Sometimes it’s hard to understand how different professional athletes really are. Fans are often desensitized to the phenomena of the modern pro, we take it for granted that players can play consistently, at a high level, in such a congested schedule. Take Sean Davis in 2021, for example. The ex-captain played 35 games in 217 days, not coming off for a single minute. That’s a full, 90 minute match every 6 days. And the run was just taken in stride, perhaps used as a commentary line or two. Could you run that much? Probably not. Here’s some tactics to read about while you ponder the various forks in your life and when exactly your path diverged from those inherently more capable than yourself.
The Open Cup? It’s still around? For the first time since 2018, the New York Red Bulls are a part of the final 16 Open Cup teams, and the club can reasonably hope to see the quarterfinals for the first time since 2015. A cup run would be great for a young team looking to pounce on the potential that’s been promised ever since Struber’s arrival, and the side will certainly be feeling pleased after avoiding NYCFC and the New England Revolution in the draw.
New kids on the block Charlotte FC are the latest result of Major League Soccer’s neverending expansion, the North Carolinians joining the league after years of clamoring for a professional team in the city. Expansion teams are pretty hit-or-miss in their inaugural seasons, sometimes you get a 2017 Atlanta United, and sometimes you get a 2019 FC Cincinnati. Charlotte seems to have struck a comfortable balance, excellent roster construction has led the side to a more than respectable 7th place in the East so far.
Often times the recipe to a good expansion team is the initial roster construction. Building a club from scratch is a rather uniquely American experience, but there are certainly better ways to do it than others. Some choose glitz and glamour, attempting to sign high profile players in order to achieve quick success and highlight reels. Others take a more patient approach, taking advantage of the multitude of drafts available to newcoming teams and using all the best acronyms MLS trade regulations have to offer. Charlotte most certainly took the latter approach, targeting solid contributors castaway from other teams. Karol Swiderski was signed from Greece, Kristijan Kahlina from Bulgaria, and Ben Bender from the… SuperDraft (feel free to shudder). There’s a common theme with their key contributors, all were smart, frugal deals that were evidently heavily scouted prior to their signing.
The goals have been slow to come, 12 in their opening 13 MLS matches is the second-lowest record in the league, as many expansion teams do they’ve struggled to find the cohesiveness to finish off attacking plays. However on their day they’ve looked solid, displays such as their statement 3-1 win against the New England Revolution was a ruthless encounter, all three goals coming off sweeping, fluid moves and concluding with clinical finishes. In a similar vein their last Open Cup game, against USL League One side Richmond Kickers, was a commanding 5-1 win that included mostly backups.
However their modest strengths can be seen in the defense. An emphasis on the backline since the beginnings of the organization has paid dividends, as the squad has conceded a mere 15 times in 12 games. Emphasis was placed on the back ever since the organization’s founding, with the first signings being primarily midfielders, defenders, and goalkeepers. Despite conceding 6 times in their opening 3 games, head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez tidied up the back as players grew more accustomed to each other’s tendencies. The Carolina club looks to play adventurously, on the higher end of passes under pressure league wide, they are not intimidated by more experienced teams as they frequently look to maintain possession. The risky approach has generally worked, opponents have a 27.6% successful pressure rate against Charlotte, as positional awareness and an experienced core have generally prevented mistakes from coming. A compact style of play makes Charlotte difficult to break down, leaving the attack as the main issue plaguing the side.
Ramírez sets his side up in a rather mundane 4-4-2, sometimes listed as a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-1-3-2, but always maintaining the crucial wide midfielders. They’re very important in the setup, Charlotte frequently look to the wings when attacking, seeking to stretch the field and dizzy opponents as they go from side to side. The club has played the second-highest amount of “switch” passes in the league, preferring to play wide than try to build centrally. When attacking they maintain the same rhythm, they put cross after cross in the box, attacking fullbacks (Christian Fuchs and Jaylin Lindsey) and the aforementioned wide midfielders (Ben Bender and Alan Franco) are all on the higher end of touches teamwide. Wide play is a great tool to have in a team’s arsenal, however Charlotte find themselves too attached to the attacking route.
