Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
The Charlotte Independence earned their first trip to the postseason in their second season in the USL and return many familiar faces from that team as it aims to continue its progression in Year 3. Leading the way is 2016 USL Most Valuable Player Finalist Enzo Martinez, who drove the side from midfield a year ago. With the club’s move to the new Sportsplex at Matthews for the final 12 games of the regular season and new sponsorship and television partnerships unveiled this offseason, Head Coach Mike Jeffries’ side could make an even bigger impression this year.
Head Coach: Mike Jeffries
Stadium: Ramblewood Stadium / Sportsplex at Matthews
2016 results: 14-8-8, 50pts
2016 postseason: L 3-1 at Rochester Rhinos
Goalkeeper: The Independence return both of their goalkeepers, with Cody Mizell the presumptive starter after splitting time with Colorado Rapids loanee John Berner a season ago. Mizell recorded 10 appearances and logged a 1.00 goals-against average last season, with Berner taking the other 20 starts on loan, while Kyle Renfro has yet to make a league appearance for the club.
Defense: Three members of the Independence’s starting back line from a season ago return, with the club’s minutes leader Bilal Duckett (29GP, 2,577 mins) being rejoined by Henry Kalungi (27GP, 2,279 mins) and Joel Johnson (25GP, 2,097 mins) after the Independence conceded 29 goals in 30 regular-season contests a season ago. The club currently has three candidates to fill the space left by Patrick Slogic’s departure, with Austin Yearwood having made three appearances a season ago and rookies Luke Waechter and Jared Odenberk both bringing solid resumes from college and the PDL.
Midfield: The Independence’s midfield was key to the club’s playoff berth, with Enzo Martinez’s nine goals and five assists tying for first on the team in both categories. Add in the return of Jun Marques Davidson and David Estrada, both of whom logged more than 2,000 minutes of action, and the potential for a breakthrough by Lewis Hilton – who recorded three goals and four assists in only 1,186 minutes of action – and the potential for the Independence to remain just as strong this year is clearly present.
Forward: The Independence will need to find a replacement for Jamaican forward Brian Brown, who matched Enzo Martinez’s goal and assist marks last season before signing with USL expansion side Reno 1868 FC this offseason. Veteran Jorge Herrera was an option off the bench last year – the Colombian appeared in every game, and recorded seven goals and two assists in 1,109 minutes – and while he might be listed as a midfielder Head Coach Mike Jeffries has been experimenting with using Yann Ekra in an advanced role. Figuring out this conundrum is likely the biggest question for the Independence’s preseason.
Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
Strengths: The Independence have a strong central core to build around, led by its midfield and Enzo Martinez. The loss of Brown might hurt somewhat, but with eight different players having scored multiple goals a season ago, and the side notching 31 assists, only five fewer than league leader Louisville, there should still be plenty of chances to go around for as the group looks to top the 50-goal mark this season.
Weaknesses: The Independence didn’t have many weaknesses throughout the regular season last season as they were competitive in every contest. In fact, the club’s only loss in the USL that came by multiple goals was its 3-1 loss in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to Rochester. With the team’s chemistry intact, and a full season under the belt of the likes of Hilton and Johnson, expect more of the same this year.
Key number: 24 – The Independence scored 24 goals in both the first and second halves of games in the 2016 USL regular season, as they finished the season tied for fourth in the league with 163 shots on goal. If the side can replicate that consistency, it should bode well for another postseason berth.
Noteworthy matchups: The Independence’s opening game at Transamerica Field against regional rival the Charleston Battery on April 1 should provide plenty of entertainment, but the club’s first game at the newly established Sportsplex at Matthews on June 17 against the Harrisburg City Islanders will be a banner occasion as the club moves into its new home. An early-season road contest against the Rochester Rhinos on April 29 also stands out, while a closing stretch that sees the side face Tampa Bay and Louisville on the road and Cincinnati and Charleston at home in its final four games could be make-or-break.
Coach’s view: “Every year we’ve continued to grow and have a better starting base of where we are. Last year, we started preseason with maybe eight or nine guys under contract. This year, we’re not quite double that, but close. Clearly we’re in a much better place coming off a year that was a very good year. We feel like we have a good core group soccer-wise.” – Charlotte Independence Head Coach Mike Jeffries
Current roster (updated: March 13, 2017):
Goalkeepers: Cody Mizell, Kyle Renfrow
Defenders: Bilal Duckett, Henry Kalungi, Austin Yearwood, Joel Johnson, Luke Waechter, Jared Odenberk
Midfielders: David Estrada, Lewis Hilton, Enzo Martinez, Yann Ekra, Alex Martinez, Jun Marques Davidson, Callum Ross
Forwards: Jorge Herrera, David Spies