The Charlotte Independence open their season against Louisville City FC, the best attacking team last season. LCFC separated themselves from the pack but couldn’t quite overtake Rochester in the 2015 regular season and lost to them in the Eastern Conference Final.
LCFC lost a number of key players in the offseason, most notably the league MVP Matt Fondy and midfield distributor Juan Guzman. The Coopers acted early and often in the offseason extending contracts for many of their players while also bolstering the squad with proven contributors at this level. Charlotte fans will recognize 2 names, Ben Newnam and Paolo Del Piccolo.
Newnam was a solid player for the Independence who was lost due to our partner signing him to an MLS contract then cutting him later in the season. His loan to Indy was thus severed and when they could not come to terms on a contract, Newnam joined Pittsburgh for the run-in and played a key role in them finishing above Charlotte.
Del Piccolo was an ever present in center midfield during Charlotte’s inaugural season. Paolo started 25 of 28 matches, came off the bench once and was on the pitch for 85% of the league minutes, 3rd most on the team behind Andrew Ribeiro and Bilal Duckett. Del Piccolo will likely feature in the key midfield battle vs Charlotte’s big offseason signing, Yann Ekra.
Louisville also secured the services of George Davis IV (scored a hat-trick against Charlotte in the 3rd game of the season), in total, they signed a bevy of new players that have contributed at or above this level.
Last season, Louisville played an attacking style of football that started with Guzman’s distribution from the base of midfield and relied on Fondy’s ability to hold up play and bring in the midfield runners. How they replace those key players will be a major determining factor in how they fare this season.
Charlotte return 4 automatic starters from last season: Bilal Duckett, Patrick Slogic, Jorge Herrera and Alex Martinez; while Enzo Martinez also returns who carried the attack while Jorge was injured. Henry Kalungi was signed midseason, playing right back after the departure of Newnam and center back while Mechack Jerome was on international duty with Haiti during the Gold Cup.
The centerback partnership of Duckett and Kalungi is a nice change to the beginning of last season when Slogic and Ribeiro started the first few games together. Slogic will likely take up his accustomed role at left back with returning utility man, Jack Metcalf likely to get the first shot at right back.
Cody Mizell will be between the sticks, a player the coaching staff know fairly well from his trial period with the club last season and someone they clearly wanted as they got him under contract early this offseason.
Center midfield will be a brand new set of players, with Ekra’s partner being the only question at this point. Lewis Hilton was signed early and had a full preseason with the club, he spent most of the Wednesday Media Day training session with the first XI so will likely get the start. Jun Margues Davidson has the pedigree, and based on reports, the style of play to be a nice complement to Ekra. Colorado loanee, Emmanuel Appiah, will likely be an early season impact sub to inject fresh legs and running.
The attacking band of 3 is certainly the strength of the team at this point. USL All-timer and club captain, Jorge Herrera, will be one of the first names on the team sheet. When healthy, Alex Martinez was an automatic starter for Coach Jeffries but he is out at the moment through injury. Enzo Martinez is a talented attacker who seems to play best in a central role but will likely start wide with license to swap roles. Starting on the other side, David Estrada is a proven goalscorer at this level and his contribution in front of goal will be key as the center forward spot is the biggest question mark for the team.
Caleb Calvert returns on loan and will get early season chances as there are only 2 other forwards currently under contract. Calvert is a willing runner and combines well when he’s been given time but he has to pull the ball in the net or make the runs that open space for the midfielders to have goal-scoring opportunities for him to continue as the starter.
The other 2 forwards, Christopher Hellmann and Norberto Ochoa, are young and unproven at this level. They will likely get 15-30 minutes off the bench as the team is currently short on attacking options.
Indy Projected XI (with backups)
GK: Mizell (Renfro)
CBs: Duckett & Kalungi (Bartlett)
CMs: Ekra & Hilton (Davidson, Appiah)
AM: Enzo, Herrera, Estrada (Hellmann)
F: Calvert (Ochoa)
Both matches were tight last season, I predict a repeat of our home match, 1-0 win from a late set piece header.