Charlotte’s new MLS team will play its inaugural game on Saturday, facing D.C. United on the road before playing its opener on March 5 against the LA Galaxy.
The team expects more than 65,000 fans at Bank of America Stadium to greet the team in its first home game. Excitement levels are high, but based on the history of MLS expansion teams, expectations should probably remain low.
Charlotte will be the 10th team added to MLS in the last decade. Of the previous nine, only one managed to get a win in its debut game — Los Angeles, which beat Seattle 1-0 in its opener and started its MLS existence 2-0 and 6-2-2.
Overall, the nine previous expansion teams managed a 1-6-2 record in their first game, including losses by the last four — Cincinnati, Nashville, Miami and Austin. The latter two were shut out in their openers.
Things didn’t improve quickly after the opener for Charlotte FC’s predecessors. Miami lost its first five games, Nashville and Minnesota their first two.
In their first seasons, the nine expansion teams have posted an average record of 10-14-7. Only three managed winning records: Nashville (8-7-8 in 2020), Los Angeles (16-9-9 in 2018) and Atlanta (15-9-10 in 2017).
So will Charlotte FC’s first season be more like Los Angeles or Cincinnati (6-22-6 in 2019)? The team played three preseason matches, going 0-2-1 and managing a total of one goal.
Charlotte lost 1-0 to Charleston Battery, which went 10-15-7 in the USL Championship last season, then went 0-1-1 against two teams that finished in the bottom half of the MLS last year, playing Columbus to a scoreless draw and then losing to Inter Miami, 2-1.
Charlotte showed some fight in the preseason, including a bench-clearing scuffle with Columbus. The team also showed steady progress over the three games, culminating with its first goal in the final preseason contest.
“We progressed a lot, we analyze every game, every training. We work hard every day,” goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina said.
The team is struggling with chemistry, no surprise for a squad that was assembled from scratch over the last few months. The roster will likely continue to be a work in progress throughout the season.
As Charlotte opens play, the team seems deep up the middle but weak on the wings.
“The roster build doesn’t seem fully baked yet, and what’s there is unbalanced,” said a preview on MLSSoccer.com.
Coach Miguel Angel Ramirez also didn’t seem particularly moved by the current roster, telling USA Today, “We need to reinforce the squad. We need to have something else to be more competitive. Right now, we’re screwed.”
Ramirez is working to find the right combination, switching the team’s formation for the final preseason game from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2. He’ll likely continue to try to push buttons as the year goes on.
It remains to be seen whether Ramirez will stick with the new formation or if that was a change to account for the absence of striker Karol Swiderski, who missed the Inter Miami game. Swiderski is likely to be Charlotte FC’s top player and the early face of the franchise after arriving from Greek PAOK for a reported $5 million transfer fee.
The 4-3-3 formation seems to fit best with Ramirez’s preferred style, which is to attack opposing defenses, although it remains to be seen whether Charlotte will have the firepower to support that.
Other names to know on the first edition of North Carolina’s MLS team are Sergio Ruiz, a midfielder from Spain who was the first player signed by the franchise; midfielder Ben Bender, the top pick in the MLS Draft out of Maryland; and midfielder Titi Ortiz.
The team also has a veteran in defender Christian Fuchs and fullback Harrison Afful.
With limited offense and a solid defense, Charlotte will likely be leaning on a physical, blue-collar approach this season and attempt to grind out wins and ties along the way. There are bound to be stretches where it doesn’t work and the team looks like a true expansion team. But the team should also be able to produce some big moments. The ceiling is likely a team that will stay on the fringe of the playoffs.
Regardless of the success on the field, the team can expect to be welcomed with open arms by a community starved for soccer at the top level.