It may seem strange for the MLS Now Rapids correspondent to cover Charlotte but I actually have a keen interest in how Charlotte does this season. As a matter of fact, I grew up outside Asheville, NC in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, I have a natural interest in the club's success and am filling in as the Charlotte correspondent temporarily.
(Image: WSOC TV)
Big Picture and The System
It's not too often the head coach of a sports team is quoted saying "We're screwed". But that is exactly what happened. Head Coach Miguel Angel Ramirez said as much on February 26th when speaking to the media. Hopefully this doesn't haunt the club all season but I'm sure it'll be brought up time and time again. Do I think they are screwed? No. The roster build could've gone better but it's not that bad.
Ramirez also had this to share in the leadup to their inagural match, “They [the players] are so happy, so happy. They are super excited; they are really looking forward to the game. You feel the energy in trainings, you feel a special energy, that is the competition."
Similarities have been drawn to Austin FC, which I agree with, largely because of the way they've built their squad. Charlotte has chosen to scout the international market as a priority over domestic players. If they hit on some of these players, they'll look smart. If not, then they didn't take the conventional wisdom of capitalizing on experienced players within the league.
Under Head Coach Ramirez, the team will play a high energy 4-3-3 system. Without a clear #10 in the starting rotation, they'll likely see a single pivot in midfield with a pair of #8s in front. Two traditional wingers and a target striker make up the front line.
The expansion draft was an interesting time for Charlotte fans. They made two great selections in Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Tristan Blackmon. And then promptly traded them away. They did get good value in return via General Allocation Money (GAM). However, those two players would have been clear upgrades from the players they took instead. This was a clear mistake in my book.
Charlotte opens their campaign playing out of Bank of America Stadium, where the NFL team the Charlotte Panthers also call home. They field was changed from natural grass to turf in the past year. Presumably the decision was made because of the projected "wear and tear" on a grass field. While an NFL stadium can be used well to accommodate soccer games, a turf field is unfortunately a major downgrade. The playing surface changes the way the game is played and means players are more prone to injuries. The stadium maxes out at a capacity of 74,000 while the lower bowl will be set up for most games around 38,000. The club is anticipating most games to reach about 30,000 fans which would be an impressive turnout. However, the newest MLS franchise has some of the steepest prices in the entire league. Season ticket holders are required to buy personal seat licenses, or PSLs, which are very rare in soccer while common in NFL. That fee ranges from $350-900 depending on the seat location. This brings the average season ticket price to $54 which is the single highest in MLS. Despite all of these potentially negative outlooks, there is an avid fanbase and supporter culture. The Carolina's have a rich soccer tradition from youth levels to collegiate and professional levels. I expect the fan culture to be strong, loud and rowdy.
Breaking news this Thursday brought some excitement for fans with a new addition to the attack. Charlotte FC have officially acquired forward Daniel Rios from Nashville SC in exchange for $350,000 in General Allocation Money plus another $150,00 GAM in incentives. The Mexican international played in the Carolina's before, when he went out on loan to USL side North Carolina FC. The 27 year old comes in at a low price and could prove to be a real bargain. Many see Rios as a player who is ready to make the next step and could really elevate his game with more playing time. On the other hand, Rios has been too good for USL and not quite good enough to be a starter in MLS. A fresh start in Charlotte could be exactly what he needs.
Designated Player Karol Swaderski is a target forward who likes to drop back to connect with his teammates. He's not necesarily a playmaker but he has mobility in his game. Coming out of the Greek league he scored 11 goals in each of the past two seasons in 23 and 21 starts respectively. The club shelled out $5 million for the striker who is still getting his visa worked out. Unfortunately for Charlotte, he'll miss the first game of the season at DC United.
Vinicius Mello is one of their young DPs who is also starting the season on the injured list. This really depletes their options in attack to start the season. The Brazilian 19 year old normally plays central striker but can also play left wing. He came to the club from Brazilian side Internacional.
SuperDraft Pick Kyle Holcomb out of Wake Forest was one of the most promising striker in the draft. Like most draft picks, he's not expected to make an immediate impact but is a medium to long term option.