Oftentimes they look to play wide too often, leading teams to adjust and defend accordingly, leaving wingers stranded and forced to take on defenders in disadvantaged situations where they’re typically outnumbered. An overreliance on Bender and Franco’s dribbling has lead to a lack of actually getting the ball in the box, as Charlotte’s total touches in the opposing penalty area is the third lowest amount in the league. They’ve struggled to complete moves from wide areas when unable to cross directly, leaving striker Karol Świderski isolated. Part of the issue is a lack of central options, there is rarely anyone to drop into half-spaces and receive the ball, and thus when attempting to build through the middle a long ball is forcibly the only option. Charlotte approaches the long ball with just as much fervor as crossing, however their decidedly mediocre 60.1% success rate on said long balls suggests they should tone it down. As the team grows together and adds some finishing touches to the roster, attacking moves should become more cohesive and varied, but for now the Red Bulls have only a sputtering offense and a solid-but-breakable defense to contain in the midweek.
The Red Bulls exit the wastelands of the Chicago Fire and Inter Miami uniforms and finally see something nice in Charlotte’s inaugural attempt. Expect to see the home uniform in Montclair, a beautiful concoction of baby blue, white, and black. Most of the shirt is in the eye-catching shade of blue, the calm and aesthetically pleasing club color. The white is integrated seamlessly into the design, taking up the entirety of the sleeves to create a contrast within the shirt. A complementary blue stripe near the hems of the sleeves is a nice touch tying everything together. However the designer must have been feeling bold, including an extraordinary third color on the shirt. The shoulders are accented with three black stripes, contrasting the more prominent white but still combining well with the primary blue. Faint black outlines can also be seen on the colar and the sleeve stripes, keeping everything well organized and meshing perfectly.
8/10, attention to detail is the standout in the disappointingly-named “Carolina Kit”.
CHARLOTTE’S CRUCIAL COMPETITORS
The revelation of Charlotte’s opening campaign, the University of Maryland alumni has enjoyed a good start to the campaign, however his pleasing aesthetic is surely his most important feature. A box-to-box midfielder in college, long, flowing hair, and standing at exactly 6 feet tall, 2022’s first overall SuperDraft pick has become a fan favorite in his brief tenure in Charlotte. Deployed as a wide midfielder, his tireless running and ball progression skills have made him a standout for the club. He’s appeared in every MLS game so far, tallying a goal and 3 assists in merely 9 starts. Only 21, Bender’s evident potential will certainly be seen against the Red Bulls.
Charlotte native and former US U20 international has become one of Charlotte’s most important players in 2022, after being traded from a rotation role at Sporting Kansas City the right back has found new life in the Queen City. A very attack-minded fullback, Lindsey has been an offensive force for the club’s forays into wide areas. Dangerous crossing and exceptional pace make him a weapon, his 17 shot-creating actions leave him fourth on the Charlotte roster in the statistic, only behind attacking midfielders Jordy Alcivar and Ben Bender and striker Karol Swiderski. Certainly not short on confidence, the young American will be bombing down the right flank with aplomb, and with the left side of defense recently an area of concern for the Red Bulls as starter John Tolkin struggles with health issues, it will be interesting to see how Struber adjusts to minimize the impact that Lindsey has on the match.
THE ROTATION BULL
The kid is back! Again! Having been out for an extended period of time due to recurring injuries, the young wunderkid made his MLS return with a brief cameo against Inter Miami on Sunday. He’s been advertised as the next big thing to come out of New York, already on the books at sister club RB Leipzig, he returned stateside on loan for another season ahead of 2022 after being deemed too raw for Germany’s top flight. He was expected to slot into the starting lineup and be the central figure for the club before finally departing on his European journey, but injury problems have once again kept him from unleashing his reported potential.
Like 2021, he’s shown flashes at times, but needs extended runs in the team in order to fully get into form. Gerhard Struber is very cautious with injuries and will likely not start the young Minnesota native as he works his way back to 90 minute fitness, but one can reasonably expect an early second half appearance. Clark will be looking to get on the field as quickly as possible, with the attacking triad of Luquinhas, Omir Fernandez, and Lewis Morgan looking more and more solid, as well as Cameron Harper making a return as a substitute weapon, he’ll need to move quickly if he has any chance of returning to his role as a key cog in Struber’s setup. As Charlotte’s legs give way late in the match, and space starts to open up, Clark will have ample opportunity to showcase his talents if given a runout in the Cup.
The Red Bulls will be extra motivated to start winning silverware through the Open Cup, and with a (respectfully) lucky draw against Charlotte, I see a nerve-wracking but ultimately comfortable 1-0 win in the cards.