Flipping for Kerwin Vargas
Plus accounting for Swiderski's absence, debut of Crown Jewel jersey, Bender's new 'do, Red Bulls preview and more
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Vargas scores first MLS goal, celebrates with back flip
Kerwin Vargas celebrates his first MLS goal and eventual game-winner vs. Orlando with teammate Enzo Copetti. (Photo by Alana McCallion of Charlotte FC.)
The first time Kerwin Vargas stepped on the field for Charlotte FC — last May 22 against Vancouver — he looked like he was going to score at any second. The dynamic left winger and Colombia native took four shots in 25 minutes that day, and somehow none of them got to the back of the net. The fact that it took him almost a year to score his first goal for Charlotte FC is an even bigger wonder.
But Vargas, making his first start of the season Saturday in Orlando, showed the same dynamic skillset when he juked a defender with a pair of step-over moves and then fired a low line drive between goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and the near post. The ball ricocheted in to give Charlotte a 2-0 lead in an eventual 2-1 win — its first win in four games this season. Vargas’ first goal was a game-winner.
“I’m very, very happy not just with my goal and that I scored, but mainly because we got the first three points of the season,” Vargas said with Charlotte Spanish radio broadcaster Antonio Ramos translating.
Vargas punctuated his goal celebration with a round-off back flip, something Charlotte FC fans had only seen on video highlights from the second division team he played for in Portugal before signing with Charlotte last spring as an Under-22 Initiative player. Vargas said he’s done back flips to celebrate goals since he was a little kid, but it has been a while.
If it makes coaches and trainers nervous, especially if he’s not exactly practicing these moves, they haven’t told Vargas. What they’ve been most interested to see from him, apparently, is how he has progressed on defense.
“We are working also on the phase without the ball,” Coach Christian Lattanzio said when asked about Vargas leading into the Orlando game. “Because it’s easy to see when he's on the ball, he is a player that I like a lot.”
I think that goes for everybody associated with Charlotte FC, too.
Not long after the splash Vargas made in last year’s debut against Vancouver, Lattanzio reminded the media how young he was — 20 at the time. Lattanzio reiterated last week that Vargas had needed time to be nurtured.
Vargas came off the bench for his first 11 games last year before breaking into the starting lineup for the final eight, including the pivotal five-game finish that nearly landed Charlotte a playoff berth. This year he’s come off the bench for three games before getting his first start Saturday. He is already showing the impact his skills, intensity and energy can have when he shows he can play a complete game.
Swiderski’s absences: one explained, one cause for wonder
When Lattanzio replaced five players from the starting lineup that lost 3-0 to Atlanta in the one that beat Orlando City 2-1, the most notable player to sit was Karol Swiderski. The team’s original designated player (before both Kamil Jozwiak and Enzo Copetti also signed as star players without regard to salary restrictions) has been moved around a good bit lately — from striker to central attacking midfield to right wing — but not to the bench. It was an interesting move for Lattanzio. When asked about it this week, he said:
I watch training on a daily basis, and for me the team is always above everybody else. I felt that the right balance was the starting 11 that I put on to the pitch. So I want to talk more about who plays than people who don’t play.
Hmm. So the first thing he mentioned was training, which makes me wonder if Swiderski wasn’t putting forth the effort or attitude Lattanzio wanted to see in practice. Lattanzio says he needs to see two things in a player: intensity and quality.
Swiderski comes with quality, so I have to wonder if intensity was the question. Lattanzio proved last year he could push the right buttons to get the most from Swiderski after he endured an 11-game scoring drought to finish with a team-high 10 goals. He sparked Charlotte FC down the stretch while also wearing the captain’s armband. (This season Lattanzio has elected to give the armband to newcomer Ashley Westwood.)
Swiderski (pictured here against Atlanta) was out of the lineup Saturday in Orlando. (Photo by Kevin Young of The 5 and 2 Project.)
We can’t know how Lattanzio would play the situation this weekend because Swiderski has left for international duty. He traveled to Europe to play for Poland in the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying. Poland takes on Czech Republic Friday at 3:45 p.m. Eastern and Albania on Monday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern. But it’ll be interesting to watch going forward.
Swiderski’s skills are undeniable. He’s the only player on the current Charlotte FC roster participating in international play; he competed for Poland in the World Cup this past offseason. But he’s been through his share of ups and downs with Charlotte FC already, and he’s back searching to start this season.
Debut of Crown Jewel jersey
It’s time to break out the purple jerseys Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. Charlotte FC is wearing its new alternative “Crown Jewel” kit for the first time against the New York City Red Bulls.
