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Charlotte FC Makes the Playoffs Despite Messi Madness
Charlotte FC defeats Inter Miami CF 1-0 and makes the playoffs for the first time thanks to a brilliant performance from Kerwin Vargas.
In front of 66,101 attendees, Charlotte FC overcame Messi Mania and advanced to the playoffs for the first time in the club’s history. The team advances to the wild card game, playing the New York Red Bulls at their stadium in New Jersey on Wednesday.
Thanks to a Kerwin Vargas goal and a clean sheet from goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina, Charlotte secured a 1-0 win over Inter Miami CF in their final regular season match, becoming the first team to defeat a full-strength Miami squad since Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba joined the team prior to the Leagues Cup.
"To score a goal in front of crowd like that, there are no words to describe,” Vargas said through an interpreter at the post-match press conference.
While Vargas experienced the joy of being the hero, Kahlina had to handle the stress of defending Charlotte’s goal from the incomparable talents of a living legend.
“When Messi goes one on one with me it’s completely different” than when a normal player goes up against you,” Kahlina said at the press conference, adding that you never know what to expect with Messi.
The only ball that got past Kahlina all night came off of Messi’s foot, but the Argentinian legend was ruled offsides even though the Messi fans in the stadium bowl continued to cheer long after the linesman’s flag went up.
When Soccer Sheet asked Kahlina how he felt after Messi was called offsides, he told us he didn’t know whether or not Messi was offsides but found his position weird. As Kahlina went into the one-on-one with Messi, he anticipated a chip shot, but knew he couldn’t stand there and wait. Kahlina dived towards the ball, and Messi indeed made the perfect chip - a textbook play from his repertoire in every way except the offsides call.
After Charlotte went ahead just 13 minutes into the match, all of the pressure was on Kahlina and Charlotte’s defense to preserve the lead as fans watched for the results from three key Eastern Conference matches. With CF Montreal and the Chicago Fire expiring on the road, Charlotte had the results they needed to make the playoffs with a win. An extra time goal from the Red Bulls’ John Tolkin prevented all three results from going Charlotte’s way, preventing the town from finishing the season in 8th place and hosting the wild card game.
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While Kahlina candidly admitted the game was no fun, Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio felt different.
“These moments should take away years of your life, but I was strangely calm,” said Lattanzio at the post-match press conference. “I didn’t feel nervous at all before the game].”
All year, Lattanzio’s emphasis has been on player development above everything else, and despite calls for him to be sacked during the season’s doldrums, Saturday night’s result showed the strength of Lattanzio’s approach on full display. With the stakes higher than ever before, and the competition the toughest in the league, every Charlotte player rose to the occasion, especially Vargas, who scored in both of the last two matches against Miami.
“I have a lot of faith and trust in our players,” Lattanzio said. “I want to praise [Kerwin Vargas] more on his defensive work … for me he played the most complete game of the season.”
Lattanzio gave special plaudits to Finnish international Jere Uronen’s defense of Messi, which reduced Kahlina’s workload. He added that “Kristijan [Kahlina] is one of the top keepers in this league in my opinion,” an opinion backed up by his performance against one off the greatest players of all time.
After the match, Kerwin Vargas was crowned “Man of the Match” in Charlotte FC fashion, surrounded by supporters asking for autographs and selfies.
"I've just been focusing on that any chance I got on the pitch, I would make the most of it,” said Vargas.
Vargas has certainly made the most of the past week, with two goals and an assist against Miami across two matches likely securing his spot in the starting eleven for the rest of Charlotte’s playoff run.
No matter what happens in New Jersey and perhaps deeper into the playoffs, the City of Charlotte has reason to celebrate. Charlotte FC is the first major league team to make the playoffs since 2017.
“It was an incredible moment, I’m proud of our boys, and I’m happy for the city,” said Lattanzio.
Special thanks to Jesse Kimmel and Yara Al Bayyari for contributing to Soccer Sheet’s coverage of the match.