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What We Learned in Preseason Under New Head Coach Dean Smith

February 19, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
Charlotte FC News Release

Charlotte FC concluded their inaugural preseason under Dean Smith unbeaten with an impressive record of three wins, three draws, and zero losses, showcasing promising performances in both behind-closed-doors friendlies and the Coachella Valley Invitational. This period provided fans with a preview of what perhaps lies ahead for Charlotte under their new head coach.

What insights can we glean from Dean Smith's approach and the team's preseason endeavors? Let's delve into some key takeaways from Charlotte's preparations for the 2024 season.

Attitude, Application, and Teamwork

Under Smith's stewardship, Charlotte FC is built on a bedrock of three fundamental pillars: attitude, application, and teamwork. Throughout the preseason, these principles echoed through every aspect of the team's training sessions and matches.

"The three things I asked for at the start of the game were attitude, application, and teamwork," Smith said following a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. "I thought we got all three of them. If you're seeing that in the 87th minute (multiple players sprinting back to defend a counter attack), then you know they're showing all three of them attributes, which are going to be massively important if the team is going to be successful."

Emphasizing a positive mindset coupled with a desire to learn and improve is paramount. In all his talks to the team - whether on the training pitch or the halftime locker room - Smith asks pointed questions of his players, forcing them to solve problems on their own and create a more active, collaborative approach to learning.

The team is encouraged not only to absorb knowledge but apply it to continue to grow and, ultimately, leave the field with three points.

Direct Play on the Ball

Beyond these psychological principles, Smith has demonstrated clarity in the style he wants his team to play - both in training and in matches.

Smith's tactical philosophy diverges from the methodical build-up play often seen from Charlotte FC. While possession remains crucial, Smith favors a more direct approach, characterized by incisive runs and forward, line-breaking passes to quickly advance up the field.

The fullbacks have a pivotal role in facilitating this direct style of play. Departing from previous inverted tactics, they adopt a more traditional overlapping role. They supplement attacks by creating overloads and threatening with crosses to attackers and late-arriving midfielders.

He has also emphasized a more goal-scoring-focused role for his strikers.

"With him [Enzo Copetti] and Patrick [Agyemang], I've told them I need them to be running in behind a lot more," Smith said after the Galaxy match. "I need them to be running towards the goal rather than to wide areas."

Smith said later that he wanted his strikers to be focused on playing inside the box ("between the goalposts" in his words) as much as possible. After all, the box is where the vast majority of goals are scored. Copetti and Agyemang echoed these coaching points in their public press conference, too.

While the strikers will still be expected to hold the ball up and link play when needed, their focus will be on taking advantage of their main strength - running in behind to stretch the game - and getting inside the box to finish into the back of the net.

Be Hard to Beat

This direct offensive approach is backed up by a disciplined defensive structure, aimed at swift counter-pressing to create advantageous situations in transition. While the team reacts quickly to pressing triggers, they also demonstrated an ability to sit deeper off the ball and defend resolutely when required by the match.

Ultimately, Dean Smith's style is to be "hard to beat" at all times.

"It's always about staying in the game and making sure you don't give anything away cheaply, because then you stay at 0-0. Then, you go and score the goals at the end," Smith told the team post-match after winning 3-0 over the LA Galaxy. "So well done, take it in the next game now and learn from it."

The team clearly carried that message forward, keeping a clean sheet in the next two Coachella Valley Invitational matches as well, plus an additional clean sheet in a closed-door friendly against Phoenix Rising.

In all, CLTFC hasn't conceded a goal in 360 straight preseason minutes.

Prioritizing Style Over System

Unlike previous seasons' rigid adherence to a specific formation, Smith advocates for a more fluid approach centered around the distinct style of play discussed at length above. Rather than being confined by a fixed system, the focus lies on cultivating a playing style adaptable to various setups.

"What we want to do is have a style of play, that you can fit a number of different systems... so we're going to be quite adaptable this season, but our style of play will stay the same," said Smith following the team's 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, where he switched up the formation from the previous game.

Fostering a playing ethos that ensures players feel at ease irrespective of the formation promotes enhanced tactical adaptability while maintaining team cohesion. Smith prioritizes a versatile approach over rigid adherence to specific systems, emphasizing a consistent style of play that transcends formations.

Anticipated Home Opener

As the preseason draws to a close, Dean Smith's focus on building the team's foundational principles sets the stage for an intriguing season opener. Charlotte FC's opening home match against New York City FC on February 24th promises to be a litmus test of their newfound resilience and tactical acumen.

"I'm really looking forward to it [the home opener]. It will be my first game, obviously, as the head coach there. I'm looking forward to the atmosphere our fans create," said Smith after the team's final preseason match a week from February 24th. "As Westy [Ashley Westwood] said there, there's a real good togetherness in the group... we're still growing, there's a lot more we can get out of our team, and I'm looking forward to it."

Under Smith's guidance, Charlotte FC is forging an identity characterized by resilience, adaptability, and a commitment to playing attractive and - most importantly - effective football.

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