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For the Stats: How Charlotte FC's Spine Is Fueling an Impressive Run

May 22, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
Charlotte FC News Release

Three out of four matches lost. A fourteen-win home streak ended by a 3-0 defeat from Minnesota United. A first-ever loss to New York City FC. April was a bleak month for Charlotte FC, prompting concerns about how the team would fare in a critical month ahead.

As they prepared for the first of four home matches and six matches in total for May, Head Coach Dean Smith emphasized that the players were determined to "put things right" after the Minnesota loss.

And put things right they did.

The team responded with a historic run of four matches so far in May. Four straight unbeaten, including three consecutive wins... without conceding a single goal. At the beginning of the month, Charlotte was below the playoff spots, but they now find themselves 6th in the Eastern Conference. So, what changed?

We can use statistics to identify the key areas contributing to the Club's success and determine if this form is a temporary spike or sustainable throughout the season.

The Defensive Unit

At the very foundation of this impressive run has been Charlotte's defense. Every player has both offensive and defensive responsibilities in soccer, but it's the backline's primary function - and Charlotte's backline has been nothing short of brilliant.

Over the last four matches, Charlotte has allowed an average of just 0.75 Expected Goals Against (xGA), a metric that measures the quality of chances created by the opposing team. Although this is a small sample size, examining all 14 of Charlotte FC's matches this season reveals they've been a menace to attack against all season.

So far this season, The Crown has conceded a total of 14.7 xGA, the third-best in the league. In terms of actual goals conceded, Charlotte is among the top five, tied for second with the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo. The team also leads the league with six clean sheets. The proof is there that Dean Smith has transformed Charlotte into a defensive powerhouse, and all underlying signs indicate this will continue.

A critical component of this success has been the partnership of Malanda and Privett. In the two consecutive losses before their unbeaten streak, Malanda was sidelined with an injury, and Charlotte conceded five goals. Nearly half of their total goals conceded this season occurred in those two matches when the center back pairing was separated.

However, some of these clean sheets can be credited to Kristijan Kahlina's heroics. In their last two matches, Charlotte allowed a combined 3.02 xGA, but Kahlina's exceptional goalkeeping saved the day.

The Croatian goalkeeper is proving that players can continue to improve into their 30s. He has shown significant progress this season and currently ranks ninth in the league in Goals Added (g+), with a rating of +3.6. This metric measures the value a player contributes to their team through on-ball actions (mostly saves, in a goalkeeper's case), meaning Kahlina's impact is equivalent to scoring 3.6 goals.

While the backline has been superb, maintaining a strong defensive structure is a collective effort that is held together by a strong spine.

A Strong Spine

If the backline is the foundation, the team's spine is the pillar. In soccer, the spine comprises the central players: goalkeeper, center backs, defensive midfielder, and striker. Like a human spine, if it's strong, the entire body thrives; if it weakens, everything else suffers.

Those with a good memory will recall that Charlotte FC's Zoran Krneta emphasized building a strong spine as a priority back in 2021. The team's spine saw some inconsistency in personnel during the first two seasons, but it has now solidified.

Starting from the back, goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina has provided a reliable and commanding presence in the box. At center back, the pairing of Malanda and Privett has become exactly what the club needed. Privett's rise has been particularly impressive, transforming from a third-round draft pick to a locked starter and one of only two players to have played every minute this season.

The other player is Captain Ashley Westwood, the heart of the midfield, who shows no signs of slowing down. He has not only shielded the center backs but also scored crucial goals. Westwood exemplifies leadership both on and off the field.

At the striker position, Patrick Agyemang has emerged as the leader of the attack, often resembling a one-man army. Over the past year, Agyemang ranks in the 87th percentile for progressive carries and the 92nd percentile for successful take-ons among MLS forwards. He's not only an offensive threat but also spearheads the press, ranking in the 99th percentile for tackles in the final third.

The strength of the team's spine shone through during this stretch, benefiting the entire squad.

The Overall Picture

Charlotte FC's impressive resurgence in May highlights the importance of mental resilience, solid defensive organization, and a strong core. Their return to outstanding home form, tied for the most points in the league, along with their first away win, has catapulted them back into playoff contention.

Most significant of all, the underlying statistics suggest this success is sustainable, rather than a mere stroke of luck. If Charlotte FC can maintain their current performance level, they are poised not only to secure a playoff berth but also to emerge as serious contenders for the rest of the season, especially with a few strategic additions in the upcoming summer transfer window.

All data from FBRef.

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