A deep-dive into Charlotte FC’s rough start to life in MLS

Quick
Hits
  • Just two months into their first MLS season, Charlotte FC is no stranger to chaos
  • With a weak attack, the league’s newest team is currently in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and is averaging just one point per game
  • Head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez is giving Charlotte a defined style, but it’s not turning into a lot of results
Mar 5, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Charlotte FC defender Jaylin Lindsey (24) reacts after the match against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Griffin Zetterberg-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a bumpy ride so far for Charlotte FC in their young Major League Soccer existence.

Owned by billionaire hedge fund manager David Tepper, who also owns the National Football League’s struggling Carolina Panthers, there are major questions about Charlotte FC’s identify. Two and a half years after MLS awarded Tepper and Charlotte a team and just over two months into their expansion season, the answers are decidedly unclear.

Charlotte's Organizational Dysfunction

The MLS newcomers have more than just an owner in common with their American football counterparts. The dysfunction experienced by the Panthers, who have a 33.8% winning percentage during Tepper’s time as their owner, seems to have spread to the soccer side of the organization as well.

Charlotte FC hired Zoran Krneta, an agent with no previous front office or MLS experience, as their Sporting Director at the tail end of 2019. In a league where knowing how to leverage strange roster rules is almost as important as talent identification, some had concerns about whether Charlotte possessed the necessary technical know-how to craft a modern MLS roster. 

Here’s a little timeline for you featuring some of the more chaotic pieces of Charlotte FC’s most recent offseason – the offseason where identifying players and leveraging roster rules needed to start happening:

  • On December 1, 2021, with less than three months until their first game, Charlotte had just eight players on their initial roster
  • On January 20, 2022, Technical Director Marc Nicholls left to take a job with the same title at the Columbus Crew
  • On February 1, 2022, Tepper Sports & Entertainment President Tom Glick abruptly left his position
  • On February 10, 2022, the $6 million deal for Venezuelan winger Darwin Machís was called off reportedly due to legal issues related to a bar fight that Machís had participated in while in Spain
  • On February 11, 2022, with only two weeks remaining until their first-ever MLS game and only one designed player (DP) on their roster, head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez told reporters, “right now, we’re screwed”

Even more recently, Charlotte FC team President and Tepper Sports & Entertainment CEO Nick Kelly left his position after just three months in that role.

Roster building & tactics

Building an MLS team from scratch is difficult. Ramírez, Charlotte’s first-year manager, is finding that out first hand. Despite the forward-facing goal of making the playoffs – a feat that has only been achieved seven times by expansion clubs in their first respective seasons – Charlotte doesn’t look like they have a strong enough roster to do the job. According to American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added metric, only three players (all center backs) have positive scores, which means that the rest of Charlotte players make it more likely for the opposing team to score rather than their own.

That’s not a hallmark of a strong squad.

After 10 games, Charlotte FC is currently sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. However, the underlying numbers suggest that they could be even worse than the standings indicate. Ramírez’s team has the third-worst expected goals differential in the league so far, per FBref, mostly due to a struggling offense that has scored just 9 goals this season. 

The good news for Charlotte is that they could see a midseason glow-up based on some roster additions. Charlotte have already brought in some reinforcements from within MLS and they have a bit of roster flexibility as well. Both DP Kamil Jozwiak and Young DP Jordy Alcívar can be bought down to create room for more high-profile talent.

Roster issues aside, Ramírez has done well installing a concrete style and philosophy in Charlotte. It’s difficult for the Spaniard to escape comparisons to Pep Guardiola, due to his very bald head and his preferred style of play. While at Independiente del Valle in Ecuador, Ramírez’s system of play used Guardiola-influenced 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 formations. Building from the back with ball-playing goalkeepers and center backs, keeping possession, counterpressing, and positional play were all key parts of his managerial philosophy. 

Shaping a team into one that can use the ball to create chances takes time, but we’ve started to see glimpses of the potential that Ramírez brings to Charlotte. Nothing epitomizes that potential more than Karol Świderski’s goal against the New England Revolution on March 19th. 

The goal, which came after Charlotte regained possession by pressing on a Revs throw-in, was the product of a 17-pass buildup. The sequence had everything that you’d expect from a Guardiola-look alike led team: a great progressive pass from goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina, positional interchanges, and a forward stretching the opposing defense to create just enough space for a star to fire off a shot.

It’s easy to see the possession-style beginning to take hold in Charlotte. According to FBref, Charlotte FC ranks 3rd in MLS in total touches. The issue is that a big chunk of those touches are in their defensive third rather than in attacking areas that could lead to real scoring opportunities. Charlotte currently ranks 1st in the league in touches inside their own defensive penalty area and 2nd in touches inside their own defensive third, but just 14th in both touches inside the attacking third and completed progressive passes completed.

What comes next?

Despite their issues, it’s important to give the organization credit for the work they have done building the club – breaking the MLS attendance record for the first home opener at Bank of America Stadium was more than a little impressive and Sir Minty is clearly the best mascot in MLS. I mean, just look at him.

Still, questions for Charlotte remain. Will things settle down in the front office? Can Krneta fill the holes in his roster and give Ramírez the quality he needs to implement his version of Pepball? Can Ramírez make the adjustments needed to increase progressive play and make his positional system work?

It’s very early for Charlotte FC, but the answers to those questions could define their first season in MLS.