By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 23, 2022) US Soccer Players – Every Major League Soccer expansion team is unique, with a set of characteristics shared with none of the earlier examples. There are commonalities, to be sure, but each new entry is free to approach their first season how they see fit.
It’s only after the dust has settled on their debut that we can know if the club’s concept for how to construct an immediate contender worked. Not every team aims as high as a championship in year one. At the same time, no club wants to be at the bottom of the standings in a season that will set the tone for years to come.
Get it spectacularly wrong, and you’ll be playing catch up well into the future. Getting it “right” isn’t nearly as important as simply not falling flat on your face. It’s with that truism in mind that we consider year one for Major League Soccer’s lone 2022 expansion team, Charlotte FC.
Though the first wave of interest isn’t always the best measure of a market’s long-term staying power, there’s good news for Charlotte. They’ve sold 65,000 tickets for their first home match on March 5 against the LA Galaxy. That will set a new single-game attendance record, an indication the league made a smart choice in awarding the city a franchise.
Whether all of those new MLS fans will be cheering for a winner this season is very much an open question. Every expansion team is different, and a host of considerations can excuse an approach. That’s the polite way of saying things may not be going to plan for Charlotte right now.
Charlotte secured its first big-name way back in June of 2021 when former Leicester City defender and Premier League champion Christian Fuchs agreed to join the team. Other high-caliber additions have been harder to come by.
A deal for Venezuelan striker Darwin Machis collapsed at the last minute. Charlotte also missed out on Derby County winger Kamil Jozwiak when the player suffered an ankle injury. A trade offer for DC United man Paul Arriola fell short of the package the club ultimately accepted from FC Dallas. Charlotte now begins the season with only Polish striker Karol Swiderski occupying a Designated Player slot.
Charlotte’s roster-building problems are what prompted head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez to offer some brutal honesty two weeks before the club’s league debut. The Spanish translates to “We’re screwed” with a polite reading. It’s a sentiment that, while perhaps an expression of frustration in the moment, won’t fill fans in Charlotte with a lot of hope.
For a club that seemed focused on the international path, Charlotte may end up relying on names familiar to MLS fans. Former Atlanta United midfielder Alan Franco looks set to lead the new club’s midfield in Ramirez’s 4-3-3 system. On the right flank, Charlotte will have former DC United and Vancouver Whitecaps man Yordy Reyna in the forward line and former Sporting Kansas City fullback Jaylin Lindsey. Another former Atlanta United player, center back Anton Walkes, will anchor the defense.
Regardless of where the players come from, expansion teams are about newness. While newness to the league may further complicate things, the big picture project is about getting a group of players together as quickly as possible. Even in years without the heavy travel and frenetic schedule on tap for 2022, collecting points in the early part of the season is difficult. Achieving anything depends on playing competent soccer early. The better to build confidence as the season unfolds.
Recent expansion history does give us some clues about what Charlotte faces if they don’t come out of the gates strong. It’s too early to tell with Austin FC, last year’s expansion side that finished next-to-last in the Western Conference. Josh Wolff’s team missed on some of its international signings and retooled its midfield for year two. Without a significant step up this season, Austin might find itself stuck in the Western Conference’s bottom tier.
Nashville and Inter Miami are also examples for Charlotte. Nashville is a model of how to build a competitive expansion team from the start, leaning largely on MLS veterans in the process. What Nashville did differently was to prioritize defending over the attack.
Charlotte, like Miami, seems intent on putting the attack first. Selling soccer, especially in America, often means going for an all-out approach over one that might build a stronger team in the short term. Ambition is fine. Without restraint, it can distract from the mundane yet crucial work of putting together a team that keeps itself in games. For lack of a more sophisticated description, it’s usually best to simplify, simplify, simplify.
Fans in Charlotte certainly should want a swashbuckling goal-scoring team that contends for a title right away. Very rarely do fans of expansion teams get what they want.
If the trade-off is ambitious but losing soccer or a boring yet competitive team, smart fans will pick the one capable of competing across the schedule. It’s always possible to add pieces down the line. Ambition can grow with a winning culture in a league that has and will reward a pragmatic approach.
More From Jason Davis:
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- Seattle’s 2021 makes them a 2022 Concacaf Champions League contender
- Atlanta United resets a record
- Resetting the squads and expectations in Chicago and Miami/a>
Logo courtesy of Charlotte FC