After being met with a lukewarm reception when the design was leaked online, the purple jerseys seem to have found favor with fans since then — especially those who have embraced its purple, pink and blue color scheme by comparing it with the frosting on Wild Berry Pop-Tarts. Some of the T-shirts local small businesses have produced for the occasion are spot on, though we can’t “un-see” one particular marketing ploy from Glory Days Apparel with Mint City Collective member Jay Landskroener. LOL.
This is the first of nine matches Charlotte FC will wear the Crown Jewel Kits. For the complete jersey schedule, click here.
Bender cuts the locks
Bender before and after his haircut. (Photos courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
The biggest Charlotte FC news this side of winning its first game this week was that second-year midfielder Ben Bender had cut his hair. Just ask his teammate Andre Shinyashiki, who declared he “broke the internet” with two Instagram story posts revealing Bender had cut his locks.
Shinyashiki compared Bender to a young Leonardo DiCaprio one day, Peter Pan the next. Bender declared his look “horrible” if you listen closely to the soft spoken kid from Maryland on a funny video the team created in the fall-out.
Horrible? Not at all. Necessary? Yes. And several of his teammates took credit for the idea. What Bender hadn’t discovered about his new shoulder-length look until seeing his first action off the bench Saturday was that long hair gets in the way in a soccer game. Just ask your ponytail-wearing female soccer-playing counterparts. A headband was not enough for the job — it fell on the ground leaving hair all in his face, when he tried to tackle an Orlando City player during stoppage time.
He finally saw the need?
“Precisely,” was Bender’s response.
Brandt Bronico wasted no time in claiming his new pre-eminence in the hair department, saying, “I guess I have the best hair on the team now.” The benefit of his fauxhawk/mullet is that it’s short on the sides!
News and Notes
Neeley signed as homegrown: Center back Jack Neeley, a product of South Mecklenburg High, becomes the third Charlotte FC Academy player signed to a homegrown contract behind midfielder Brian Romero and winger Nimfasha Berchimas. Neeley, 18, saw significant minutes this preseason.
MLS weekly honors: Lattanzio went from social media target to MLS coach of the week after inserting five new starters into Charlotte FC’s lineup Saturday and leading the team to a 2-1 victory in Orlando, its first victory of the year. Veteran fullback Harrison Afful, who got his first start of 2023 to put an end to the Bronico left back experiment, assisted Vargas on the game-winning goal.
MLS Next Pro kicks off Sunday: Charlotte FC’s NextPro team (think Triple-A), Crown Legacy, will begin its inaugural season Sunday at 3 p.m. against Huntsville City at the Matthews Sportsplex. Tickets are available for $15.
Arsenal vs. MLS All-Stars: MLS announced this week it had secured Arsenal FC, one of the English Premier League’s “Big Four,” as an opponent for the MLS All-Stars in this summer’s exhibition at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. on July 19. Arsenal has won 13 English Premier League championships and sits atop the Premier League standings. Arsenal will be in its preseason come July.
This is Arsenal FC’s second invitation to the MLS summer showcase and first since defeating MLS 2-1 in 2016. MLS has played its All-Stars against “guest” teams since 2002, beginning with the U.S. National Team, followed by teams from England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, the Scottish Premiership and Mexico’s Liga MX. MLS All-Stars defeated Mexican League All-Stars each of the past two years.
Charlotte FC is still waiting for its first MLS All-Star. The team is chosen by a combination of fan voting, the MLS coach — this year DC United’s Wayne Rooney — and MLS commissioner Don Garber. Tickets to the game go on sale Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.
Up Next: Charlotte FC (1-3-0) vs New York City Red Bulls (1-0-2)
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte.
How to watch: MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. For information on how to sign up, click here.
How to listen: WLNK 107.9 FM.
Charlotte is 0-2 at home this season, after going 10-6-1 at Bank of America last year.
Charlotte split two MLS games against the Red Bulls last season and lost to them in New York during the U.S. Open Cup. Charlotte defeated the Red Bulls 2-0 on June 11 in Lattanzio’s first game after taking over for fired Miguel Angel Ramirez.
Captain and midfielder Ashley Westwood is out with a right thigh injury. Nuno Santos, who replaced Westwood to start the second half in Orlando, is the likely candidate to get his first start Saturday.
Center back Bill Tuiloma is questionable with a right thigh injury.
Under-22 signee Vinicius Mello, a striker who missed all of last season with a foot injury, will make his debut on Charlotte FC’s 20-man roster Saturday, Lattanzio said.
The Red Bulls are without forward Cory Burke, who was called up to play for Jamaica in Sunday’s Nations League match against Mexico.
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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