The end result was undeserved and unlucky. Losing 2-1 to Atlanta, in a vacuum, is not a surprise, but the way in which Atlanta got its goals--a soft penalty and wicked deflection in the dying moments of the game--seem a bit too harsh. Atlanta fans are (and should be) ecstatic over the three points, but most neutral observers would probably agree that Charlotte deserved a point from that game. But that's soccer.
it wasn't all bad, though. The best result from the game, for me, was that Ben Bender got his first start and was fantastic, especially in the 2nd half. He rewarded the manager by delivering the assist for Charlotte's first goal in club history, but more than that he added solidity and creativity to the team.
Instead of doing a broad overview of the game, which I assume anyone reading this will have seen, I wanted to take a closer look at the impact Bender had. As the first pick for an expansion team--and with how good of a collegiate player he was--the expectations are high. Coupled with disappointing results from the first two games, especially in the final third, the desire and need for a change was evident.
First, let's see what the team did as a whole:
Seven shots on target! For a team that came in with 8 total shots on target for the year, to almost match that is a huge step in the right direction.
The possession is terrible, but not unexpected for a road game verses Atlanta. It should also be noted that it was 71% vs 29% in favor of Atlanta in the first half (yikes!). In the second, Charlotte really grew into the game and were at 49% possession.
Bender was a big part of this. in the first, he was stationed out on the left wing and didn't have many touches as Charlotte struggled for possession. Miguel Angel Ramirez's substitutions at half did wonders for the team and Bender. While Armour technically came on for Ortíz, it was Bender who really took that position on the field. With Armour and Afful on, Bender was pushed into the middle, while the substitution pair took their places on the wings. Bender was often the most forward of the midfield, but at times Franco was ahead of him.
Pushed into the middle, Bender had the freedom to float and find space on the pitch. As his heat map below shows, he did a lot of his work on the left side of the pitch, but with lots of touches in the middle of the pitch and plenty all throughout the final third. When Armour pushed up on the left, Bender was often stepping into that space and looking for Armour ahead of him or looking centrally to Swiderski (and later Rios). He didn't just sit at the top of the midfield, though. He went looking for the ball and, at times, he dropped pretty deep to pick it up from the center backs.
For what it's worth, both SofaScore and WhoScored had him at an 8.1 game rating (by far the highest on the team). At least to my eye, that seems right. He was popping up in good places time and again. He looked dangerous with the ball at his feet and he was making smart decisions with it. His one glaringly errant pass came in the first half where he overhit a cross. At the same time, the ball wasn't a bad one--it was just that no Charlotte player was on the right side of the final third, for some reason. I would argue it is fair for Bender to expect at least one teammate to be on that half of the field.
Charlotte was also playing through him. Only Fuchs, Lindsey, and Kahlina had more touches than his 45.
What I love is that Bender was playing within himself. He looks confident on the ball, but he's not trying too much. He clearly has the ability to dribble past players (2/2 successful dribbles), but he's not a winger; he's a midfielder. As such, he was looking to go around opponents only at appropriate times and his priority seemed to be ball retention and progression (which is what you want from a midfielder).
After saying all that, it was his dribbling ability late in the first half that felt like a turning point in the game. Up until then, Atlanta was absolutely dominating possession. It was hard to re-watch the first part of the game as Charlotte absolutely could not get a foothold. Charlotte players were barely able to touch the ball past the halfway line. In the 40th, though, Bender picks up the ball on the left wing, dribbles past his man, and gets off a great cross right onto Swiderski's head. The Polish striker unfortunately can't convert the opportunity, but all of a sudden Charlotte had life. They quickly created another fantastic chance a few minutes later that (again) Swiderski couldn't convert. This energy carried on into the 2nd half.
In possession, Bender was strong. If you want to have fun, go look at the 62nd minute to see what he does to #6 (Franco) on Atlanta. He gains possession in the midfield, spins Franco, holds him off with his strength, and even sends Franco skidding on the turf when he releases the ball out wide. Later, in stoppage time, he picks up the ball and, again, holds off his defender as he drives down the left to get a good cross in. When he gets touches, good things happen and, when he has the ball, he's hard to dispossess. Charlotte just needs to get it to him more frequently.
He wasn't perfect. In rewatching the game, there were a few times, especially in the first half, where I felt he switched off defensively. It didn't cost Charlotte, but he left space that Atlanta could have easily exploited. It wasn't that he wasn't tracking back, it was just that there were times when he would have been late in his coverage if Atlanta had looked that way. With that said, it's also fair to ask how much of that was due to him playing on the wing rather than in the midfield and his unfamiliarity with the position. His first half pressing also left a bit to be desired, but that could be said of the whole team.
All day Bender was the one linking the midfield and attack (the fact that Swiderski and Gaines are so isolated is a discussion for another day). Note below how he is the only one with a link to the forward.
Bender has earned his place in the Starting XI, but I hope it's a place in the midfield. This would allow him to dictate the game from a more central location, as he did in the 2nd half, but also give him the freedom to drift into those wide spaces. A 4-3-3 with a Ruiz-Franco-Bender midfield and a trio of Ortiz-Swiderski-Gaines up top could be very fun (if you want to put Armour in the front three, I won't fight you).
Ultimately, this game is another loss and Charlotte are still looking for their first points of the season. Moreover, Charlotte were still far from great this game. They were absolutely dominated during the first 40 minutes. Some decent to good defending got them through it, but they can't let teams control games like. If they do, more often than not they will concede.
Unsurprisingly, the manager is still looking for his best Starting XI. There were some worrying sings in defense (Fuchs did not have a great game) and in attack (Gaines was pretty invisible for the 45 minutes he was on the pitch), but there were also a number of positives (Kahlina continues to play well; Swiderski looks like he's quickly finding his footing in the league). Bender is only 21 and has played 3 games as a professional. He was really good yesterday, but he's going to make mistakes. With that said, I think it's pretty evident that if we're looking for the best 11 players, he is one of them. I think most fans will endure whatever growing pains we have to if it means he is playing. It's obvious that he's too talented to be kept on the bench.