Does a North Carolina native complete Charlotte FC’s midfield?
December 18th, 2020 is a day Brandt Bronico will never forget. That morning, the defensive midfielder learned that he had been traded from the Chicago Fire to Charlotte FC. A North Carolina native who grew up in nearby Winston Salem, where he was a youth player on current Charlotte FC Technical Director Marc Nicholls’ teams, this was the first of two momentous events.
Bronico attended college at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he captained the side. That’s also where he met a UNCC 49ers women’s soccer player by the name of Rebecca Beatty. Just hours after the trade to Charlotte FC was made official, Bronico and Beatty exchanged vows at their wedding ceremony.
In this scout report, will look at the talents Bronico will bring back to Charlotte. As the third signing in the club’s history, there are still many unknowns in CFC’s roster. Adding to the complexity of this analysis is determining where Bronico, who has ample experience at defensive mid and right-back, is destined to play. Will the natural #6 complete the Charlotte FC starting midfield?
Positional versatility and 2019 statistical profile
With just 318 total league minutes played in 2020, the first season under Raphael Wicky’s tenure, Bronico split time almost evenly between defensive mid in a double pivot and right-back. Only two appearances came at right-back, But 163 minutes came in that role. For the most part, Wicky used him as a defensive midfielder, primarily off the bench.
Those numbers are in stark contrast to his 2019 minutes played as he recorded 2031 across league play that season. Whether it was the change in system or simply Wicky’s preference for other players, it was a disappointing season for a player who was a mainstay in the starting XI just a year earlier. In 2019, of his 29 appearances, only 7 came from the bench, all early-season matches.
For that reason, as well as the mere consistency of the 2019 season as compared to the chaos of 2020, I’ve decided to use is 2019 statistics for the profile below (note the game images are taken from 2020 matches).
Looking at the statistical profile itself, it’s his attacking and creativity metrics that really stand out. Rating at or above the 70th percentile in most categories, Bronico’s college experience as a more advanced midfielder served him well.
While the other two sections don’t stand out quite as significantly, his deep completions per 90 minutes and the accuracy of his crosses, which we will look at more closely later in this analysis, are his two key passing and progression ratings.
Defensively, his quantitative tallies rated below the league median, but his efficiency was fantastic. His defensive duels win percentage in particular came in at 65.54%, a 90th percentile rating.
Keep in mind that even in his 2019 statistical profile his production is split between defensive mid and right-back with nearly 1400 minutes coming in the midfield. Yellow and orange hotspots on his heat map attest to his tactical versatility. The hotspots on the wing came primarily during his outside-back minutes, whereas the half spaces light up when he’s positioned in midfield.
In the image below, which comes from a 2020 late-season game against Sporting Kansas City, you get a glimpse of his positional tendencies. While playing as the right-sided defensive midfielder, Bronico dropped into the right half space, between his right-centre and right defenders. Whether playing in midfield or as the right-back, it’s a space he’s comfortable occupying.
As an outside-back, he’s comfortable providing width, which is indicated by the heat map, but he can also play as an inverted outside-back, moving into the half space during the attacking phases. We will touch on this in more detail later in this scout report.
Moving forward, we will break this analysis into two parts: Bronico the defensive midfielder and Bronico the outside-back. Knowing that he is very comfortable playing either role, we want to know his playing styles within each role and how Charlotte FC will look to use him.
Midfield strengths and weaknesses
As you saw in the statistical profile, Bronico’s defensive duels rated it in the top 10 percentile of MLS during the 2019 campaign. Two of the reasons for his success are his build and athleticism. at 5’8”, his first point of contact with the opponent is excellent, often putting them off balance in the early stages of the duel by directing force to their hips. Quick and agile, he can then cut off their path to the ball and gain the recovery through his physicality.
The other point worth mentioning is his recognition of when to engage. His timing in the tackle is one of his greatest strengths. The image below comes from a match against NYC FC. as Bronico and his opponent prepare for the duel, the new CFC midfielder showed excellent patience. Once the NYCFC player pushed the ball too far in front of him, Bronico was quick to close down space to deny the pass.
His anticipation and timing are major factors in his defensive reliability. Against Orlando city, with the ball in the opponents left-wing, Bronico made a quick assessment, determining that Joseph Dezart could either engage in a 1v1 to attack the wing or play into the feet of Benji Michel. With Wyatt Omsberg well-positioned in his cover role, Bronico prepared to contest the pass into Michel’s feet.
Quickly closing space, Bronico got a touch on the ball and used his quickness and physicality to establish position and win the tackle. As you can see in the image below, his defensive posture allows him to maintain his balance while putting Michel off of his. The hard-fought duel ended in a foul in Bronico’s favour.
