Courtesy: Charlotte Independence
2016 USL Preview: Charlotte Independence
Release: 03/09/2016
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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Charlotte Independence’s first USL season had its ebbs and flows. Despite a slow start and a pair of losses at the close of the 2015 campaign, Charlotte showed that it could have been a USL Playoff-caliber team. The Independence had a strong 12-game unbeaten streak (6-0-6) and handed the eventual champions the Rochester Rhinos their only loss of the season during that stretch. The club’s showing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup also was a defining moment. Heading into 2016, Mike Jeffries’ side has to be focused on two keys to change the story line this year – a quicker start out of the gate and more consistency.

Head Coach: Mike Jeffries
Stadium: Ramblewood Soccer Complex
2015 results: 10-8-10 record; 7th in Eastern Conference
2015 postseason: Did not qualify for USL Playoffs

Goalkeeper: Charlotte’s goalkeeping situation is the question mark of the preseason. The Independence’s consistent option last year was John Berner, who was loaned from MLS’s Colorado Rapids and could potentially return for the 2016 USL season. If that scenario doesn’t come to fruition, the Independence will be looking at a new No. 1 with either Cody Mizell, who is coming off a successful stint with Icelandic side Knattspyrnufelagid Fram, or Kyle Renfro, who was a backup to Nick Noble with the Harrisburg City Islanders last season.

Defense: The back line was a bit of a work in progress at the start of last season, but a strong nucleus returns in 2016, with the hope of mirroring the 1.25 goals per game allowed average from a year ago. It’s difficult to miss returning back Patrick Slogic, whose 6-foot-6 frame is a commodity both in defense and in set-piece situations. His three goals tied for fifth on the club in 2015. Then there is Bilal Duckett’s pace and work rate, which helped strengthen the team when he joined Charlotte in mid-April. Last year’s midseason acquisition, Uruguayan defender Henry Kalungi, is also locked in for 2016, and his ACL/MCL injuries from 2014 appear to be a distant memory.

Midfield: There has to be some anticipation brewing among this group, especially with the addition of former Harrisburg City Islanders midfielder Yann Ekra. The Ivory Coast native provides some valuable athleticism and box-to-box coverage for the Independence. Then there is the club’s captain and USL veteran Jorge Herrera, who despite a mid-season calf injury tied for the team lead in assists (7) and scored a memorable goal in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to beat Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution. The Martinez brothers – Enzo and Alex – return to the fray, as well, so as a whole the midfield appears surefooted for the new campaign.

Forward: Charlotte needs to lock in some options still on the front line, and at the moment this will be a very different group from a year ago. Different is good when one of the additions is Mexican forward David Estrada – a striker that spent five seasons in MLS, mostly with Seattle Sounders FC, and divvied the 2015 USL season with two Western Conference postseason clubs in Sacramento Republic FC and Orange County Blues FC. As for the rest of the forward corps, several options in the midfield can push up within the Independence’s system. The club also has an interesting newcomer in former Des Moines Menace forward Chris Hellmann, who reunites with his former PDL head coach, having been a finalist for the league’s MVP award during the 2014 PDL season under the guidance of Jeffries.

Strengths: The defensive trio of Bilal Duckett, Henry Kalungi and Patrick Slogic at this moment looks like the crucial element of this squad during the preseason, and having all of them back at the start of the season is a luxury that Charlotte didn’t have last year. The Independence’s other strength should be the presence in the midfield from newly acquired Yann Ekra and longtime Charlotte staple Jorge Herrera.

Weaknesses: Charlotte’s offense was lacking last year as the 38 regular-season goals ranked in the lower half of the table. David Estrada’s inclusion certainly is a boost. The Independence is fortunate to have a midfield contingent with finishing qualities, but at this point of the preseason, Charlotte has some questions as to which other strikers can follow Estrada’s potential lead.

Key number: 10 – This year marks midfielder Jorge Herrera’s 10th season in Charlotte. The Colombia native played for former USL side the Charlotte Eagles from 2007-14 and then started his campaign with the Charlotte Independence during last year’s expansion season.

Noteworthy matchups: While not necessarily a rivalry matchup following the completion of its first season, Charlotte could make another statement when it travels to face the defending USL champions, the Rochester Rhinos, on May 14 at Sahlen’s Stadium. The Independence were the only side to get in the way of the Rhinos posting an unbeaten 2015 campaign, posting a 4-2 win on Aug. 1. The North Carolina derby matchups against Wilmington Hammerheads FC make for a good local measuring stick to see where the two non-playoff teams from a year ago are headed. They meet up three times, with Charlotte hosting Wilmington on May 11 to start this year’s series.

Coach’s view: “Some of the ideas and things, we have a good base built on from last year. Some of the things that weren’t there in the beginning of the year last year, I feel like are here now.” – Mike Jeffries

Current roster (updated: March 9, 2016):
Goalkeepers: Cody Mizell, Kyle Renfro
Defenders: Bilal Duckett, Henry Kalungi, Patrick Slogic
Midfielders: Yann Ekra, Jorge Herrera, Lewis Hilton, Alex Martinez, Enzo Martinez, Jack Metcalf
Forwards: David Estrada, Chris Hellmann

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