That went much better and much worse than anybody predicted.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
Way back in February, when then-head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez said what he said (you all understand that the actual translation is something unprintable for a family-friendly website like MLSsoccer.com, right?) about his roster, the obvious reaction was to downgrade already moderate expectations for this team’s expansion season performance by about 10 points or so.
And then a few months into the season when Ramirez was fired, and the tranche of South Americans he’d brought with him had proved to be subpar, and then later when it was clear there’d be no high-priced DPs on the way in the summer window… From a certain point of view, this looked like it was heading toward “2019 FC Cincinnati” territory, i.e. a miserable debut season that produced literally nothing to build around going forward.
But it wasn’t that way. By the end of the year, under interim and hopefully-soon-to-be-permanent head coach Christian Lattanzio, it was the other way – a debut season full of promise and useful building blocks, capped by a late and credible (but ultimately futile) Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs push.
Formation and Tactics
I’m just going to focus on what they became under Lattanzio, which is a team that was able to flex between a 4-4-2 diamond and a 4-2-3-1, and one that predictably looked NYCFC-esque (Lattanzio has CFG roots and was an assistant under Patrick Vieira from 2016-18) in how they used the ball. The fullbacks were aggressive but not wildly so, while the deep midfield was trusted to run the show by playing into the pockets rather than simply settling for long switches.
The big thing in that regard is they were able to do it without turning it over a ton, which had not been possible under Ramirez. That’s not just down to the skill of the players involved, but to the type of coordinated off-ball movement into and out of high-leverage zones so that there were always progressive passing options.
I wouldn’t call them a pure “pressing team” by the second half of the year, though they were in the top third of the league in many of Second Spectrum’s pressing metrics. I do think, though, that “pressing team” is the direction in which they’re pointed.
As with any expansion team, the biggest and most memorable highlight is the first win. For Charlotte that came at home in Week 4 when last year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning New England Revolution came to town, and walked away with a 3-1 loss. Cincy came to town the following week and walked away with a 2-0 loss of their own, and suddenly Charlotte had their first-ever winning streak.
But I’m going to fast forward to the end of the year and the 4-0 thumping of the Philadelphia Union in Week 33, because my god, they did to Philly what Philly had been doing to everybody in the second half of the season! It was, as a performance, a culmination of everything Lattanzio had been trying to build this team towards:
Goals off of possession, off of counter-pressing, and out of transition. Using the ball to get behind the opposing fullbacks, and creating danger from the primary assist zones (which some folks actually call the “Man City zones” which, yeah, shows Lattanzio’s roots).
That was the third win a row, which put the Crown into the final week of the season with faint, but still very real playoff hopes.
It’s hard to put your finger on one particular point during the season, other than when Ramirez was fired, which actually turned into a highlight given how the rest of the year turned out. I think you could credibly argue that the prolonged stretch from mid-July to early September, during which they went 2W-7L-0D, was the worst it got for the Crown (which, to be clear, actually isn’t all that bad by expansion team standards).
It’s not at all coincidental that their worst stretch of the year, by the way, coincided with the busiest stretch of the year. The initial roster build was so poor that there were almost zero plug-and-play options; Lattanzio had to spend much of his time finding and developing starters, and rotation was never really an option.
Also, in their biggest game of the year with a playoff spot on the line, their goalkeeper did this:
The very best thing to have in this league is not a massive budget (do I need to point out where Toronto and Atlanta are in the standings?) or an MVP-caliber DP to build around. The best thing to have is a coach who can develop talented players – whether they’re young guys with obvious high upsides, or whether they’re MLS grinders taken off the scrap-heap, or whether they’re USL guys finally put into a situation in which they can shine – and turn them into high-level contributors.
It’s the scrap-heap guys that Lattanzio did his best work with:
- For years the nerds have been pointing out that the underlying numbers for Daniel Rios, a USL star, were Brandon Vazquez or Brian White-ish. And now Rios’s late 2022 push sure looks a lot like Vazquez’s late 2021 push.
- Derrick Jones was a USYNT star with USMNT and “starter in a Big 5 league” talent that nobody had ever been able to unlock. Since Lattanzio slotted him in at d-mid, Charlotte have gone 5W-4L-0D. They’re 8W-13L-3D in all other games.
- Brandt Bronico is the biggest surprise. A fringe guy at Chicago, he’s turned into an Alejandro Bedoya-esque all-action No. 8 who wins the ball, progresses the ball and makes super dynamic runs out of midfield to give numbers in the box.
And oh lordy did they need that juice from the bottom of the roster since the guys at the top – Swiderski and Guzman Corujo excepted, and maybe Christian Fuchs as well – were such a disaster. They got virtually zero contributions from the cadre that Ramirez brought with him, many of whom have already been offloaded, and other supposedly foundational pieces like goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and DP winger Kamil Jozwiak underperformed badly.
“He played against Spain and Holland. Can you play in Salt Lake City if you played against Holland?,” sporting director Zoran Krneta, in the midst of badly underrating the level of play in MLS, told our own Tom Bogert about Jozwiak, who had all of 1g/4a in 61 appearances with Derby County before being inked to a DP deal. “I think you can.”
Jozwiak has been a part-time starter since his arrival. He has 0g/3a in a touch shy of 1100 MLS minutes.
Five Players to Build Around
- Swiderski (CF/SS/AM): Swiderski wasn’t great, but he was really good at three spots, and Charlotte came alive when Lattanzio used him and Rios together.
- Rios (FW): I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect 12 to 15 goals next year, provided he stays healthy.
- Bronico (CM): A tone-setter with his engine and competitiveness, and more skillful than folks realize.
- Jones (DM): Keaton Parks-esque with how smooth he is on the ball, which makes it very difficult to press this team.
- Malanda (CB): Not a lot of 20-year-old CBs have come in and played as well, right away, as he has.
If they can figure out how to offload Jordy Alcivar to free up a DP slot they can then take a crack at adding another high-upside winger. If there is one move (well, I guess that’s two moves) I could just wish into existence for them, it’s that.
From there it’s just a matter of setting up a plan to get the kind of development out of guys like Ben Bender, Kerwin Vargas and Vinicius Mello that they did out of guys like Rios, Bronico and Jones. And they should maybe rethink the goalkeeper depth chart as well.
Regardless, this team seems pretty well set up to flirt with and maybe even surpass 50 points next year.