The general feeling around Charlotte FC going into L.A. was one of question marks. Charlotte FC had blown past most expectations of an inaugural season, and shown the makings of something more. They had also show the makings of a glass structure… complex and beautiful, but once cracked in the smallest way was likely to shatter.
This was not the first iteration of this team. The first iteration had seen stonewall defending that even the most attacking sides in the game found little joy against. Smart, front foot play from defensive pillar and captain Guzman Corujo was only one piece of a defensive center that had more than earned its stripes.
Beside him, the newly sworn in Anton Walkes was proving he was more than capable of handling his own, in front of him the unyielding engine of Brandt Bronico, and behind him a steady and ever present rock in Kristijan Kahlina.
This core of defense had earned the respect of the league, but even as the team bus pulled into the Banc of California stadium, this core had already seen damage.
Guzman Corujo had just seen a season ending injury the game before, tearing an ACL that would require surgery. Brandt Bronico had seen more minutes than any player on the team besides the Keeper, and his legs were showing the strain even three games before. Anton Walkes had been left without his defensive partner for one of the greatest attacking threats in the MLS, and newly deputized Jan Sobocinski hadn’t seen an MLS match this season.
Still they held.
Spectacular defending from Sobocinski on the counter allowed Anton to focus on marshaling the line. Brandt’s tired legs meant misplayed passed from the midfield, but the ragged determination to cut out plays held the shape. One world class save from the hands of Kahlina, and the halftime whistle signaled hope.
There had only been one real offensive threat from the Charlotte FC in the first half, but the score board read 0-0. Perhaps, thought Charlotte fans, there was a chance to take something from the game. Perhaps Yordy Rayna could connect from his infamous curling shot, perhaps Karol Swiderski could find the opening to get his golden left foot through the ball.
L.A thought differently.
Young midfielder Ben Bender is pulled at halftime in favor of 23 year old Jordy Alcivar. It is unknown if this change is planned to help keep legs fresh, or if Interim manager Christian Lattanzio is unhappy with the players performance. If it is the latter, its the first of Lattanzio’s decisions that will come back to haunt him.
Four minutes into the second half a perfectly timed ball floats over Anton Walkes and is comfortably headed home by Jesus David Murillo. 0-1 L.A.
The deflation in the team is obvious, and is felt by the fans watching all over the country. The midfield battle is beginning to look more like a slaughter as a perfectly executed press from L.A. leaves no one with time on the ball; and right back Harrison Afful is buckling under the attacking panache coming down his sideline.
Just ten minutes later the pressure creates a mistake. Kahlina comes out to claim a corner kick and fails to grab the ball. It falls behind him and is instantly slotted into the vacated net. 0-2 L.A.
Substitute Alcivar is shortly given a yellow card in the midfield, and the rich get richer. This zone where L.A. has already started showing there dominance must now play on the back foot, or risk going down to 10 men.
Its the 70th minute of the game and undenounced to the fans the darkest times are yet to come. Harrison Afful has been playing at the end of his tether all game to maintain any presence on the wing, and diving in to stop a cross the ball ricochets painfully twisting his foot. The night adds literal injury to insult.
The medical staff determine Afful is not fit to continue, and manager Christian Lattanzio is left with a choice of how to fill the void in the squad. On the bench sits Jaylin Lindsey; a like for like replacement for Afful in the right back role. Despite spectacular performances from the young man throughout the season, he is not yet trusted by Lattanzio himself.
Instead the manager turns to 36 year old Christian Fuchs. A symbol for the club but an aging left back now being asked to play out of position in the center of defense. He is not the only one unfamiliar with his role. The switch moves the team into an unpracticed back three. While more defensive bodies might sound harder to break down, it’s also moved Walkes and Sobocinski into unknown positions.
This defensive confusion is obvious as legs get heavier. In the 73rd minute a poorly controlled touch from Brandt Bronico in the middle turns over the ball and fires up a quick counterattack. One ball over the now disconnected back line and Carlos Vela slots home a 1v1 against Kahlina. 0-3 L.A.
Now attacking freely L.A. target the clearly weakened left side of Charlottes defense. Joseph Mora has put in a respectable shift, but has yet to win a ground dual in the match. The attack swiftly move the ball through the fading defense and just three minutes later, perhaps the most stark contrast in ball control sees a L.A. rip open charlotte once more. 0-4 L.A.
When the 80th minute of the game rolls around L.A. has substituted out all of their critical pieces to give back ups a chance to play in the game. Carlos Vela is gone, Jose Cifuentes, Llie Sanchez, Brian Rodriguez, and Jesus David Murillo are all resting comfortably.
It’s not until the 84th minute, when Jan Sobocinski goes down with what looks to be another injury, that Jaylin Lindsey is finally introduced into the game. The failed back 3 shifts back to the known formation of the back 4, and for a brief period the late sub Lindsey teams up with Mckinze Gaines to produce real threat down the right wing.
These 5 minutes are the brightest part of the game for Charlotte Fans. Though the score line shows the same as the terrible defeat to Toronto just weeks ago, the thrill of watching your team break out and attack gives a moment of joy.
Then in the dying embers of a long buried game disaster strikes. A long ball over the top sent in by L.A.’s keeper is headed just over the defensive line, and Latif Blessing goes 1v1 with the keeper again. Kahlina makes a fantastic reflex save to deny Blessing, but the charging Anton Walkes is unable to react to the ball and blunders it home into his own net. A disastrous own goal in the 90+2 minute. Insult to injury to insult.
As the final whistle blows the Scoreboard reads 0-5 in favor of L.A. It is a defeat the like of which Charlotte FC have never experienced, and will look to scrub from their minds as soon as possible.
The beautiful game goes on, and we go again.