Charlotte FC Delivers Statement Win in Dean Smith's MLS Debut


On a brisk February evening in the Queen City, a remarkable 62,291 fans defied the chill to rally behind Charlotte FC as they kicked off their third MLS season against New York City FC.

This showdown not only heralded the dawn of a new campaign but also marked the debut of Head Coach Dean Smith in the league. Despite the pressure of Charlotte FC's previous two season opener losses, Smith was determined in his mission to rewrite the narrative in front of the CLTFC faithful. 

Much to his and Charlotte's delight, he achieved just that, securing a 1-0 victory over NYCFC that extended CLTFC's unbeaten record against their northern opponents to five matches.

In his post-match press conference, reporters asked about the fact that CLTFC had never won – or scored in – a home opener. Smith, having already praised his players’ work ethic and discipline in grinding out a home shutout, was clear in his opinion on whether narratives about the 2022 or 2023 seasons still hold relevance for the 2024 version of CLTFC.

“That’s put to bed, so we can stop talking about that now.”

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Charlotte FC set the tempo early, seizing control of the game and capitalizing on an early opportunity in the 8th minute when center back Adilson Malanda found the net off a corner kick. Charlotte FC's defensive resilience then held firm, limiting NYCFC to very few clear chances and dispelling any doubts about their ability to protect a lead.

Smith commended his team's performance, particularly highlighting their defensive discipline.

“The first 22 minutes I thought we were really on the front foot. Every time we won the ball back, we went direct to try and score... I feel they got a hold of the game in the second period of the first half without really troubling us. Defensively, I thought our structure was really good.”

Smith had made a promise to his defenders before the season began: a reward of a fine bottle of wine for every clean sheet. True to his word, they accomplished it, wasting no time in reminding their coach in the locker room after an almost flawless defensive display. However, it was the collective and unified effort of the entire team that ultimately led to The Crown's victory.

“We’ve worked hard all preseason, we had a game plan, we came out and executed it,” said CLTFC midfielder and captain Ashley Westwood. “Another clean sheet, I think that’s five on the bounce now [including preseason]. We are going in the right direction.

“The main thing for me is that everyone is working for each other. You saw it out there today, lads coming off the bench working hard. Everyone is on board, everyone is in it together, and it spreads onto the fans as well. We’ve given them a performance and finally a home win on the first game of the season.”

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Smith's confidence in the younger players highlighted the team's collective belief. In the Club's season opener, he entrusted João Pedro, Nimfasha Berchimas, and Iuri Tavares with their MLS debuts, averaging just 19.33 years old between them.

Tavares, recently promoted from Charlotte FC's second team, Crown Legacy FC, earned a starting position after impressing in preseason. He justified his manager's faith with a standout performance, including a near-headed goal off the crossbar that set up Malanda's score, along with some dazzling footwork bound for MLS highlight reels.

Tavares's debut was impressive on its own, made more poignant by the tragedy he endured during preseason. Just over two weeks ago, Tavares lost his cousin to illness. In his post-match media availability, he shared the emotional challenge, reflecting on their close relationship and the time spent together in their native Portugal.

“For me it’s so hard, but life is continuing, and I need to stay strong,” said Tavares. In response to whether he thought his cousin watched his performance, he beamed brightly and replied, "Yes, of course."

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Tavares and João Pedro were brought to the Club last season from Crown Legacy, where they excelled in a team that clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference in their inaugural season. Meanwhile, Nimfasha Berchimas has been a part of the team since its inception. Even before Charlotte FC's inaugural match in 2022, Berchimas was honing his skills with the Academy at the age of 14.

From the sidelines as a ballboy, Berchimas watched on imagining himself on the field. That dream materialized on the week of his 16th birthday when he etched his name in history as the first-ever CLTFC Academy product to feature in an MLS match – a monumental achievement for both the player and the Club.

“It feels really great,” said a relaxed Berchimas following the match. “To finally accomplish what I wanted for a long time, so I’m just really happy to have been on the field.”

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Charlotte FC's season opener in 2024 was the first real test of Dean Smith’s team and their style of play. Ultimately, fans will be happy to have seen a group of players that are already very organized following preseason, giving them an ability to close out leads and results.

“It always starts with something that is a given for me – hard work,” said Smith as he wrapped up the post-game press conference. “You work hard for yourself and, secondly, for your team. What we do next is take on information and help each other [improve].

“They’ve taken on a lot of information, but we are still working towards where we want to get to. It’s a good start today.”

This match set the tone for the demanding season ahead, providing a much-needed confidence boost as the team braces for a rigorous three-match road stint. However, the squad remains unsatisfied with just one commendable performance. Westwood emphasized that maintaining this level of excellence is the standard they aim to uphold throughout the entire season.

“There are the standards we’ve set, and we now need to keep these standards.”