Charlotte Recovers, St. Louis Soars
Charlotte FC breaks a losing streak; Kerwin Vargas shines; expansion team St. Louis CITY SC off to a record start; shocking news from Germany.
Last week, I penned a piece for Queen City Nerve about Charlotte FC’s sophomore slump. Long story short, the first match against the New England Revolution was a 0-1 heartbreaker that could have gone either way; the second match in St. Louis was a 3-1 comedy of errors; and the home loss to Atlanta was a demoralizing 0-3 blowout that featured one of the worst halves of play in Charlotte’s young history.
The potential explanations for Charlotte’s poor play were myriad. Perhaps the squad hadn’t recovered from the tragic loss of Anton Walkes. Perhaps Lattanzio’s system was too complicated. Perhaps Charlotte needed a different lineup.
After three losses, Charlotte defender Adilson Malanda spoke about the squad’s struggles with Coach Christian Lattanzio’s system:
“We may have preferences as far as playing in one system or another, in any case, it’s the coach who decides … I think that it’s a good system. We need to learn it, maybe we needed more time to learn it correctly for each player. Each player has a different understanding of the system, so it’s true that we need to think the same thing so that it’s reproduced on the field.
Charlotte Finds Victory in the Lions’ Den
Charlotte was going into Orlando in bad shape, having scored only once while conceding a total of seven goals, including an own goal from defender Ben Tuiloma. Charlotte’s only goal came from forward Enzo Copetti in St. Louis, though a Kerwin Vargas header almost made it in during Charlotte’s home opener. So it was only fitting that Copetti and Vargas both scored in Charlotte’s 1-2 road victory over Orlando City SC, the Crown Club’s first win of the season.
In fairness, it took Charlotte four matches to get their first three points last year, but expectations were much higher this season than last. The off-season acquisition of the Argentine Copetti was the potential remedy to Charlotte’s finishing problems last season. Midfielder Ashley Westwood joined the club, brining an English Premier League pedigree with him to help a Charlotte midfield in distress. Polish forward Karol Świderski had a World Cup appearance for Poland, cementing his status as an international star.
Charlotte’s breakthrough against Orlando came from an unexpected lineup. Świderski and his fellow Polish forward Kamil Jóźwiak started on the bench; while Jóźwiak eventually came in as a substitute, Świderski didn’t play, saving his energy for his international duties with the Polish national team this week. Harrison Afful started for the first time this season, adding some much-needed experience on defense and playing one of his best-ever games for Charlotte.
Charlotte Draws the New York Red Bulls
The last time Charlotte played the New York Red Bulls, they were handed a season-ending defeat. The stakes were low since Charlotte was eliminated from playoff contention four days earlier, but as I watched from the press box at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, it was obvious Charlotte was tired. They lacked the energy demonstrated in their 2-0 home win against RBNY in June.
Back at home, Charlotte was looking to create a winning streak. Charlotte debuted their “Wild Berry Pop Tarts” kits for the first time, while the Red Bulls donned shirts that reminded me of Laffy Taffy Banana yellow. If you add in an actual Red Bull Energy Drink, you could consider this the Junk Food Derby.
The first half was physical, with Charlotte fouls forcing New York players Andres Reyes and Omir Fernandez to the ground for extended periods of time. Charlotte’s defense looked strong, as was Marks in goal. To compensate for the Red Bulls’ speed and vigorous press, Charlotte’s defense created traffic, shut down breakaways, and made talented plays; everything went right for the home team until an Elias Manoel goal in the closing minutes of the half due to a mistake, stumble, or both by defender Nathan Byrne.
After the match, Lattanzio compared the back and forth to a schoolyard fight.
“We’re going to kick them back … If they’re going to bully us, we’re going to bully back.”
In the second half, what began as an evenly matched contest heading for a 0-1 win for the Red Bulls became a showcase for the Crown. Starting around the 68th minute entry of Vinicius Mello, Charlotte had the energy and momentum.
Within six minutes of arriving Mello sent a brilliant long cross to Vargas near New York’s goal. Vargas attempted to cross to Copetti when New York defender Andrés Reyes got in the way, but instead of clearing the ball Reyes scored an own goal, the equalizer for Charlotte.
From that point on it was Charlotte’s match. They had the chances and opportunities, and Marks shut down every response from New York. The last 20 minutes of the match were the best soccer Charlotte has played so far this season; they couldn’t get the winner, but it wasn’t because they didn’t try.
St. Louis Continues to Surprise
St. Louis CITY SC was the first expansion team in MLS history to win their first four matches. With a 0-4 rout of Real Salt Lake, they’re now the first to win their first five.
Against the odds, the expansion team has found a formula for league-leading success. It goes something like this:
Invest heavily in your MLS Next Pro (Second Team) the year before the first team debuts. Take it seriously and develop your talent.
Hire an athletic director (Lutz Pfannenstiel) who has played soccer on every continent and understands the world football ecosystem better than most (and has also kidnapped a penguin).
Continue the international theme with a coach who has significant German Bundesliga experience (Bradley Carnell).
Put together a squad with a healthy mix of MLS veterans and Bundesliga alums.
Add João Klauss de Mello, who has 5 goals in 5 starts.
Confuse everyone by investing significant resources in a top-flight goalkeeper (Roman Bürki), pay him more than any keeper in MLS, and laugh when your team hits a goal differential of +11 after 5 matches.
In the FIFA videogame from EA Sports (where you can play as St. Louis or any other MLS team), each team the player creates has a chemistry rating that’s based on how many players on the squad are from the same country, league, or team. Teams with better chemistry are supposed to play better together and score more often - so a team like St. Louis with many players from similar backgrounds playing together would be predicted to play better than the sum of its parts.
Based on how well St. Louis has started the season, maybe there’s some truth to that metric.
After the second win of the season, St. Louis coach Bradley Carnell saw the club’s “good blend” of players as a reason for their success:
“I think we have a very good blend of different characters in the team, different qualities, and different age groups. So everyone brings something to the table, whether it’s a little bit of experience, whether it’s a little bit of quality, whether it’s a little bit of knowing the league. We don’t say one is better than the other, but I think it’s a perfect mix of all of these combinations … we have a good blend of guys with MLS experience. This for me is paramount.
Bayern Sacks Manager before Der Klassiker
Over in Europe, the biggest soccer news of the week is Bayern Munich’s firing of the 25 Million Euro Man.
On Friday March 24, Julian Nagelsmann, whose transfer fee set a record for a manager at the time, was fired due to inconsistent performance and Bayern’s uncharacteristic second-place standing in the Bundesliga. Nagelsmann was replaced by Thomas Tuchel, his former coach at Ausburg.
The move came a week before Bayern’s must-win Bundesliga match against Dortmund in Der Klassiker on April 1, and the Champions League Quarterfinal against Manchester City, which begins April 11.