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Can two star center forwards work together?
Charlotte FC needs star strikers Swiderski and Copetti to put aside egos and produce with playoff berth at stake; plus Charlotte needs to win 3 of 5 starting in New England
It’s time for Fútbol Friday, The Charlotte Ledger’s weekly newsletter getting you up to speed on Charlotte FC, the city’s new pro soccer team.
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Swiderski and Copetti still trying to find a rhythm
Copetti getting airborne to play a play in Cincinnati. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
My childhood soccer coach used to jokingly refer to center forwards as prima donnas. Sometimes, when a joke rings a little true, it sticks. (Or maybe this one stuck because I was always on the back line, doing the drudge work on defense. Smile.)
It’s all right, though. The best strikers need big egos. You want your goal-scorers to have some swagger to go with an array of moves. A little intimidation can go a long way when they’re trying to do the most difficult thing in soccer — score goals. I believe the same is true for baseball players trying to hit. You’ve gotta be a little bit cocky to be good.
So there. That’s my segue into talking about Charlotte FC’s two strikers: Karol Swiderski and Enzo Copetti. Both are designated players, which means they make the most money (without regard to salary cap). Both are strikers, which means they line up at center forward or the No. 9 spot in a three-forward attack. And both, I think it’s fair to say, have healthy egos.
Since both can’t play at center forward at the same time in this system, some question why the club signed another striker as a designated player over the winter to begin with. (The counterargument would be: Can you ever really have enough goal-scorers?)
Trying to figure out how to get them both on the field and meshing has been at times challenging, at times impossible because of circumstances like injury and international play. At times, it’s been just plain awkward.
But now, with five games left in the season and Charlotte FC in desperate need of wins in at least three of them, Swiderski and Copetti need to find some mojo playing together, and they need to do it fast.
As we estimated last week, Charlotte is going to need at least nine points (at three points per win) to have a shot at making the MLS playoffs as one of the top nine teams in the Eastern Conference. The only difference this week, after losing in Cincinnati 3-0 on Saturday, is they’ve got just five games to do it.
Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio said recently:
I think the combination of Enzo and Karol is really important for us at this stage. And they need to understand the responsibility that they have. They need to play strong and to make sure that their partnership works because we need them to play well together. … I believe that these are two players that can help us to go where we want to go, and they’ll find a way of playing well together.
Under Lattanzio, Charlotte FC typically lines up in a 4-3-3 formation, which means four defenders, three midfielders, two wingers and a center forward along the front. Charlotte started the season with Copetti lined up at center forward and Swiderski on the wing. That didn’t go well, and it quickly became clear that Swiderski, their best player, was too far from the goal when it mattered.
Then the team tried Swiderski at center attacking midfield, or kind of a “shadow” No. 9, playing him just a shade behind the front line, and giving him the flexibility to interchange with Copetti in the box. But in the midst of working that out, Copetti got hurt. First, it was a hamstring, and later, a calf muscle. In his absence, Swiderski moved back to center forward, and that’s when Charlotte’s offense started to turn the corner.
But now Copetti is back, and after bringing him off the bench for two games, both he and Swiderski have been in the starting lineup for the last three games. You can’t sit one of your highest-paid and best goal scorers when you are in desperate need of goals. So for the last three games, Copetti (who is second for Charlotte with five goals) has lined up at striker, and Swiderski (who leads Charlotte with eight goals) is back in that hybrid midfield/shadow center forward role.
Lattanzio thinks there’s room for both in the middle, and neither has to be considered a straight-up No. 9. (He reminds me of former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talking about point guards and how his team could function without one.)
“I don’t like to look at football through numbers,” Lattanzio said. “People call them No. 9. I like to call them central attackers or (to call wingers) wide playmakers.”
As strange as it sounds to be 29 games into a season and say two offensive players are still getting to know each other on the field, that’s exactly how it has been for Swiderski and Copetti. Between injuries and international breaks for Swiderski, who leaves for stretches to play for the Polish national team, they’ve failed to develop any rhythm between them, and it shows. And it’s affected how the whole offense functions.
In the 16 games they’ve played together this season, Charlotte FC has scored 13 goals (0.81 goals per game). In 13 games when one or the other has started, Charlotte has scored 16 goals (1.23 goals per game). Charlotte FC has scored just two goals in the three games they’ve been back together in the lineup — both in a 2-2 tie against Philadelphia.
In the 0-0 tie against D.C. United, Swiderski and Copetti almost looked to be playing too unselfishly, each going out of his way to pass the ball to the other. Lattanzio took it as a good sign.
"I am happy they look for each other, because it means that there is respect,” he said afterward. “They respect each other. They respect the way they play.”
Against Philadelphia, the two gave a little glimpse into their competitive natures. At one point in the first half, when Charlotte FC thought it was going to be awarded a penalty kick, Swiderski went to retrieve the ball, to line up the kick, like he usually does. Copetti made a move to get the ball himself. If I remember right, he had a smirk on his face, and ultimately a smile as he backed off to allow Swiderski to take the presumed penalty kick. (Apple TV didn’t catch it on the replay.) The interplay was nothing serious — and the penalty was never awarded after video replay — but it was a reminder of how many cooks Charlotte has in the kitchen.
In the second half of that game, Swiderski and Copetti showed what can happen when they get something going together. They made a couple of give-and-go passes that ultimately wound up a loose ball at the feet of Justin Meram, who drove it in for Charlotte’s first goal.
Here’s why there is reason to believe they can and should produce more from here on out. While they both technically play the same position, they have different styles. Copetti is more physical and uses his body not just to finish balls for goals, but he will sacrifice it, colliding with opponents, just to make a pass or clear a space for a teammate. Swiderski is more skilled, a better passer, and more creative with his angles around the goal. He’s more likely to make the difficult play. Copetti is more apt to make the expected one. Together, they can complement each other.
Swiderski in pursuit of the ball vs. Cincinnati. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
Up Next: Charlotte FC (7-10-12) at New England (13-6-10)
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
How to listen: WFNZ 92.7 FM in English and WOLS 106.1 FM in Spanish.
New England has clinched a playoff spot, while Charlotte FC is one of eight teams still vying for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte needs three wins in its final five games to even think about finishing in the top nine, and this game is a good place to start. (Charlotte has games remaining in New England, at home against Toronto, in Chicago and an away and a home against Miami.)
Charlotte lost 1-0 to the Revolution in its season opener, giving up a late goal at Bank of America Stadium — setting a trend that has plagued them all season.
The Revolution has undergone major upheaval since these two teams last met. Coach Bruce Arena, the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach, resigned after a six-week investigation and suspension by Major League Soccer for reports he had made “inappropriate and insensitive remarks.” While assistant coach Richie Williams took over during the suspension, players reportedly refused to train for him at one point. Now Clint Peay is at the helm, after being promoted from New England’s MLS Next Pro team.
Carroll Walton is a longtime baseball writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution now cutting her teeth on soccer and the Charlotte FC just as fans in Charlotte do. She would love to hear from you. E-mail her with questions, suggestions, story ideas and comments!
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