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Charlotte FC State of Play: Team Analysis

Written by: Daniel Wicker

We’re only ten match weeks into Charlotte FC’s inaugural MLS season and, even for a new club, it’s been a remarkably eventful few months. We’ve seen an attendance record broken, designate player signings arrive and deals collapse, and the establishment of a home fortress balanced with missed opportunities and road struggles. Even if it’s been a weird one at times, it’s certainly the party that David Tepper promised us.

While it’s still too early for any major analysis of player and team data, I believe it’s worth establishing baselines and taking a look at the start Charlotte has had on the pitch. There’s enough information now to interpret early patterns in performance that will provide some context and help us consider what’s gone right and wrong for the club in its first 11 matches.  

This will be a two part series, starting with team analysis and an overview of performance data to evaluate the Queen City’s start to life in the MLS. Next week’s article will then transition into highlighting particular players and phases of play that might explain Charlotte FC’s performances. Let’s begin with a look at how the team has moved through the Eastern Conference table:

A lot of the analysis and comparisons going forward are going to be focused around a group I’ve labeled as the Southeast Six. While Charlotte should have league-wide goals and aspirations to compete with the top clubs in the MLS, it’s important to consider how we stack up against particular rivals that overlap with the club regionally, structurally, and competitively. I narrowed the group down to only the Eastern conference (sorry, Nashville), with a focus on the southeast region of the United States. Conveniently, and thanks to the region focused expansion efforts of the MLS, using this criteria also created a peer group with newly created MLS clubs.

Judging by the bump chart above, I think you can split the season so far into three stages. To borrow a phrase from Miguel Angel Ramirez, the first phase was the “Estamos jodidos” stage. With Swiderski arriving late, the Jozwiak (part one) and Machis deals falling through, and the squad trying to learn MAR’s system as the season began, you could feel the talent fighting against the lack of cohesion. A very harsh 3-0 scoreline against a mediocre DC United, a well-fought stalemate broken by a wonder goal from the LA Galaxy, and a point dropped at the death in Atlanta made for a trio of matches that all felt like missed opportunities.

Then you have the early ascent in stage two, games 4-7. Before and after a humbling visit to Philadelphia, there were clinical finishing and nine points accrued that led to some time in the playoff qualification places. Defensive improvements were marginal, and the system was still coming together, but the style of play was becoming clearer, and those early positive moments from Swiderski, Bender, and Alcivar were turning into goals.

Which brings us to the most recent and third stage, a grueling set of away matches resulting in earning 1 point out of a possible 9. While there was the exciting introduction of Kamil Jozwiak into the squad and the promise of Kerwin Vargas and Andre Shinyashiki on the horizon, there was an undeniable lack of chance creation and loss of momentum as the team returned from Orlando. In fairness, the club and fans alike knew it would be a tough stretch, but the nature of the performances, particularly against Colorado and Orlando, left a feeling of points dropped by Charlotte rather than earned by the opposition. Not only is this slump clear in the bump chart that shows the club dropped from 6th down to 11th, but it’s made even more evident when you compare their overperformance at home to their underperformance on the road.

Whether you want to label it as lucky or clinical (frankly it’s still too early to say), Charlotte has been a force when they play at Bank of America Stadium. This dumbbell plot shows that Charlotte FC’s actual goal difference is almost 1.5 goals better than you’d expect it to be based on the xG of their home performances, second only to Austin FC’s performances at their Q2 Stadium. 

There’s always a chance that Charlotte’s performances at home begin to regress to the mean, especially if they continue to struggle with chance creation (more on this in part 2). That said, I think the performances are going to improve as the season continues, and it’s going to start with their continued dominance at Bank of America Stadium. As Shinyashiki, Mello, and Jozwiak begin to rotate into the squad and provide more threat from wide areas, we’ll see more space and opportunities for Swiderski, Bender, and Alcivar.

Conversely, the club are in the bottom five of the league when it comes to underperforming on the road, with their goal difference almost one goal worse than you’d expect based on the chances they’ve created and conceded. While these numbers may seem like fine margins from a small sample size, it’s important to recognize these issues now before they become patterns for the entire season. Away days in the MLS aren’t going to get any easier, and it’ll be crucial to the club’s playoff chances that they capitalize on the few chances they create in hostile territory.

Below we’ll take a look at how their performances have progressed throughout the season in terms of their expected goals for and against as a 3 game rolling average.

Before commenting on the data, it’s important to note the first and last match Charlotte FC played are omitted from the figure as their rolling average would be incomplete. The blue line is the club's 3 match rolling average of expected goals scored (xG_03), and the red is their 3 match rolling average of expected goals allowed (xGA_03). While rolling averages are best calculated over a much longer timeframe (5-10 matches are preferred), I believe using the 3 match rolling average is still an interesting snapshot of how the team has progressed through the start of the season.

Interestingly, you can see the defensive improvement throughout the season and that, despite the poor results, the progression continues into the away performances in Foxboro, Denver, and Orlando. Unfortunately, our back line’s development has been paired with offensive stagnation, indicating our scoring success against New England and Cincinnati are more likely outliers than the norm thus far. Although, it should be noted our 3 match rolling average for the Colorado, Orlando, and Inter Miami matches is the first stretch in the club’s history that our expected goals scored are exceeding our expected goals allowed, a small but promising sign for our upcoming slate of matches.

In light of all this, I’m not certain Charlotte FC’s placement and performances have been reflective of the quality of players and coaching at the club. As the players develop and grow more accustomed to the MLS, the tactics and vision of Miguel’s staff are implemented more effectively, and the new signings settle in now that the transfer window has closed, I think we’ll start to see results that better represent the talent at the club. If Charlotte’s road performances can begin to match their dominant home displays, an inaugural season playoff berth will be well within reach.

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