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Kristijan Kahlina Delivers Playoffs for Charlotte FC in 2023: A Story of Injury, Advanced Analytics, and Clutch Saves

December 5, 2023 - Major League Soccer (MLS) - Charlotte FC News Release


Kristijan Kahlina had a tough start to his second year with Charlotte FC. Off on holiday with his family ahead of 2023 preseason, the Croatian goalkeeper was struggling physically.

"Last winter at my holidays was really tough, because all the time I had pain," said Kahlina, speaking from a much more relaxing holiday this time around. "It was more in my leg than in my back, and when I came back to Charlotte, we immediately did an MRI and it showed that I needed surgery [on my back]."

After the surgery, Kahlina's back pain and stiffness went away immediately, but he did have lingering pain in his leg for up to a month and a half due to some nerve damage from the initial injury. As he patiently followed the surgery recovery process, he missed all of preseason and CLTFC's first 10 league games while slowly ramping up his involvement in training and eventually returning to pain-free activity.

The Croatian returned to game action for the first time on April 14th - nearly 3 months after his surgery - in a 3-0 home win for Crown Legacy FC, Charlotte FC's MLS NEXT Pro side.

The opponent that day? Inter Miami II. In retrospect, almost a prophetic sign of what was to come on the final day of the MLS regular season.

"Kristijan Kahlina!" screamed Jake Zivin, the Apple TV play-by-play commentator for that Decision Day clash versus Inter Miami. "A save to save the season!"

"This may be the MLS Save of the Year..." responded Taylor Twellman, his broadcast partner on the night. "Kahlina on Wednesday night [2-2 draw away at Miami] came up with five huge saves, but in all of 2023, none bigger than this fingertip save!"

Before THAT save on Decision Day, though, Kahlina had already put together an excellent season. According to several advanced analytics providers, he was an elite keeper in MLS with a top ten standing in many key metrics.

Per fbRef, the Croatian saved 4.5 more goals than the average, based on the quality of shots he faced (expected goals) minus the goals he actually conceded. That +4.5 mark put him 5th in the league and in great company.

Burki (STL) +9.1

Daniel (SJ) +7.3

Petrovich (former NE) +6.0

Paes (FCD) +4.6

Kahlina (CLT) +4.5

Blake (PHI) +4.1

Willis (NSH) +3.8

Frei (SEA) +3.1

Stuver (ATX) +2.0

McCarthy (LAFC) +1.5

American Soccer Analysis measured Kahlina similarly, placing him 6th overall with +3.9 Goals Added.

Essentially, his impact was the same as if he was the third-leading goal scorer on the team, behind Karol Swiderski and Enzo Copetti.

Another statistic that helps tell the full story of Kahlina's impact in 2023: Defensive Actions Outside Penalty Area per 90 minutes, where he ranked 7th per fbRef. This means that Kahlina did a lot of work sweeping up behind a high defensive line, requiring him to be aggressive and constantly engaged as an ad hoc sweeper.

The only other keeper in the top 10 in both this category and Goals Added? Roman Burki, the 2023 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

Anecdotally, it's very difficult to play in a pressing, high-line system that leaves you more exposed as a goalkeeper. It means Kahlina was more often forced into saves from less advantageous positions, as opposed to goalkeepers whose team played in more of a low defensive block. That low block gives the keeper more chances to rack up saves from contested shots.

He had to deliver those performances every week, as well, with George Marks (an NCAA champion with Clemson) and Pablo Sisniega (a proven starter in MLS) pushing him for the starting job every day in training after both started games early in the year.

"I can say they both are very good people," said Kahlina. "We pushed each other in the good way, the positive way. Overall, we all have a high quality, including Isaac [Walker] and C [Chituru Odunze], who came in at the end of the season."

Goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde was also a big part of fostering that competitive environment. Kahlina credited his great season to Hyde.

"It's about my quality, but it's also about a goalkeeper coach to help me show this quality in the games. Everything I said about my season, it also goes to him, because all together we make something."

That competition wasn't only for league games, either. This summer's inaugural Leagues Cup, which pitted every MLS team versus every Liga MX team, was another chance for games - a chance that Kahlina seized.

While the Croatian believes he was completely 100% within two months after the surgery, it still took him some time to work his way back into top form. Leagues Cup, then, was when he truly began to pass the eye test.

"Then it came to this Leagues Cup," Kahlina recalled. "Again, I think I played a good role in the team."

Understatement of the year.

Two penalty shootout wins. Five saves out of nine kicks against in those shootouts. Kahlina was truly heroic as he led his team to a deep quarterfinal run on the road, a bonding experience that really pushed the team forward to playoffs over the final third of the MLS regular season.

That MLS playoff qualification was ultimately a just reward for Kahlina's performances throughout the season. Without his four to five added goals, the team likely wouldn't have had a chance on Decision Day. Then, without his incredible save deep into stoppage time, Charlotte FC certainly would have missed out.

Zivin and Twellman were quick to lavish the praise in the moment. The man himself, however, is much more modest looking back.

"At the end of the season, when it was the most important, I was on a high level," he said. "Overall, I'm very happy with my performance."

It's safe to say all of Charlotte was happy with his performance. Now, with a healthy offseason ahead, Kahlina will look to push on to further heights along with the rest of the squad in year three.


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