Charlotte FC’s third season is on deck: New coach, new players and a new style

Charlotte FC opens its third MLS season Saturday evening with a new coach, a new style of play, several new midfielders, and even new uniforms.

The coach promises the team will attack more, with a free-flowing style but a solid defense.

And there is an ample supply of hope, with Charlotte FC compiling a 3-0-3 record in a series of preseason matches. In fact, the Queen City side didn’t allow a goal in its final four outings.

This comes on the heels of Charlotte’s second season, in which the team reached the MLS playoffs via the wild-card round — and then replaced coach Christian Lattanzio with Dean Smith, a veteran of coaching in the Premier League.

So what is new and what can be expected of Charlotte FC, which faces NYCFC at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Bank of America Stadium?

New coach, new style

How can you go wrong in North Carolina with a name like Dean Smith, right?

The soccer Dean Smith had coaching stops with such English clubs as Aston Villa, Leicester City, Brentford and Norwich City.

Smith, 51, has made it clear that Charlotte FC will have a different style this season. Under Lattanzio, the Queen City team focused on a system and formations. Smith said Charlotte will be a bit more free-flowing and will attack the goal.

Charlotte FC’s new head coach Dean Smith is introduced during a press conference at Atrium Health Performance Park on Monday, December 18, 2023.
Charlotte FC’s new head coach Dean Smith is introduced during a press conference at Atrium Health Performance Park on Monday, December 18, 2023.

He said he has told attackers such as Enzo Copetti and Patrick Agyemang to charge ahead.

“I’ve told them I need them to be running in behind (defenders) a lot more,” Smith said. “I need them to be running towards the goal, rather than to wide areas.”

A lot of Charlotte’s attacking came from the wings last season. That could change this time around.

Players have praised Smith’s work so far.

“There have been a lot of changes,” Copetti said. “And there is a good mindset on this team.”

Agyemang said Smith “has had a big impact.”

“We are really amped about this season,” he added.

Some roster changes

Three key players have left the team since last season, including leading scorer Karol Swiderski and Kamil Jozwiak, another gifted striker. The third departure was defender Guzman Corujo.

Former Charlotte FC forward Karol Swiderski.
Former Charlotte FC forward Karol Swiderski.

Swiderski and Jozwiak wanted to play in Europe. Swiderski signed with Italy’s Hellas Verona, and Jozwiak with Spain’s Granada.

Charlotte FC stayed away from flashy signings in the offseason, opting instead to promote two promising players from the Crown Legacy FC team, midfielder Nikola Petkovic and forward Iuri Tavares.

They also signed Djibril Diani, a 26-year-old left-footed midfielder who played with Caen in the second level of France’s professional league last season. And on Wednesday, they added a veteran midfielder, in 34-year-old Junior Irso. Nicknamed the Bear, Irso had 12 goals and 10 assists in 2 1/2 seasons with Orlando City of the MLS.

“Beyond his quality on the pitch, he knows what it takes to win in this league,” Charlotte FC general manager Zoran Krneta said. “(He) is an excellent locker room presence, which will benefit many of our younger players.”

Obviously, Charlotte FC went heavy with the midfielders in their acquisitions. That’s a sign that Krneta and Smith think attackers like Copetti and Agyemang can get the goals, with help from midfield.

The new young faces

Crown Legacy FC was the runaway first-place finisher last season in the MLS Next Pro league, and now some of those younger players are getting promotions.

Petkovic, 20, had three goals and four assists in 12 matches last year. Tavares, 22, led Crown Legacy FC with 12 goals last season.

“I have been waiting for this opportunity,” said Petkovic. “They told me what they wanted from me, and I liked it. I can’t wait for this season to start.”

And ... new kits

Charlotte FC will sport new uniforms this season, with a color scheme that basketball’s Dean Smith would have liked.

Base color for the uniforms — they’re “kits,” to soccer fans — is blue. They’re titled “Carolina Kits: Explore” and showcase the Carolinas landscape in three shades of blue, for the mountains, Piedmont and coast.

So ... what happens?

For starters, analysts predict defending MLS Cup winner Columbus will repeat as East champion, with Seattle winning in the West.

The news isn’t quite so good for Charlotte FC fans. After last year’s ninth-place finish among 15 East teams, the consensus among experts is that the Queen City side will land somewhere around 13th this season.

On the MLS website, J. Sam Jones wrote that Charlotte “doesn’t seem to have a roster that can go blow for blow in the vaunted Eastern Conference.” He ranked Charlotte FC 27th of 29 teams, ahead of only Austin FC and Toronto FC.

Ben Wright of Broadway Sports wrote that Charlotte FC has some “intriguing” players on the roster and added that “Smith should raise the floor.” But, he added, the Queen City team will “need to survive the first half of the year and hope for a home run summer transfer window.”

The upper deck

Charlotte FC, which has been among the MLS attendance leaders in its two seasons, again will open the upper deck of Bank of America Stadium for a few games this year. Upper-deck tickets start at $15, considerably cheaper than in the lower bowl.

The four upper-deck games are Saturday against NYCFC; May 11 against Nashville FC; July 3 against Inter Miami (and, perhaps, Lionel Messi); and Oct. 5 against CF Montreal (the home finale).