Charlotte FC's path to the playoffs
Plus Swiderski's growth under tutelage of Lattanzio, Santos' first goal, Bronico's rare bench time; Average season ticket prices rise 4%, and more
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Next step to stay alive in playoff hunt: win or tie
Swiderski, Afful, Santos and Malanda celebrate Swiderski’s game-winner vs. Chicago (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
While Charlotte FC waits out the international break this weekend — Karol Swiderski is playing for Poland and Yordy Reyna for Peru — the rest of us will be mulling over what’s at stake when the team returns to action Oct. 1 against the Philadelphia Union at Bank of America Stadium. The first of Charlotte’s final three regular season games is probably the toughest.
Philadelphia sits atop the Eastern Conference at 18-4-10. If Charlotte fans are looking for hope in how their team might pick up some points, it might come in knowing this: While the Union is undefeated at home (11-0-5) it has actually been human on the road (7-4-5). Philadelphia has also already clinched a playoff berth, while Charlotte has some work to do (and might need a little help).
The top seven teams in each conference make the playoffs. Charlotte is now in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Standings as of today, with the number of points (remember that wins earn three points, ties earn one):
Obviously, down the stretch, Charlotte needs to do well, while hoping those above it — especially Miami, Columbus and rival Atlanta — falter.
To keep playoff hopes alive, here is what Charlotte FC needs to do Oct. 1: not lose. A win against Philadelphia (three points) would put Charlotte at 41 points, and a tie (one point) would give Charlotte 39 points. The most points No. 7 (Miami) and No. 8 (Columbus) could have at that point is 45, which would still leave Charlotte FC a possible six points to gain in the final two games against Columbus and the New York Red Bulls.
Even if Charlotte loses to Philadelphia and stays at 38 points, there’s still a scenario where Charlotte could stay alive in the playoffs. BUT Miami would have to either lose or tie Toronto AND Columbus would have to lose or tie against the New York Red Bulls.
Also of note is that if Charlotte FC winds up tied with another team for a playoff spot, the first tiebreaker is total wins, and with 12 wins, Charlotte is equal to or ahead of five teams around them in the standings.
New toughness: Even with the odds stacked against them, Charlotte FC has shown a new level of toughness lately — playing the final 35 minutes a man down in a 1-0 win over New York FC at home Sept. 10 and coming back from two goals down to beat the Fire 3-2 in Chicago on Saturday.
“I think before when we won games and we come in for the next week, we start to play a little bit soft, like we had too much confidence,” Swiderski said after Saturday’s win in Chicago. “But this week was fantastic. From the beginning, from Monday, we trained really hard and everyone gave 100%, maybe more, and I think this is what we need. This gave us power in the game.”
Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio said he has seen a change in his team since the last time they played Chicago on Aug. 6 and lost 3-2.
“We are a very different team in a short space of time than the team that played against Chicago at home,” Lattanzio said. “I don’t think we would lose that game now. … (But we) have to go through those games, losing at home, because you learn things sometimes in the hard way. And I saw in my team (in Chicago) resilience. I saw a team that always play to win.”
Lattanzio would love to see a “different” Charlotte team than the one that lost 2-0 in Philadelphia on April 2. Charlotte FC went conservative that game, playing with a five-defender backline under former coach Miguel Angel Ramirez.
Swiderski adding team leader to skill set
Swiderski, in captain’s arm band, celebrating his game-winner in stoppage time vs. Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
Lattanzio is known for his ability to develop players, and we’ve seen a host of young bucks blossom under his watch this season, like Quinn McNeill, McKinze Gaines and Brandt Bronico, among others. But now even Swiderski — the Polish international and Charlotte’s $5 million designated player, who has the most polished set of skills on the team — is showing how much growth is possible under Lattanzio’s tutelage.
Lattanzio has challenged Swiderski to channel his emotions on the field, to take on a second position as attacking midfielder, and this past Saturday to assume a bigger leadership role with the team. With Christian Fuchs serving a two-game suspension for a red card, Lattanzio put the captain’s arm band on Swiderski on Saturday night for the first time this season.
The result? Swiderski scored two goals, including the game-winner on a dynamic move six minutes into extra time, for the 3-2 win in Chicago. The comeback was Charlotte’s first from two goals down. It knocked Chicago out of the playoff hunt and kept Charlotte FC alive in it.
“I've seen Karol growing,” Lattanzio said afterward. “I expect a lot from him — he knows that — not just to do those moves, but to be a leader. And that’s why I wanted him to be the captain tonight, because I want him to lead the team in terms of body language and character (too). I think that there is a lot more to come from him.”
Gaines got the first crack at the go-ahead goal, but his shot ricocheted off the crossbar. Swiderski was there for the rebound. He got off a quick shot attempt, but it was blocked by a Chicago defender. Swiderski had the presence of mind to gather the ball again, spin, juke defenders, and square up his powerful left foot. His low liner deflected off goalkeeper Gaga Slonina into the right corner of the net.
“My first thing was to try to shoot as fast as possible,” Swiderski said afterward. “And then I shoot, they block the shot. After that, I take the second ball and then Anton (Walkes) was close to me and he screamed like crazy ‘Give me the ball! Give me the ball!’ and two defenders went to him. I had space to turn and shoot. It was unbelievable.”
Here’s the video of the move:
Swiderski was named MLS player of the week, the first Charlotte FC player to win it.
At one point this season, Swiderski went 11 games without scoring a goal. The two he had Saturday gave him 10 for the season, making him the first player to score 10 goals in an MLS expansion team’s first season since 2018.
