Although they’ve already met twice, with Saturday marking a third matchup before the USL Championship season hits its midpoint, there will be plenty unfamiliar to the Rowdies when they visit Charlotte Independence this time around.
First off, the match will actually be played in Charlotte. Since 2017, the Independence have ventured about 10 miles southeast to the Sportsplex at Matthews, where a 2,300-seat soccer-only facility sufficed. But recently, American Legion Memorial Stadium’s renovation was completed, allowing the Independence to take over as the primary tenants of a 10,000-plus seat downtown facility.
Two months ago in Matthews, the Rowdies lost 1-0 for their first defeat of the season, following a 5-0 start that included a 3-0 rout of Charlotte in the opener at Al Lang Stadium. Charlotte has since added several important pieces, some courtesy of loans from the formative roster of FC Charlotte, which will start play in Major League Soccer next year.
“They’ve made a lot of signings between now and then, so they’ve got pretty good depth. They’re in a new stadium now, so this is going to be a test, and a challenge,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins.
The most recent loanee is notable. The Independence this week gained the services of defender Christian Fuchs, who made 78 appearances with the Austrian national team, captaining the side for four years. He just concluded a five-year run with Leicester City that included the memorable 2016 Premier League title.
Two weeks ago, Charlotte FC loaned defender Adam Armour, and before that Charlotte dipped into French League One to add midfielder Sylvain Marveaux.
Still, Charlotte has lost more than it has won (5-7-1, 16 points) and occupies the sixth spot among eight teams in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay (9-5, 27 points) enters the weekend in first place, tied in points with Pittsburgh with one fewer match played.
Before more than 4,000 fans in their American Legion stadium debut on July 7, Charlotte was stunned 3-2 by seventh-place New York Red Bulls II. Independence leading scorer Dane Kelly (six goals) has been out since injuring his hamstring in the game. Three days later, Charlotte turned around and tied West-leading Phoenix 1-1 at home.
“It shows you how tough our conference is,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “They definitely seem to have an ability to raise their game, particularly when they’re at home and against teams near the top end of the table. Charlotte can beat anyone in this league on their day, no question. They’ve got a lot of ability through the spine of their team.”
Regardless of the venue, the home-road splits would seem to favor Charlotte in this one. The Independence are 3-1-1 at home, just 2-6 on the road, while the Rowdies are 7-2 at Al Lang, 2-3 on the road, where they will be for four of the next five matches.
The Rowdies got some swagger back Saturday, topping Loudoun United 3-1 at home.
Tampa Bay suffered another injury to an attacking player when Dayonn Harris hurt his hamstring just after entering the Loudoun match. Fortunately, Lucky Mkosana was able to make his season debut, and could be in line for more minutes Saturday.
At some point the club will get back fellow forwards Juan Tejada and Steevan Dos Santos from injury, but recent acquisition Foster Langsdorf is off the table, just this week announcing his retirement as a player.
Of course, there’s always forward Sebastian Guenzatti, who scored his ninth goal last weekend to take over the Eastern Conference lead, earning a spot on the USL Team of the Week. Hard-working midfielder Lewis Hilton earned Second Team honors.
Guenzatti scored twice in the convincing victory over Charlotte in early May.
“It was both of our first games of the season,” Collins said. “(Saturday is) just a more difficult proposition for a number of reasons.”