From a defensive standpoint, his best attribute in the midfield is his positioning. Typically well-positioned, he protects the centrebacks by contesting passes played in front of them. The North Carolina native covers a lot of ground in midfield. That, combined with his starting position and anticipation, allow him to bolster his side’s defence in a key area. While he does occasionally drift too far to the near side, generally in coverage of his defensive central midfield partner, his quick analysis of threats his ability to transition from a cover to pressure role rarely see him beat when he does move away from his central responsibilities.
While playing as a #6, Bronico is heavily involved as his team builds out of the back and looks to connect the lines. As you will recall from the 2019 statistical profile, there is a dichotomy between his attacking & creativity and passing & progression sections. The trend continued into 2020.
Studying his game film offered some clarity on the discrepancies.
When up against more compact blocks or teams with excellent counterpressing, he does struggle to find pockets of space in midfield, which is understandable. With less space available, creating your own pockets is a difficult task.
Such an example occurred against the MLSs champion Columbus Crew. As he received a back pass from Miguel Navarro, Bronico immediately played the ball back to his centreback, Francisco Calvo.
With Fanendo Adi coming to apply pressure and no clear options for progression, the negative pass was the right call. The more pressing concern is the ball oriented movement that followed. Notice that as Adi pushes higher to pressure Boris Sekulic, both Chicago midfielders are standing the first defender’s shadow. When you compare the two images, both midfielders move across the pitch to offer support for the ball carrier, but the ball oriented movement effectively ends their participation in the play. Unwittingly, Adi has taken away two passing options, both of whom have ample space to operate between the Crew’s forward and midfield lines.
Bronico’s ball oriented movement is especially noticeable during the build-out. In an effort to offer the short passing option, there is a tendency to slide horizontally with the opponent’s midfield line and position himself in front of them.
While that does give his teammates a short-range outlet, it prevents Bronico from offering line-breaking passes or putting him in a position where he can play forward himself. If the centrebacks and goalkeeper have excellent distribution qualities, there’s certainly no harm in the approach. However, with a player like Bronico in midfield, a player who rates very well in the creative side of the game, less movement or movement that goes against the opposition’s momentum would put him in a better position to engage the game through his attacking strengths.
In those instances when his spatial orientation factored in additional reference points, such as the opposition, space, and the ball, the result were markedly different. Not only did he offer a better passing option to his teammates, but it also put him in a position to better utilise his attacking talents.
Late in the match against Houston, the Dynamo set up in a 4-4-2 middle block. As Chicago’s backline’s circulated the ball, Bronico moved between the lines, analysing those additional reference points before and during the pass. As you can see in the image, he receives the ball in the middle of the circle, perfect positioning to take a positive touch and look to connect with a teammate higher up the pitch. In this instance, he elected to send a chip over the top. Though the pass was just outside of his teammate’s reach, Bronico’s positioning between the lines activated his creative, attacking appetite.
Chicago is a team that doesn’t utilise many rotations with their defensive midfielders, so it can be very difficult to find space in a more stagnant attack. If the team prioritised distributions from the centrebacks, that would also limit Bronico’s tactical influence, putting him in a position where playing into him was a means of forcing the opposition forwards to drop deeper, therefore creating additional time in space for the centrebacks to distribute.
Regardless of the team’s tactics, one thing that shows both on film and in the data is that, when Bronico is able to find space between the lines, he offers the qualities of a deep-lying playmaker. With Riley McGree likely to play as a #10 and Sergio Ruiz thriving at Las Palmas in a box-to-box role, Bronico would almost certainly fit the team’s plans as a #6.
Well, that’s if he’s not playing right-back.
Right-back strengths and weaknesses
There aren’t many players with the tactical versatility to virtually split time at defensive midfield and outside-back. Philipp Lahm is one example that comes to mind, as is his heir at Bayern Munich, Joshua Kimmich. Outside of the Bundesliga giant, it is fairly uncommon for players to earn minutes at these two positions with wildly different sets of demands and required skill sets. In the USA, one example is Kevin Partida, the recent Minnesota United signing who filled both roles for the now-defunct Reno 1868 FC.
From that right-back role, Bronico’s able to showcase his defensive talent while remaining highly engaged in the attack. From a defensive standpoint, we already know that he’s an exceptional tackler, but his ability to rack up interceptions from that role also caught the eye.
In a match against the New England Revolution, Bronico earned the start at right-back. Below, New England is attacking down his flank and have beat the midfield. Bronico is marking Teal Bunbury, who’s hugging the line in an effort to pull his defender toward the touchline. Bunbury thinks he’s pulled Bronico out of position and is awaiting the through pass.
However, from a defensive standpoint, Bronico had the situation under control. What he’s done is taken away one of the two passing options, eliminating the pass to Bunbury’s feet. With that pass out of the equation, the only thing left is the through pass. Bronico constructed the play brilliantly, baiting and blocking the pass, allowing Chicago to restart their attack.
When the opponent has possession in the central or far sided regions of the pitch, Bronico shows excellent tactical discipline in his connectivity with the centrebacks. Tucked in tight to both support the centrebacks and eliminate progression through the centre, he forces opponents to either risk the long diagonal switch or tack on a few extra passes to their possession to play into his mark.