With a shot at the playoffs on the line, Swiderski put together his game of the season and the moment of the season so far when the team needed it the most. He also, by the way, scored one of his goals as an attacking midfielder, a position Charlotte has struggled to fill all season. And he scored the other, his game-winner, at his usual “No. 9,” or striker position, after Daniel Rios was removed from the game.
As for keeping his emotions in check, Swiderski put that on display Saturday, too. He scored two goals in a game when he really should have had four. He mishit a great scoring opportunity right in front of the goal in the first half and then in the second half, had a goal inexplicably waved off by the referee for a foul in the buildup. Swiderski took a yellow card arguing that one — and probably needed just to diffuse the frustration the entire team felt. But he kept his composure and 43 minutes later scored the game-winner.
“For me, it’s a clear goal,” Swiderski said of the disallowed goal. “I don’t understand this decision, but in every game, it’s something against us, and we need to keep fighting. We cannot think about referees because sometimes it’s crazy.”
His teammates followed his lead, stayed cool and didn’t “lose it” until it was time to celebrate Swiderski’s game-winning goal.
“We all know that he's an incredible player,” said midfielder Nuno Santos, who scored the game-tying goal in the 76th minute. “We all know that he can do things like that on certain moments of the game. So it’s good to be to be partnered with a guy that sometimes shows a little bit of magic, and that’s what happened.”
Noteworthy: Santos’ first goal, Bronico’s first bench time, Bender accolade
Santos with some fancy footwork against the Chicago Fire. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
◼️ Santos scores: Playing in just his second game since securing his visa, Portuguese midfielder Nuno Santos scored his first goal for Charlotte FC — and it was a big one. The new international addition tied the game 2-2 in the 76th minute in Chicago, just seven minutes after entering the game in place of Rios.
It was a quick strike off a long boot from goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina, and in a matter of two touches — one by Gaines on a cross and one by Santos into goal — Charlotte had tied the game.
Like the buildup to his goal, Santos hasn’t had much time to acclimate to a new team, but he’s proven capable of adapting on the fly.
“I think I’m getting, day after day, more insight of the ideas of the club, of the coach,” said Santos, showing off his command of English in the postgame press conference Saturday. “It’s my first time abroad outside of Portugal, and I’m improving day after day. I know the the coaches and all the staff trust me, so I have to train, and then the longer time in the games will come. But I think I’m doing pretty good, getting (familiar with) the group and the ideas of the coach.”
◼️ Bronico break: Midfielder Brand Bronico took a seat on the Charlotte FC bench Saturday night for the first time in an MLS game all season, as Lattanzio subbed for him in the 62nd minute. Lattanzio explained the move was an attempt to protect Bronico from picking up a second yellow card. (He was booked for the first one in the 39th minute.)
“I could see that they were targeting him a little bit,” Lattanzio said, “… and I didn’t want us to play with 10 men.”
Charlotte FC’s iron man had played all 90 minutes of every game on its MLS schedule this season. Bronico’s only breaks came in the exhibition game against Chelsea, when Lattanzio played all his starters 45 minutes, and in U.S. Open Cup games.
◼️ Bender among Top 22-under-22: Charlotte rookie midfielder Ben Bender was named to MLS’s Top 22-under-22 team. To be eligible, players have to remain 21 or younger before the end of the regular season, Oct. 9. While Bender’s role has diminished in recent weeks for Charlotte, he still leads the team with six assists to go along with his three goals. The staff at MLSsoccer.com chose him No. 18 in the ranking, writing:
It turns out Charlotte FC knew a thing or two when taking Bender with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft. The attacking midfielder, at times, has looked like the expansion club’s top linking player and creative hub in the final third. Only in his first professional season, the University of Maryland product’s next step is finding consistent production in the Queen City.
Average season ticket prices to rise for 2023
Charlotte FC’s average season ticket prices are going up for the 2023 season, something season ticket holders have just learned in renewal notices the team has begun sending out, as first reported by Ashley Mahoney of Axios Charlotte.
By how much? Well, it depends on where you sit. And some season ticket holders have seen prices drop.
Overall, season ticket prices are increasing by an average of 4% from the inaugural season, but a Charlotte FC spokesperson clarified that 45% of the non-premium seating actually fell in price. So if you’re in a premium seat — like the nearly 200 front row seats on the field level — your ticket prices are going up by as much as 33%. But if you’re in a regular, lower bowl spot, your price might drop as the team continues to try to attract more season-ticket holders.
Mahoney reported that season tickets in Charlotte’s supporter’s section in the East Goal are going up by $2 per game per seat, which is a 7% increase for the season, to an average of $29 per game.
Charlotte FC already has the highest season ticket prices in MLS.
Up Next: A week off
Notable: Charlotte FC is off this weekend for the second and final international break of the Major League Soccer season. The Black and Blues will return to action with huge stakes on the line Saturday, Oct. 1, when they host the Philadelphia Union on Fan Appreciation Night. Six upper deck sections will be open for the game, and a pre-game street party will be held before the 5:30 p.m. start.
Paint the Town: Fans are in for a treat when they next gather at the tailgate lot on McNinch Street. The team and sponsor Lowe’s have commissioned local artist Bree Stallings to help “Paint the Town” by creating a mural to honor fans. The mural, which will be unveiled for the Oct. 1 game, will be an “artistic celebration of fans and utilize colors and elements from the inaugural season.”
“We wanted to do something special for the fans who have supported us through the highs and lows of our inaugural year,” said Charlotte FC President Joe LaBue. “As we approach the end of the regular season, as a thank you for their dedicated support, we partnered with Lowe’s and Valspar to bring a one-of-a-kind, supporter-inspired mural painted by a local artist to our tailgate lot. This location holds a special place in our supporter culture and the artwork can be celebrated for years to come.”
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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