Fans of the Crown came into 2023 with what I considered to be mostly realistic hopes: play some good ball, develop some young players while incorporating a few new old ones, and contend for an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spot.
And it’s not a lie to say they mostly hit on all of the above. Sure the “good ball” they played wasn’t exactly Columbus Crew-level free-flowing dominance, and sure they couldn’t keep a lead if their lives depended upon it, but 1) they used the ball pretty well, and 2) they took leads in the first place! Lots of teams don’t manage that.
And sure, none of the young players really, truly popped, and a couple (Ben Bender and Adilson Malanda) took steps backwards, but the old guys mostly integrated well and the roster as a whole has some potential.
And hey, they didn’t just contend for the playoffs: they made it! In super-dramatic fashion on Decision Day, no less.
So it’d be fair to say they checked two-and-a-half of the three boxes that I think were determinative on the success/failure metric. I mean, a playoff appearance in Year 2 is tangible proof of a step forward, right?
Right. But at the same time… this year didn’t really feel like a success. At the center of it was the fact the manager’s ideas for how to play were at war with the sporting director's ideas for how to build a roster, and that disconnect – as well as the tragic offseason death of starting center back Anton Walkes – cast a shadow over everything.
I think in the end, what we got was essentially the C+ version of two competing visions: head coach Christian Lattanzio’s CFG-infused 4-3-3 positional play, and sporting director Zoran Krneta’s more continental and straightforward mid-block 4-2-3-1.
When the manager and the sporting director butt philosophical heads, there’s usually only one winner. And that was the case in Charlotte, as Lattanzio was dismissed on Nov. 8 despite what was, by the numbers, a pretty successful year-and-a-half in charge.
Formation & Tactics
As mentioned, Lattanzio preferred a 4-3-3 with positional play, with the idea of getting to that CFG-patented 3-2-2-3 attacking shape with the ball. At various times that meant various kinds of hilarious rotations – Brandt Bronico as an inverted left back rotating in to form a double pivot? Check; Harrison Afful testing those old legs to do the same at right back? Check; rookie midfielder Andrew Privett slotting in at center back and taking on the John Stones role to step forward on the ball? Check – each of which produced more bad moments than good.
What produced more good moments than bad was when Lattanzio simplified and played Karol Swiderski underneath a true striker (DP No. 9 Enzo Copetti when healthy; impressive rookie Patrick Agyemang when he could crack the lineup) in that more basic 4-2-3-1 (it might even be more accurately called a 4-4-1-1).
Irrespective of the formation, Charlotte did generally try to get on the ball as often as possible. Part of this was their tactical preference, and part of it was just strategic necessity – this team couldn’t defend worth a damn in their own 18, so keeping the game as far away from there was the safest choice.
On June 7, Lionel Messi announced he’d be playing for Inter Miami. From that date forward, folks around the world had the Decision Day game between Inter and Charlotte circled – and it wasn’t for the Crown’s playoff push.
But, well, the Crown’s playoff push was what they got. Charlotte spent most of the second half of the year being tough to beat, and that kept them in touching distance of the final playoff spot. And then October came and they got hot.
They started the month with a 3-0 destruction of Toronto. They followed that up by crushing Chicago’s hopes and dreams with a 2-0 win at Soldier Field. Eleven days after that they went to Miami and got a 2-2 draw.
That left them in need of a win on Decision Day and some help.
They got the win. They got the help. They got the celebration the fans had been desperate for:
It was an awesome scene.
The season-long lowlight was the blown leads – they dropped 25 points from winning positions, which was the most in MLS. It’s kind of amazing they made the playoffs despite that.
But that trip to the playoffs… man, there was absolutely no reason to be this naive:
The Red Bulls have been doing this for almost a decade. How can you be unprepared?
Privett. For a rookie just learning the position, and doing it with the degree of difficulty ratcheted up on multiple levels – he came into the team in the stretch run; his CB partner was just 21 years old; the midfield in front of him was always changing; he was asked to do a ton with the ball – he was really, really good.
Is he good enough to be a centerpiece going forward? I’m not sure. But at the very least he looks like a solid rotation piece.
Malanda and Bender. These guys are talented enough to be among the 10 best in the league at their respective spots, yet neither looked anything close to that this year.
Five Players to Build Around
- Swiderski (FW/AM): Playing him just underneath a true No. 9 almost always works. Let's see if the transfer buzz cools off.
- Copetti (FW): He didn’t show much this year, so I’m going on faith that a full season of good health and a sensical lineup means he’ll produce.
- Kerwin Vargas (W): Might have broken out a bit down the stretch.
- Privett (CB): As I said, he’s a solid rotation piece at the very least.
- Malanda (CB): I think the version we saw down the stretch in 2022 is the real version of the kid, who’s very obviously talented.
Well, they’ve got to find a new manager, and hopefully this time it’ll be one who’s aligned with Krneta’s views on the game. If I was interviewing for the job the first thing I’d do is say “here’s how I’m going to play Swiderski underneath Copetti and get the most out of them both.”
As for the roster itself, there are some obvious areas to upgrade:
- A high-level ball-winning 6
- An improvement over current DP winger Kamil Jozwiak
- A starting-caliber right back
- A rugged, veteran center back
- Maybe a new goalkeeper
I doubt they get to all of that in one offseason, and I’m not sure they should even try to, because more important than going shopping is getting more out of the young and young-ish guys already on the roster. Vargas, Bender, Malanda and Agyemang are a start, and academy wingers Brian Romero and Nimfasha Berchimas aren’t far behind.
There’s talent here. Next year there should be another step forward. Maybe this time, it’ll even feel like one.