As the saying goes... time flies when you’re having fun.
Charlotte FC’s initial announcement all the way back in December of 2019 seems like an eternity ago, but already the inaugural season has come to an end. It passed in the blink of an eye but has left us with special moments that will forever stay imprinted in our memories.
Instead of lumping everything that happened this season together, I approached this through what I see as the three main pillars that make up the foundation of a professional soccer club: On-Field Performance, Youth System, and Fan Culture.
Each one of these categories is loaded with sub-categories but all are vital to a Club’s overall success, and for an expansion side they are developed from scratch. Zero, zilch, zip, nada, nothing. This is an enormous challenge that many have failed right out of the gates but one that Charlotte FC exceeded expectations in across the board.
As someone who has dedicated his life to Major League Soccer, and seen many expansion sides join the league, here are my thoughts on why the Queen City’s inaugural season was a resounding success despite some hiccups along the way.
Just like for any MLS expansion team, there were several question marks heading into the inaugural season. The now famous “we’re screwed” comment from previous head coach Miguel Ramírez dampened expectations of the team. Several moves fell apart and it was noticeably clear that for one reason or the other the roster was not complete.
MLS analysts were quick to predict that the biggest accomplishment in Charlotte’s inaugural season would be winning the Wooden Spoon. A lot of the initial enthusiasm on how the team would perform on the field turned to concern. Expectations dropped to an all-time low.
However, to the surprise of everyone but the players, Charlotte were much more formidable on the pitch than pundits anticipated. Early on they showed that this was a group that shouldn’t be taken lightly and that could compete against anyone. Not only did they compete, they did so by staying true to the style of football the Club had stated they wanted to play long before the 2022 season.
“This is what makes me proud,” said Head Coach Christian Lattanzio. “That our team – and for an expansion team it is not a given – to be able to go on every pitch home and away and to be in control and to try and play the way that suits us.”
Despite Charlotte coming into what was arguably the most competitive MLS season in its 28-year history and going through a managerial change, the Crown managed to finish right outside the playoff spots in 9th place with a respectable 42 points. There is something to be said about going into your last home match of the season with everything still to play for as an expansion side. Being disappointed that your expansion team didn’t make playoffs because they were so close is a feeling that many previous expansion teams’ fans didn’t experience.
The league has evolved so much since 2009, and even since 2017, so making direct comparisons to other expansion teams points totals is difficult. What we can compare, though, is sporting philosophy, playing style, and what sort of a foundation was laid to build on in year two.
This is a results-based business at the end of the day, and on that front, Charlotte FC were inconsistent which naturally comes with the growing pains of bringing together 30 different players under two different head coaches and getting them to click. What has remained consistent is the drive to have a clear identity and philosophy in both playing style and mentality.
Combining a strong mentality with a clear style of play is key to a team’s short and long-term success. We saw glimpses of this fusion throughout the season, but we saw it most consistently in the last five matches of the season. In every one of those matches, we saw a team that not only could possess the ball and create chances but one that had the mental fortitude to overcome adversity against four out of five playoff-caliber teams.
Unfortunately, things began clicking a tad too late, but there is a strong foundation and good momentum that the team can build off of heading into the second season just around the corner.
Early on Zoran Krneta made it very clear that finding and developing the best young players will be a priority of the Club. This message had already been emphasized when Charlotte FC’s Academy was set up and began play two years before the first team ever stepped on a pitch.
The Academy is now in its third season, and what it has accomplished in its short existence is impressive to say the least. It has fully operational and staffed U-17, U-15, and U-14 teams that have access to accomplished athletic trainers, nutritionists, counselors, and the Homestay Program. There is also a Discovery Program that supplements those teams with players in the U-13 and U-12 age groups that serves to identify early on the best talent in the region.
Still, the most significant accomplishment for Charlotte FC when it relates to their Academy was signing their first-ever Homegrown player, Brian Romero. Romero was with the Academy since its inception and worked his way up the age groups, impressing enough to earn a professional contract with the Club. He cemented himself as a hometown hero with his first touches as a first-team player when he won the penalty in the dying minutes to draw the match against Chelsea. This ultimately led to a victory for the Crown in front of 50,000 plus fans chanting Romero’s name.
Beyond Romero, the next generation of potential Charlotte FC players looks promising, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed for both the national and international levels. The Academy has had a total of seven players called into national team camps with six of them representing the U.S.A. at the youth levels. Theoretically, the players in these camps are considered to be the cream of the crop of their age groups out of the entire national pool of youth players. Not too bad for an Academy still in its infancy...
The Club will be expanding on its youth system with an MLS Next Pro side in 2023 which has been in development since earlier in the year and already started playing friendlies this year with a pilot team. MLS Next Pro head coach, Jose Tavares, who brings elite youth development experience from the highest levels of world soccer, will help transition the players from the youth levels to the professional ranks. The MLS Next Pro side further forges a clear path for young players to work their way to the first team and demonstrates the priority the Club has put on creating an elite youth environment.
“I don't know how to explain it... but I don't feel like I am part of a fan group anymore, I feel like I am the heart of the team,” said Charlotte FC superfan Hector ‘Sombrero Man’ Cortes.”
Cortes put it perfectly. The fans of this Club are more than just fans, they are the lifeblood of the team and at the core of everything the Club represents and stands for. Fielding a great product on the pitch and having a thriving Academy doesn’t matter without fans.
The most obvious place to start when talking about Charlotte’s fan culture is that unforgettable night on March 5th. Charlotte FC’s first home match set the single-match attendance record with 74,479 plus in the building. It wasn’t just an impressive number by MLS standards; it also ended up being the biggest soccer match in the world that weekend.
Attendance continued to be a highlight of the season with 35,422 fans showing up on average to support their team. That’s the second highest amount in all of MLS. But they didn’t just show up, they created an atmosphere that’s envied across the league.
This atmosphere is driven by unique, authentic traditions created by fans such as the crowd leading the singing of the national anthem (born out of an accidental microphone malfunction in the home opener) or the traditionally Polish Poznań celebration done with the twist of performing it to the song Pepas by Farruko. This doesn’t even mention the countless hours supporters have put into creating tifos for matchdays, accomplishing an impressive goal of having a unique tifo for every single home match of the inaugural season. Through all the ups and downs of the season, their support has remained unshakable.
The season was far from perfect, and there are certainly things that both the Club and fans would have gone back and done differently if they could, but that’s the case for most expansion sides. The important thing is that the Club was swift to course-correct when necessary, rather than dwell too long on potential obstacles. In doing so, they have laid an effective groundwork for next season and given fans something to be optimistic about for year two.