It’s an old adage that you shouldn’t ever corner a scared animal – with their backs to the wall, they’re liable to scratch and claw your face off in fear and desperation in order to escape.
And that’s the situation the Charlotte Independence find themselves in, 11 games into the 2019 USL season. Charlotte, an experienced team with a solid fan base, a good stadium situation, and MLS aspirations, have managed just one win this season, a 2-1 victory over Bethlehem Steel that happened more than a month ago. Moreover, their last four matches are pretty much a factory of sadness, with each result more dispiriting to than the last. Last week, it was a draw against Nashville SC that they should consider themselves lucky to get considering they were outshot 19 to 9. Three days earlier it was a loss to amateur side Florida Soccer Soldiers in the US Open Cup punctuated by a game-losing PK miss by team talisman Enzo Martinez. Before that, Charlotte lost 3-1 to mediocre Loudoun United, and before that they managed just a draw against USL Championship whipping boy Hartford United.
Like I said, factory of sadness. A team like this could be an easy win for Pittsburgh at home. It could also be nasty, as Charlotte are getting to the desperate-and-angry phase of the season
Tactics and Personnel
So what’s wrong with Charlotte? It’s a little hard to pinpoint. Some of the Independence writers I follow think it’s a short term blip – a club with a lot of talent that are underperforming. That may partially be due to a coaching change: former head coach Mike Jeffries has moved up to being the club’s GM, and Charlotte hired Jim McGuinness, who has experience as an assistant with Celtic in Scotland and with a team in the Chinese Super League, was brought on to serve as manager. McGuinness may still be adjusting to the USL, and to his new team.
Another item that suggests Charlotte are underperforming is their attacking personnel. Midfielder/defenseman Andrew Gutman won the Mac Hermann as the best men’s NCAA player in 2019 before signing with Celtic. He’s on loan to Charlotte, and was recently named to the 40-man roster of the Senior USMNT for this summer’s Gold Cup tournament. Dom Oduro, a striker and wide midfielder, played over 300 matches at the MLS level for 8 different teams, scoring 63 goals. He is blazingly fast, even at the age of 33. Joel Johnson is also a pacey winger-type, who was impressive enough in his 2017 play to get a trial with MLS’ Colorado Rapids in 2018.
And then, there’s Enzo Martinez. Enzo has twice been USL league MVP. He was impressive enough in 2016 and 2017 that the Colorado Rapids gave him a contract for 2018. Martinez was a regular starter for the first half of the season, but could never quite find the right role in Anthony Hudson’s offense. When he played as a second striker or attacking mid, his product in the final third was never quite good enough. As a shuttler in the diamond midfield he looked quite adept, but Colorado’s play was poor, and the club tinkered looking for other options. As a deep-lying midfielder, his best asset – his terrific ball control and dribbling, was largely irrelevant. By midseason, Colorado had brought in Kellyn Acosta to replace him. He was released at season’s end, and returned to Charlotte.
Unfortunately, Enzo’s 2019 has been about as disappointing as his 2018 was. He’s rounding into form, and has 4 assists so far, but has yet to record a goal. Some think it’s a crisis of confidence, others speculate that Martinez might be nursing an injury. Whatever it is, Martinez, when in form, is a game-changing attacker to be wary of. Hounds fans will likely remember him well for past games in which he has terrorized the black and yellow.
My take is that the primary problems for Charlotte lie with their defense. Against Nashville in their last game, right-centerback Hassan Ndam, formerly of NY Red Bulls II, looked easily beatable, and his clearances and his touch with the ball were constantly below-grade. I was equally unimpressed with the work of Michael Maria at defensive midfield, as well as the goalkeeping of Curtis Anderson. When Charlotte conceded the game-tying goal in the first half, it occurred because Anderson stopped two shots, one after another, but none of the backline defenders reacted to get to the rebound, allowing Lebo Moloto to pop the ball back into the net on the third try. You don’t see that very often, because defenses are supposed to be better than that. Perhaps Ndam’s backline partners Aaron Maund and Steven Thicot were having a bad game. Perhaps this backline just isn’t very good.
In their last game, Charlotte were in a 5-3-2 formation in which they conceded the ball and tried to strike quickly on the counter. I expect they’ll do that again against the Riverhounds, although with the team struggling as they are, any formation is possible.
Two final players of note for Charlotte: Enzo’s brother Alex Martinez can be just as quick and effective as Enzo, and the two often form a solid partnership; and striker Niki Jackson, on loan from the Colorado Rapids, is a fast and dangerous attacker who likes to race through the gaps between defenders. Neither started last week, but both are likely starters or certain bench replacements for Jim McGuinness’ men.
Last Week’s Lineup
Charlotte Independence Lineup vs Nashville SC:
Curtis Anderson; Aaron Maund, Steven Thicot, Hassan Ndam; Andrew Gutman, Afrim Taku, Michael Maria, Joel Johnson, Enzo Martinez; Dominic Oduro, Zyen Jones
Date: Saturday, May 25
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvCLT
Featured Image of Niki Jackson from Charlotte Independence via twitter