One of biggest bright spots in the squad is the Ecuadorian duo in midfield. Jordy Alcivar is a 22 year old defensive midfielder who will look to be the anchor of this team. 23 year old Alan Franco plays further up the field as a #8. The club will need this pair to really shine this year, shielding the back line and launching the attack.
The third piece in midfield is expected to be Sergio Ruiz. The Spaniard is unfortunately unavailable to start the season however. Brandt Bronico and Chris Hegardt are the only other central midifeld options who don't have any MLS experience. SuperDraft pick Ben Bender out of Maryland University is more of a #10 and unlikely to see much action to star the season. He was highly touted out of college and is expected to be a solid contributor in MLS.
Currently the winger position is one of the biggest weaknesses. It looked like a $6 million DP would come in at left wing, the clearest position in need, this offseason. Much to the angst of the fans in Carolina, the deal fell through at the 11th hour. After failing to acquire Venezuelan Darwin Machis, due to issues in Spain where he plays with Granada, the club had their backup option fall through as well. Literally the day after an agreement was reached for Derby County’s Polish winger Kamil Jozwiak, he came up injured the next day. Very bad luck. The club was also pursuing domestic winger Paul Arriola who ultimately went to FC Dallas for a record setting deal. Therefore it looks like they'll be starting the season without their ideal lineup. They did however land Cristian Ortiz, Argentinian left winger, on loan from Mexican club Club Tijuana.
The Peruvian winger, Yordy Reyna, does provide MLS experience but not at an above average level. He's now 28 years old and previously played with DC United, Vancouver Whitecaps, RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. Reyna is capable of playing either wing or as a central striker.
In the expansion draft, Charlotte chose Anton Walkes who is the cornerstone of their defense. Previously with Atlanta United and a Tottenham academy player, Walkes provides stability in the center of defense. Although he has 64 MLS appearances providing him the league experience this club needs, he also hasn't been a consistent starter. Yet. Next to Walkes, Corujo is expected to be other center back starter. Makoun is a promising option but likely won't be starting often.
Outside backs have plenty of depth. Two of the earliest signings were Christian Fuchs at left back (and maybe centerback?) from Charlotte Independence and Jaylin Lindsay from Sporting KC at right back. Joseph Mora and Adam Armour provide additional options at left back. Meanwhile Harrison Afful provides cover at right back after moving over from Columbus Crew.
Charlotte chose to use an international spot on a goalkeeper which is not very common. Kristijan Kahlina is a 29 year old Croatian who joined from Bulgarian side Ludogrets. Presumably they expect Kahlina to be stronger than your average domestic keeper and will be the starter.
One of the strengths of this team is the defense. We'll see how well they perform once the season starts but they've clearly built this squad from the back first. They start the season with one of the three available DPs signed. Meanwhile all three Under-22 Initiative players have been signed (max of 3, also called Young DPs). Jordy Alcivar, Vinicius Mello and Christian Makoun take those young DP slots.
Expectations and Final Thoughts
Sadly, I think expectations are pretty low in terms of position in the table and making the MLS Cup Playoffs. I do think it's possible they fair better than FC Cincy and avoid the wooden spoon. The club was ready to spend money before transfers fell through, so we should expect reinforcements in the summer. A little bit of bad luck means they're without that key signing where they've targeted wingers. In order to have service to their strikers, they'll need that width and creativity. Lots of young guys on this team, players with something to prove. It's absolutely possible they rise to the occassion and exceed expectations. However, I don't think they'll finish in the top 7 of the Eastern Conference and will miss the playoffs. I would say 13th place out of 14th is a likely scenario.
It's very difficult to start a brand new squad and be successful in year one. Much will be learned about this team in the opening few weeks, and how much the players and staff learn from the start of the season. With a rowdy supporter's section at home, they'll need to scrape together a few wins and ties. Hold it together until summer when further reinforcements arrive. The true plans of the club will likely come to fruition at that time.
If the team can lock it down defensively and be creative enough to provide service to their strikers, they'll find success. I hope for the Carolina faithful that all the expectations of placing them at the bottom of the table are wrong (except when they play the Rapids this spring!).
Good luck to Charlotte and hope the fans enjoy the excitement and chaos of MLS!