Opponent Insight: MNUFC @ Charlotte FC

Minnesota United FC will fly out to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sunday evening to face Charlotte FC. It will be the Loons’ first trip to Bank of America Stadium since the Eastern Conference expansion side began play in MLS in 2022. Since it has been an age since the two clubs met in preseason (a match Charlotte won handily), we caught up on Friday with Sam Spencer, a soccer reporter for Queen City Nerve and the editor and publisher of Soccer Sheet, for insight into how 2024 is going for Charlotte and what Loons fans can expect come match time.

Northland Soccer Journal (NSJ): Charlotte FC came into Year Three with consecutive 9th place finishes behind them (2 places outside of the playoffs in 2022, the last playoff spot in the reformatted 2023). Like MNUFC they’ve had a slow start but what are the expectations for 2024 and have they been met? 

Sam Spencer (SS): In general, the Charlotte FC fanbase has very high expectations for 2024. The Dean Smith hire was the first of many personnel changes that had fans excited going into the season, and the club just completed its biggest DP signing ever in Liel Abada. The team still has a third DP slot open and it will be interesting to see how – and how fast – that is filled.

While I don’t think the high expectations some fans have for this team have been met yet, the team is better and more cohesive than it was at any point in the first two years.

Finally, it’s hard to overstate the effect of Anton Walkes’ death last year. The team struggled in the weeks after the tragic accident, and the emotional well-being of some members of the club was shattered. This year, however, the team had a very successful preseason that helped build confidence, and the team started the season off right.

NSJ: Dean Smith was announced as head coach this offseason (December 2023). What style of play has he brought to the club and how is he being received?

SS: Head coach Dean Smith has had a back-to-basics approach that Charlotte’s players have responded to well. Last year, Charlotte’s manager had a complicated system that was hard for some players to understand, and often members of our squad were playing out of their natural position. While Smith prefers avoiding comparisons to last year, he did acknowledge early on that he wanted to play a more exciting, attacking system than in previous years.

Smith has also put a lot of energy into building relationships with the squad and is big on playing with joy. After many years in the Football League, he knows how to build a good rapport with the press and the public as well.

NSJ: Patrick Agyemang is Charlotte’s only player with two goals this season, double his tally from last year. What strengths has he brought to the squad, now that he’s seeing regular starts?

SS: Big Pat is one of my favorite success stories from the organization. Like St. Louis, Charlotte has invested a lot of time and energy into its NEXT Pro squad, and the results are clear. Agyemang started with the second team last year, got progressively more playing time for the first team, scored goals in league play and in Leagues Cup, and eventually scored the last goal of Charlotte’s 2023 season during the Crown’s playoff loss to the Red Bulls.

The reason he’s competing with a DP like Enzo Copetti for playing time is that he’s young and talented, big without sacrificing too much speed, and tough to defend inside the area. He’s still growing as a player and we haven’t seen his ceiling yet – pretty good for someone who started out playing DIII college ball.

NSJ: Charlotte has allowed only 8 goals in 8 games. Who or what are the biggest factors in this stingy defense?

SS: The back line has been a priority for Smith, and he lucked in to an existing lineup with a lot of talent that nonetheless struggled in the previous system. Adilson Malanda is one of the best center backs in the league. Andrew Privett has grown into the position, despite playing as a midfielder in college. Jere Uronen brings veteran experience into the fullback role, and he’s excited to meet his Finnish national team colleagues on the pitch on Sunday. Nathan Byrne is having his best year ever with the club. Having Ashley Westwood at the 6 is also invaluable from a leadership perspective, and while goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina has less to do this year, he’s played exceptionally well since earning a clean sheet against Messi in the team’s last regular season match of 2023.

If everyone’s healthy and available to start, the Loons may be saying “Uff da!” in frustration for the full 90.

Our thanks to Sam Spencer for sharing his insight ahead of this cross-conference matchup. Follow him on Twitter, @choosesam, for his take on the game. As always, you can follow NSJ for live updates and check back here for a full preview and recap of the match, set to kick off at 5 PM CST on Sunday, April 21.

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC (Twitter)


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