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Why does Charlotte FC keep blowing leads?
Plus: Hegardt departs on loan; Upper deck to open for D.C. United
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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No lead is safe: Honky-tonk heartbreak is just the latest example
After another standout game on the backline, defender Adilson Malanda is left to lament a last-minute tie in Nashville. (Photo by Taylor Banner, Charlotte FC.)
There’s no getting around it, so we won’t: Charlotte FC has developed a painful and persistent habit of blowing leads, and it seems to be getting progressively worse. So let’s talk about it.
Nine times this season — out of a total of 26 MLS games — Charlotte has taken a lead and failed to win. Three of those games became losses, and six became ties. And while Charlotte hasn’t lost a game after blowing a lead since May 20 — which is progress — giving up late leads to settle for a tie is starting to feel a lot more like a loss. How else to characterize the dagger of a 1-1 draw last Saturday night in Nashville?
Charlotte outplayed one of the best teams in Major League Soccer, on the road — one that has played Lionel Messi and Inter Miami as tough as anyone so far twice in recent weeks. Charlotte finally took the lead 1-0 on a dynamic Scott Arfield strike three minutes into stoppage time, only to give up a game-tying goal on a penalty kick three minutes later.
The heartbreak was palpable … and familiar. It was the fourth time Charlotte had given up a lead in the final 10 minutes of a game (second in a row) and the second time they’ve done it in stoppage time.
Charlotte FC could have been even in points with 9th-place D.C. United and just a hair out a playoff position (the top nine teams in each conference quality). D.C. United would have a tie-breaking advantage with more wins, but Charlotte will have two games in hand (two more games to play than D.C.) by the time these two teams meet Sept. 16. Instead, Charlotte is back where it’s been all season, looking up at the contenders and searching for a way up the Eastern Conference “table.”
We’ve learned a “new” statistic this season called “points dropped from winning positions.” That’s a tally of points Charlotte could have had if it had held the lead in a game it either lost or tied. Instead of gaining three points for a win, it settled for one point for a tie or zero for a loss. Charlotte FC has dropped 21 points this season, which leads Major League Soccer. The next highest team — Sporting Kansas City — has 17. The best teams in each conference Cincinnati (8) and St. Louis’s (7) have dropped 15 points combined.
If Charlotte had just 10 of those points back, it would be solidly in playoff contention in the top seven of the Eastern Conference. (The new playoff format features a wildcard game between the No. 8 and 9 teams in each conference. The top seven teams receive a bye to a best-of-three games series in round one.)
Charlotte FC has eight games left to play — including two against Inter Miami — to determine whether they’ll be looking back in anguish at all those lost points.
The “what if” game can start with two games in which they had 2-0 leads. There was the two-goal game for Ben Bender in New York against the Red Bulls when a 2-0 lead was lost in a flurry of second-half traffic in front of Charlotte’s goal. There was the 2-0 lead on Cincinnati at Bank of America Stadium on two acrobatic goals from Karol Swiderski in the first 24 minutes, only to have it disappear on a penalty kick and late goal by Alvaro Barreal past a sliding Jaylin Lindsey.
Then there were the gift goals — like Bill Tuiloma’s own goal on a mishit header in St. Louis or the ball in and out of George Marks’ goalie gloves in stoppage time at home against Colorado. And perhaps most poignantly, in the span of four days this past week, Charlotte saw potential wins over Orlando and Nashville end in draws after a last-minute free kick goal and penalty kick, respectively.
So what’s the problem? Why all these blown leads?
◼️ Is it the offense? Maybe.
Granted, it’s not the most logical place to start, but if you ask coach Christian Lattanzio about blown leads after games — and we have — he is hesitant to single out one player, or a defensive gaffe, or point to any trend. He prefers putting the onus on a lack of scoring by Charlotte FC. He wants his team to be “ruthless,” he says, and he means scoring on more chances to take pressure off the defense and keep one mistake from costing them a result. Charlotte is in the middle of the MLS pack in goals scored with 34 and seems to have at least one clear chance thwarted each game.