In an early-season game against the Seattle Sounders, the Pacific Northwest team had the ball in their right-wing and we’re looking to play out of a tight Chicago middle block. Bronico’s positioning is excellent, tight to his right centreback to take away the middle, but he’s also looking for that long diagonal switch. Once Shane O’Neil identified his long target and dropped his head to send the pass, Bronico made his response, sliding towards Miguel Ibarra in the wing before sprinting upfield to collect the poorly hit pass. After making the interception, he carried the ball forward before playing to Przemyslaw Frankowski in the right-wing and continuing his run in support of the attack.
That strong starting positioning carries into the box as well. One thing that really stood out in the film was how consistently Bronico establishes contact with his opponent in the box. By maintaining touch, he knows where his opponent is, can feel when there’s a transition into a run and can immediately respond by blocking off the running lane to the ball.
This is exactly the scenario against Bunbury and the Revolution. With New England in possession of the ball in their right-wing, Bronico maintained contact with Bunbury. As the forward started his run to goal, Bronico was right there to contest and claim the inside route.
For a player who’s more naturally a midfielder, maintaining contact with opponents in the box is vital. Life-long outside-backs find it difficult enough to track runs into the box, especially if they are late runs from deeper positions.
When Bronico isn’t able to initiate contact, which is typically due to the starting positioning of the opponent, his body orientation in the box can cause some issues, just as it did against Seattle. Up against Jordan Morris, who finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting, the US international started from a deeper area and used his blazing speed to cut inside of Bronico and secure the game-time goal.
Watching the play, I think Bronico was thrown off by Johan Kappelhof’s defensive work, as he was initially well-positioned to handle the cross but, for some reason, let the ball pass in order to make contact with his runner.
Either way, the goal was scored.
The light blue shading shows where Bronico’s looking. There’s not too much he could do differently on this play due to the late run of Morris, but better body orientation would allow him to scan for the forward more easily, alerting him to step to the ball and attempt to clear the cross. It’s a small point, and one that frequently leads to conceded goals, but, given how consistently he apply some sort of contact in the box, this is really the one adaptation he can make in his box defending.
Moving to the other side of the ball, one of the positives that really stood out was his feel for the security of his team’s possession. Rather than moving into a high and wide position from the start of the attack, Bronico is very diligent in assessing the state of his side’s possession, cheating inside and deeper if he gets the sense possession is not secure.
Returning to the match against Seattle, the image below captures his positioning the moment after a turnover. In that transitional moment, his excellent positioning allowed him to recover to the central channel and pick up one of the runners. He followed that runner into the box, preventing Seattle from getting a shot on goal.
Once possession is secure, you’ll often see him move into the wings to offer width.
However, he’s just as comfortable playing as an inverted outside-back, moving into the deep regions of the half space to facilitate play. As a natural midfield player, he’s perfectly suited to inverting. If paired with an explosive winger on the right, his positioning in the right half space can also serve to isolate his wide forward in a 1v1 scenario.
Whether he’s inverting or providing width, one of his stand out attacking qualities as a right-back is his ability to send a dangerous ball into the box. On film, he was especially dangerous sending early crosses, especially from the half space. If he has runners in the central channel, look for him to play them about eight to 10 yards from goal, much like he did against New England. At that point, the cross is too far out for the goalkeeper to collect and is also a nightmare for backtracking defenders.
The beauty of his early crosses, especially if they come from the half space, is that he doesn’t have to sacrifice his defensive positioning in the event of a turnover. From that deeper area, he can both send a dangerous ball into the box and maintain his position in the team’s rest defence for a quick defensive transition.
Remember that he played as a more advanced midfielder in his collegiate days. From that more advanced right-back role, he does bring some nice midfield-esque qualities to the position, which is especially evident in the way he attacks the box.
So, does he round out the Charlotte FC midfield or can we expect Bronico to feature as a right-back?
I suppose time will tell. As just the third player on the roster, the range of possibilities is too vast to pin him to one of the two positions just yet. There’s also the possibility that he primarily plays one role while filling in at the second, much like he did in Chicago. Versatility is both a blessing and a curse.
With the roster still in its early stages, it’s too soon too explicitly state how the outside-backs fit into the equation, but, given the presence of Ruiz and McGree on the roster, Bronico does seem to fit the mould as the team’s #6.
McGree is as close to a true #10 as you’ll find and Ruiz has shown he’s capable of playing either as a defensive midfielder or in a box-to-box role. Bronico and Ruiz fit well as a double pivot or even with the North Carolinian playing as a true #6 while the Spaniard shuttles as the #8.
With the possibility of January signings, as well as more arrivals due in the summer, the tactical analysis will become much more clear. Regardless, December 18th, 2020 will hold a special place in Brandt Bronico’s mind, both for his dream move back to Charlotte and his marriage to Rebecca.