buildup.
Estrada struck again in the dying seconds of first-half injury time, as his speculative shot from range took a huge deflection off defender Christian Fuchs and flew past a wrongfooted Kristijan Kahlina to double the deficit, and drive home what an uphill climb year 1 tends to be for newborn teams like theirs.
“These two situations were simply unlucky,” said Fuchs. “When you get struck on the arm from such a short distance … the handball rule, there’s always controversy. But for me what's most important is how the team perceives the game, how we applied ourselves to the game, that even though we were 2-0 down, we tried to play our way. We stepped up the second half, we were running non-stop. We were fighting for each other. We didn't give up, we believed in ourselves.
“And you know, it's a start of a journey. The group that we are, the club that we are, we’ve been together for five weeks, six weeks. Nobody ever said it's gonna be easy.”
Head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez was an active presence in his technical area for much of the 90-plus minutes, communicating with his players in a fashion that suggested ample teachable moments as he works to build understanding in his positional play system.
The Spaniard has famously lamented his roster’s current shortage of top-tier attacking menace and here he elected to play Ortiz, who usually works as a No. 10 or a winger, as a lone striker at the tip of a 5-4-1 formation. He liked his side’s organization and movement in the buildup, but noted, “of course, better to have a striker to finish these actions,” as CLTFC rued a lack of cutting edge in front of goal.
“I believe that we were able to recognize in the second half the game that we needed to play,” said Ramirez. “So we were controlling the match better and playing less direct as we did in the first half. So we had much more control and better quality arrivals, chances. And I tried to show them we were doing properly what we needed to do, to arrive with more control and with better quality.
“As I said before the first match, the best coach and the best teacher is the competition. So the competition will tell us what we need to improve and where we are going.”
With Designated Player Karol Swiderski still in Poland awaiting resolution of work permit issues, young Brazilian Vinicius Mello injured and Daniel Rios (who did his best as a second-half substitute) freshly arrived via this week’s trade from Nashville SC, Charlotte’s options are limited.
They hope that outlook improves significantly in time for next weekend’s much-anticipated home debut March 5 vs. the LA Galaxy at what is projected to be a packed Bank of America Stadium. If the enthusiasm of their traveling support was any indication, it figures to be loud and passionate as well.
“Amazing,” said Ramirez of the fans, reminding his players to salute them after the final whistle. “We felt your energy and we need you – we need you, because it’s the beginning and it will be easier with the help of our supporters.”
While moral victories are the thinnest of gruel, Charlotte know the history of expansion toil they face, and saw signs of the resilient spirit that can help them endure.
“We have the qualities now in our team to be a solid team, to be a competitive team. That's our main focus right now, to get to this level,” said the veteran Fuchs. “You saw glimpses of our potential today. But there's still so much we need to learn. So it's a big factor of being patient as well.”