The Crown takes down the defending champions 3-1 on the road
- Brandt Bronico’s first goal for Charlotte the game winner
- A win on Sunday v Orlando and the playoff run is on
By Steve Goldberg
Playing last year’s MLS champions just four days after a humiliating 5-0 defeat to this season’s best side in LAFC, and both on the road, would be a daunting 1-2 punch for any team. Certainly, it would be challenging for a first year club like Charlotte FC, still in search of positive consistency. Any points from these two matches would be welcome so taking all three from NYCFC, who were and still are third in the Eastern Division, 3-1 must be considered an outstanding accomplishment of the season to date.
With 10 wins in 26 matches, Charlotte has the fifth most victories in the MLS East. Their 14 losses however, with only two draws, are the second most in the division and the primary reason the Blues are still in the bottom half of the table on 32 points. A win next Sunday at home against Orlando would vault Charlotte back into playoff contention. At the conclusion of Wednesday's matches, the only difference between 5th and 13th place in the division was 5 points.
The game was a homecoming of sorts for Charlotte coach Christian Lattanzio, who was an assistant to Patrick Viera, now on the helm for Crystal Palace in the EPL, for three years with NYCFC. The “of sorts” part was that the match was being played at the home of New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey, two rivers and a Manhattan away from their home pitch at Yankee Stadium where the eponymous baseball team was playing the Tampa Bay Rays.
THE DICKENSIAN DILEMMA
Whereas the loss in Los Angeles was a Dickensian best of times-worst of times, with a second half implosion after an impressive first 45 minutes, this game was the reverse. Despite going down to the visitors early, New York dominated the first half. “They are the champions until the end of the MLS,” said Latanzio. “You don't go to the home of the champions thinking that you don't concede shots. They are a very good team. They were very organized our first half is a testament of how good they are. We have to defend because they have good players, and they know how to play.”
But while Charlotte is a team looking to define itself, NYCFC is one trying to redefine itself, even as they remain near the top of the table. The head coach and star striker who led them to the title last season are gone. They had lost their previous two matches to Columbus and Miami on the road. Charlotte took the lead 1-0 on a 4th minute goal by Karol Swiderski that came with a little bit of suspense.
It almost took as long to verify the goal as it did to score it. Quinn McNeill’s ball over the top down the right side allowed the speedster McKinze Gaines to run past his defender and lay the ball neatly across the six-yard line to Swiderski who needed a couple of touches to get it out from under his feet and into the goal. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson pushed it out but was sprawled inside the goal at the time. With no immediate goal line technology in MLS, as there is in the EPL, play continued for almost a minute until referee Jon Freemon got word from the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) above to check the replay monitor. Upon further review, he turned and pointed to the center spot. Two minutes and 20 seconds after he hit the shot, Swiderski was able to celebrate in earnest.
Offensively, that was the lone highlight for the Crown in the first half as NYCFC played like champions, unleashing an onslaught on the Charlotte net with 7 shots by the 23rd minute, three of them forcing saves from Kristijan Kahlina. They kept Charlotte on their heels with 70 percent possession. New York equalized in the 28th minute on their eighth attempt, a bending shot with pace inside the upper corner to Kahlina’s left by centerback Maxime Chanot from close to 30 yards out dead center and unmarked as Charlotte did not step quickly enough to close down or pressure the shot. They finished the half with 67% possession, doubled Charlotte in passes (306-156), and most importantly, posted an overwhelming advantage in shots 9-1, four on target.
SECOND HALF WOES
The opening moments of second halves hadn't been kind to Charlotte with the Crown giving up 7 goals in first 15 minutes of second stanzas, including the 5-0 blowout four days earlier in LA.
Kerwin Vargas, who has seen limited action but with potentially exciting promise, was a surprise starter in place of Ben Bender. Lattanzio said that he has been wanting to give Vargas more time, perhaps a start, earlier but that was delayed by injury. He had been invisible in the first half and, at one point, switched sides with Gaines who had been patrolling the right.
That provided Vargas with touches he wasn’t seeing on the left but did not amount to any threats. In the second half, Vargas was back on left and was immediately a factor in a much more aggressive personality of the team. Lattanzio said the halftime instructions were to take the game to New York. “I told the boys that we needed to go higher in the second half. We needed to play with more courage, to not let New York City run the show like they did in the first half.”
Vargas set the tone for that with a wicked right-footed shot in one minute in that took an exceptional save by Johnson diving to his right. Five minutes later, Vargas took a corner kick from the left and smartly played it to the left top of the penalty area for Christian Fuchs whose shot also required a diving save from Johnson. While the overall possession and shot numbers would remain in New York’s favor, the second half belonged to Charlotte.
New York did not surrender by any means. In the 70th minute, Kahlina showed why he has been the Crown’s MVP so far this season, blocking a sure goal by Heber, and three minutes later saving a low Talles Magno shot at his left post.
A PASSING FANCY
Thirteen minutes from the end of regulation, Brandt Bronico finally hit the net on a wonderful buildup as Fuchs found a running Swiderski who dropped the ball with a first-time backheel to the former Charlotte 49er who cracked it past Johnson into the side netting.
For those fans who have voiced frustration with a perceived lack of scoring by Swiderski – he now has 8 goals, 3 in the last four matches – they are missing how much creative work he does as a passer of the ball. The Polish national teamer, who may be on the squad for the FIFA World Cup in November, has four assists as well and the ball he laid off for Bronico will be on the highlight reels for some time to come.
Bronico’s game winner in the 77th minute was a cracker, his third overall in MLS after two for Chicago, and should contend for Goal of the Week honors, if not more. Primarily a ball-winner in his holding midfield role, he was been given more permission, perhaps instruction to venture more forward under Lattanzio and has come close several times in previous games.
“It was beautiful,” said Lattanzio. “I really enjoyed watching it and I think the vision of Karol was great and the touch excellent. Brandt was supporting the action, so it was quite clever and I am delighted for (him). He is a player that has been underrated for too long.”
With three minutes left of the 90, Gaines was taken down in the box, a foul not immediately called, leading to more VAR drama. After review, the penalty kick was awarded and Fuchs stepped up to score his third PK of the season, sealing the game for Charlotte. The Crown saw out six minutes of added time to protect the win.
Charlotte proved they could put a bad game behind them. Now it will be a matter of taking the confidence earned against NYCFC and channeling that into consistent results down the stretch. At this moment the changing room is ecstatic, they are so happy,"; said Lattanzio. The importance of this win is also in terms of creating the belief, the belief that we can win away against the biggest teams and play with courage to get the result.
This is the most important thing. Proof of that will come on Sunday evening against Orlando at Bank of America Stadium where the Crown have eight wins against four losses. “Playoffs, that's it. That's all I think about every day,” said Bronico. “It's getting three points and making