Charlotte FC controls playoff destiny in final two games

The Crown’s postseason hopes hinge on two matches against Inter Miami

Charlotte FC controls its playoff destiny with two regular season games — both against Inter Miami — remaining. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The path forward is simple.

Win and you’re in.

Charlotte FC controls its destiny heading into its final series of the regular season, a home-and-home with Inter Miami. Wins in both matches and the second-year team will guarantee itself not only its first playoff berth but also home-field advantage for the single-elimination wild card.

“We’re hitting form at the right time and we’re playing well,” said Charlotte FC captain Ashley Westwood following the team’s 2-0 win over Chicago. “We’re dominating teams, and when we play well, we’re a real force to be reckoned with. The way we control games, and we’re starting to score goals now too. So everything’s clicking at the right time, and I’m sure if and when we get there we’ll be a team that no one will want to play.”

The Crown currently sits in 11th place in the East with 39 points but is just one point back of the ninth spot, currently held by D.C. United with 40 points, and two points back of the eighth spot, currently held by CF Montreal with 41 points.

Last year, in Charlotte’s inaugural season, the playoffs featured only the top seven teams from each conference, but the league expanded the postseason for 2023, including a single-elimination wild card match between the eighth- and ninth-seeded teams from each conference.

The top seven spots in the East are already locked in, but Charlotte can finish the highest out of all the remaining teams in the wild card hunt as they have two games remaining on their schedule compared to the rest who have just one or none left.

The Crown could know as early as Wednesday night if they’re in as a win — which is good for three points in the standings — followed by losses for CF Montreal, New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire FC would do the job.

There are a handful of other clinching scenarios, but the easiest path forward for the Crown is to win both games.

Standing in their way is an Inter Miami squad that recently saw its playoff hopes dashed.

“We’re going to prepare our game as strong as we can like we’ve always done,” said Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio, “learning the lessons that we have learned and keeping on the standards that we are trying to build with this football club.”

Charlotte has faced Inter Miami one other time this season, losing 4-0 in the Leagues Cup quarterfinals earlier in the year.

Despite that performance, there should be quite a big difference on the pitch Wednesday.

Inter Miami will likely be without legendary footballer Lionel Messi for at least one match as the forward is currently with Argentina for international play and has a match against Peru on Tuesday night.

Messi may be back in time for Sunday’s closer at Bank of America Stadium, but Charlotte at least won’t have to face one of the sport’s greatest in Miami.

“We have been playing our game most of the time, and so we want to keep our identity,” Lattanzio said. “Whether we play at home or we play away, we have to respect the opposition, especially when they have very good players like most teams in MLS, but obviously especially Miami with Messi if he plays. At the same time, we need to respect, more than anything, ourselves, our identity, our supporters and we need to give our club’s best possible effort for the next game and the one after.”

Inter Miami is 11-1-1 with Messi in the lineup since he joined the team but just 1-4-2 without him, and the herons have lost their last four to slip out of the playoff picture.

Charlotte nearly slid out of the picture themselves with just a single win in 10 games heading into the Leagues Cup break, but a 3-2-4 run since has put them on the precipice of the postseason.

“People had written us off weeks ago, but we knew how well we were playing, we knew what we were doing to teams on the pitch, and we knew what we could do,” Westwood said. “We’ve stuck to it under difficult circumstances, and it just shows the character that we’ve got. We’re heading up to another massive game, but that’s what we targeted in the last two games. To be in with a chance.”