Charlotte FC prepares for third MLS season

The club posted a 10-11-13 record last year

Charlotte FC will kick off its third MLS season when it hosts New York City FC on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. (Erik Verduzco / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — It’s that time of the year — soccer is back in the Queen City.

The 2024 Major League Soccer season begins this weekend, Charlotte FC will be starting its third year of MLS play with a home game against New York City FC on Saturday night.

With 74,479 fans at the 2022 home opener and 69,345 fans last year, Charlotte is expecting another big crowd at Bank of America Stadium for the start of Year 3.

Charlotte club is coming off a 10-11-13 campaign (43 points, ninth in Eastern Conference, 19th overall) and used a late-season rally to earn its first playoff berth. Charlotte suffered a 5-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls in a play-in game on Oct. 25.

Despite reaching the postseason, the Crown ultimately decided to move on from coach Christian Lattanzio and hired Dean Smith as the franchise’s third head coach in December.

With a history of turning clubs around in the best leagues in the world — including the Premier League — the 52-year-old Englishman is now set to coach in the United States for the first time after decades of playing and coaching in his home country. Smith has spent more than two decades coaching several clubs, including Brentford, Aston Villa, Norwich City and Leicester City.

Charlotte FC went unbeaten in the preseason with a record of three wins, three draws and no losses in friendlies and the Coachella Valley Invitational.

“The three things I asked for at the start of the game were attitude, application and teamwork,” Smith said following a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Feb. 10. “I thought we got all three of them. If you’re seeing that in the 87th minute, then you know they’re showing all three of those attributes, which are going to be massively important if the team is going to be successful.”

Smith, along with Charlotte FC sporting director Zoran Krneta, will have his work cut out for him as he looks to develop a roster that has undergone some notable offseason changes.

Charlotte’s two highest-paid players from last season are gone. Star striker Karol Swiderski is on loan in Italy, while midfielder Kamil Jozwiak left on a permanent transfer. Also departed are center back Guzman Corujo and forward Vinicius Mello.

That leaves just forward Enzo Copetti as the club’s lone designated player.

While Charlotte signed goalkeeper David Bingham (to back up presumed starter Kristijan Kahlina) and also brought in defender Jahlane Forbes and midfielders Djibril Diani, Tyger Smalls and Nikola Petkovic, the club could still bring in two designated players.

Multiple media outlets have reported that Charlotte has been in advanced talks to sign Uruguay U-20 World Cup hero Luciano Rodriguez in a club-record transfer. A Young Designated Player contract for the 20-year-old striker could end up being among the top five largest contracts in MLS history.

There’s no doubt that adding a young striker of Rodriguez’s caliber would be invaluable to a club that gave up seven more goals than it scored in 34 regular season games.

Smith has preached the importance of an attacking mindset for his strikers compared to the methodical build-up play the club has used the past two seasons.

“With Enzo Copetti and Patrick Agyemang, I’ve told them I need them to be running in behind a lot more,” Smith said after a 3-0 preseason win over the LA Galaxy. “I need them to be running towards the goal rather than to wide areas.”

Now Smith and his new team will do it for real when New York City FC visits for the first game of the regular season.

“I’m looking forward to the atmosphere our fans create,” Smith said. “As (Charlotte midfielder Ashley Westwood) said, there’s a real good togetherness in the group. … We’re still growing, there’s a lot more we can get out of our team, and I’m looking forward to it.”