As Charlotte FC entered the MLS restart six points from of the final playoff spot, it was evident that their first week back to league play would be a daunting challenge. Within just one week, they were scheduled to face formidable opponents: LAFC, the 2022 MLS Cup Champions; Orlando City, who at the time were 4th place in the Eastern Conference; and a tough away match against Nashville SC, a 2023 Leagues Cup Finalist.
The mission: carry forward the hot form that took CLTFC to the Leagues Cup quarterfinals and ride it up the table to a playoff berth.
The Results So Far
Each of these matches presented its own unique challenges, and the fact that all three were crammed into a single week made it a difficult task for Charlotte. Nevertheless, they had the advantage of playing their first two encounters at home, with the support of the Charlotte faithful.
Charlotte's 11-game “mini season” began with a resounding victory as they upset LAFC 2-1. This performance and result were precisely what the club needed after enduring an eight-game winless streak in MLS play. They followed this triumph with two 1-1 draws against Orlando and Nashville that were tantalizingly close to being wins, were it not for some questionable defending towards the end.
Head Coach Christian Lattanzio’s quote following the Nashville match can really be used to sum up the entire week.
“It's very simple from my point of view... there are two sides that I feel inside myself. I guess that most of the players, and hopefully everybody will also feel, on one side that I’m very disappointed about the outcome of the game. But on the other side, I am unbelievably proud of the team to come to Nashville and dominate the game like we did.”
The team and fans understandably felt disappointed as they were just minutes away from securing nine out of nine points in their return to MLS play. Still, this disappointment was especially remarkable given the demanding nature of their competition throughout the week, a testament to their overall impressive performances.
Putting Things into Perspective
Despite the bitter taste left by the week, CLTFC has positioned itself to control its playoff destiny and extract positives from their performances.
First, it's crucial to acknowledge the caliber of competition Charlotte faced. LAFC, sitting 2nd in the Western Conference, were the reigning MLS Cup champions. Orlando City had an almost perfect restart to their MLS campaign, defeating both number one seeds in their respective conferences, St. Louis City and FC Cincinnati, in the same week – except for Charlotte FC, who held them to a last-gasp draw. As for Nashville, although they had been struggling away from home, they remained one of the league's strongest home sides, having lost only three matches out of ten at GEODIS Park prior to facing Charlotte.
In all these matches, Charlotte wasn't merely "holding on"; they were unequivocally the protagonists. With an average possession percentage of 63.4%, they controlled the tempo of the games. Their attack was fluid and dynamic, creating numerous goal-scoring opportunities. Additionally, their transition defense improved, with only one of the three goals conceded in the week resulting from a counterattack – all areas the team had been working on throughout the season.
Boost from New Signings
Another positive from this series of matches was the immediate impact of the summer signings, a group that was well covered ahead of these matches in the Summer Transfer Window Wrap-Up.
Brecht Dejaegere, in his first start for the club against LAFC, played a key role in setting up the opening goal. He continued to be a creative outlet throughout the match, clocking in almost 90 minutes and looking dangerous in 1v1 scenarios on the wing. Although he had to come off early against Orlando due to a minor hamstring injury, he is expected to be ready for Charlotte's next match against D.C. United.
Scott Arfield proved to be a game-changer off the bench, scoring two crucial goals in two matches, including the game-winner against LAFC. He has provided leadership to the locker room and clutch goals on the field.
Lastly, left back Jere Uronen featured in all three matches, helping to close out the first two games before making his first start against Nashville. His solid performances as he adapts to the team enabled Nathan Byrne to play on his natural right side rather than shoehorned into left back.
Where Things Currently Stand
Currently, Charlotte occupies the 11th spot in the Eastern Conference, now just two points away from a playoff position. Importantly, they have a game in hand compared to the teams around them in the standings, including D.C. United and Chicago Fire, who sit just above them. Their upcoming matches against those same two sides carry extra significance as they are six-pointers, meaning victory not only earns them three points but also takes three points away from direct rivals competing for the same playoff spot.
The team also faces challenging away fixtures against Cincinnati, New England, and Miami, but their ability to secure results in tough environments, as seen against Nashville and the Red Bulls this season, instills confidence. Along with a home match against a struggling Toronto side, Charlotte's season concludes with a double header against Miami, just three days apart.
If the rest of the season mirrors the performances of the past week, Charlotte FC stands a strong chance of securing a playoff spot. Eliminating the late-game mistakes, an Achilles heel of the team this year, will likely be a crucial factor in the playoff push.
Despite the uphill battle, CLTFC have importantly taken control of their own destiny and are steering it in the right direction. The playoffs are there for the taking, and the team has continued the good form needed to get them there.
UPPER BOWL OPEN | CLT v D.C.
The upper bowl will be OPEN for the CLT vs D.C. matchup on September 16. Tickets start at $15.
Gate Giveaway: First fans in attendance will receive a limited-edition Rally Towel, presented by Ally.