The way Charlotte FC plays under Lattanzio’s system, that thinking makes sense. He takes risks, playing defensive players forward to create numerical advantages on the buildup to goals, which often leaves defenders on an “island,” lonely in Charlotte’s own third of the field. And lately we’ve seen center back Adilson Malanda, for example, make repeated stellar plays defending 1-on-1. He was named MLS Young Player of the Matchday for his effort against Nashville. But when teams get repeated chances on counter attack, there’s little room for error and often a breakdown.
◼️ Is it the defense? Partly.
Charlotte was thin on the backline to begin with, after the death of Anton Walkes in a preseason boating accident and with veteran Guzman Corujo coming back from knee surgery. Lattanzio shuffled players back there trying to find the right combination until mid-July, giving the defense little to no consistency. It showed, as Charlotte led MLS in goals allowed for much of the season and only recently dropped to second with 43.
Even as the backline solidified during the Leagues Cup run, Charlotte is young. Malanda is their best player back there and he’s 21. Rookie Andrew Privett has emerged at the other corner back spot, and he’s 23. And your most veteran player, Nathan Byrne, has played out of position at left back (he’s naturally a right back) all season. And even with the club acquiring a new left back in Jere Uronen, Byrne has moved from one side to the other late in games to allow Uronen to ease into the lineup.
In fact, in the last two late goals Charlotte has allowed — to both Orlando and Nashville — Byrne was within minutes of switching from one side to another as a result of a substitution, when the equalizing goals scored. Perhaps changing his angles and matchups at a crucial part of the game has cost him. And this is a guy who has otherwise been playing his best defense since coming to Charlotte late last season.
◼️ Is it goalkeeping? Partly.
Byrne was the defender penalized late in Nashville. He hooked just enough of Lukas MacNaughton’s arm for the referee to call a penalty. But he could have used some help from veteran goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina. Byrne attempted to shield MacNaughton, perhaps to give Kahlina a chance to make a play on the ball. But he had to challenge him after Kahlina didn’t come for the ball and didn’t appear to offer any indication whether or not he was coming for it, either.
And this was just moments after Kahlina had sent a deep kick out of bounds, thwarting a chance for Charlotte to burn critical minutes.
This was the second game in a row in which there seemed to be an issue with communication between Kahlina and Byrne. Against Orlando, Martin Ojeda sent in a free kick to the far post in the 88th minute. Kahlina had cheated toward the near post, which left him late to the far post. In the meantime, nobody on the defense made a play for the ball, including Byrne. Everybody seemed to be waiting for somebody else to make a play. It’s ultimately up to the goalkeeper to yell “keeper’s” if he’s going to make a play on the ball or “away” if he isn’t.
◼️ Is it coaching? Partly.
While players make plays (or don’t), it’s Lattanzio who puts them in position to do it. He was criticized early for “parking the bus” and getting too conservative with his substitutions trying to protect a lead, only to have it backfire as opponents scored anyway. Lately, he’s been playing his rotation more aggressively and still watching the defense break down in key moments.
Not only are results determined by the strings he pulls but also by his ability to motivate and shape the mental makeup of the team. Charlotte’s mental fortitude has been lacking.
And ultimately, the buck stops with him.
◼️ Is it mental? How can it not be, at this point?
Charlotte isn’t faltering in one facet of the game in each of these blown leads. It’s a combination of problems. The one constant seems to be a lack of a killer instinct — that do-whatever-you-have-to-do to shut a team down.
Some of the off-the-field issues around the team this year had to affect Charlotte, especially early in the season after Walkes died and Andre Shinyashiki and Nuno Santos were connected to a sexual assault report, but the team seems to have moved on pretty well by now. Does that mean there’s a vacuum left where doubt creeps, along with the bugaboo of “here we go again”?
The good news for Charlotte FC is it’s taking leads and at least hanging on for ties. It is still in range of a playoff spot. As sporting director Zoran Krneta said about blown leads in July, “If you look at it a little bit deeper, it is showing that this club is not far off from where they want to be. It’s a very small margin.”
After having two weeks to regroup before a Sept. 16 game against D.C. United, Jere Uronen should be ready to play a full 90 minutes at left back. Kristijan Kahlina has had time to catch his breath; there’s at least a chance his surgically repaired back is affecting his play. Maybe George Marks is pushing him all the more in practice and giving Lattanzio something to think about. New midfielder Brecht Dejaegere is nearing a return from a mild hamstring injury.
There are options. And there are still games left (including four of the last eight at home). The belief here is Charlotte FC can make the playoffs if they prove they can be ruthless on both ends of the field … until the final whistle.
Hegardt loaned out to USL Championship team
Chris Hegardt in action for Charlotte FC in last year’s exhibition against Chelsea. (Photo by Kevin Young of The 5 and 2 Project.)
Chris Hegardt, the talented young midfielder with the heartwarming comeback story from childhood cancer, has been loaned out to a USL Championship team Loudoun United FC for the remainder of the season. His contract with Charlotte expires this season, and while the club has options for 2024 and 2025, this could signal the end of his time with Charlotte FC.
Hegardt found his way into Charlotte’s consciousness — and made national headlines — leading up to the club’s inaugural game against L.A. Galaxy in March of last year. Galaxy veteran Sacha Kljestan revealed on social media that 12 years earlier he had visited Hegardt in a San Diego hospital while Hegardt was battling liver cancer. Hegardt underwent liver transplant surgery and six rounds of chemotherapy at the age of 8. Both Hegardt and Kljestan came off the bench in Charlotte’s 1-0 loss to L.A. and swapped jerseys afterward.
Just last month, when Charlotte FC played Miami in the Leagues Cup with Hegardt on the bench, the club revealed that Hegardt had met Miami and international Argentinian star Lionel Messi through the Make-A-Wish foundation as a cancer patient when he was 11. The two were reunited on the field in Fort Lauderdale 10 years later.
Hegardt was on the bench for 15 games for Charlotte FC this season but saw only 53 minutes of action in four games in MLS play. Hegardt started three games in the U.S. Open Cup earlier this season and was available off the bench during the Leagues Cup. But he became expendable after Charlotte acquired veteran midfielders Scott Arfield and Brecht Dejaegere during the summer transfer window. Hegardt had one goal and one assist in seven games for Crown Legacy FC, Charlotte’s feeder team in MLS Next Pro.
He’ll be reunited with another former young Charlotte FC player, Koa Santos, with Loudoun United FC, which is a feeder team for D.C. United located in Leesburg, Va.
Up Next: Bye week before upper deck opens for D.C. United
Charlotte FC is off this weekend during an international break, while both Karol Swiderski (Poland) and Jere Uronen (Finland) play for their respective national teams in the EEFAEURO qualifiers.
When their MLS schedule resumes, Charlotte FC will host D.C. United on Saturday, Sept. 16, in a game with major playoff implications. Charlotte FC is gunning for that 9th-place spot in the Eastern Conference currently held by D.C. United, which is right at the cutoff for making the playoffs in ninth place. Charlotte FC is in 11th place, just two points behind (33-31).
The club decided to open the upper deck at Bank of America Stadium for the occasion, for just the fourth time for an MLS game this season. Charlotte FC drew 37,809 with the upper deck open for a 2-1 win against LAFC on Aug. 26, a season-high 69,345 fans for the 1-0 season-opening loss to New England on Feb. 25, and 43,613 for the July 8 2-2 draw against FC Cincinnati on “Marvel” and military appreciation night.
The upper deck was also open for the Gold Cup doubleheader featuring the U.S. Men’s National Team, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras and Haiti.
Charlotte FC is second in attendance in MLS, averaging 35,451 fans, behind Atlanta United, which averages 46,504. Tickets in the upper deck at Bank of America go for $15, which make it a much more wallet-friendly option.
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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