Liel Abada is settling in and providing a needed spark for an improving Charlotte FC attack

Liel Abada picked the ball up deep in Charlotte FC’s defensive half before driving forward and playing Patrick Agyemang in behind Philadelphia Union’s defense.

The striker did the rest, and Agyemang’s clinical finish from Abada’s assist wrapped up Charlotte FC’s 2-0 away win in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the most straightforward chance the new signing created for himself or his teammates on Saturday, but it earned Abada his first assist for his new club.

If the forward’s recent performances are a sign of things to come, it’ll likely be the first of many.

Abada was at his best in the free-flowing game and showcased the much-needed creative spark he’s added to the Queen City’s side’s attack.

“[Abada] gave them real problems with his running skills and his ball carrying skills,” head coach Dean Smith said. “He’s obviously got the assist as well, and that’s what we’ve brought him in for. We knew what he could do. I think the great thing for us is knowing we can develop him further as well. He’s a really bright young player and he’s getting better and better.”

Abada put on one of his best attacking displays since joining Charlotte FC on Saturday, taking a season-high six shots, two of which were on target, and producing a season-high five shot-creating actions. The forward has taken an average of 1.47 shots on target per 90 minutes, which ranks in the 91st percentile of MLS attackers and midfielders.

He consistently brought the ball forward himself as well and added four progressive carries against the Union, coming in at just below his average of 4.89 progressive carries per 90 minutes this season, which slots into the league’s 94th percentile.

Abada’s recent performances show that the 22-year-old winger is starting to find chemistry with his teammates after Charlotte FC purchased the young designated player from Celtic in March on a club-record $2.3 million base salary.

“With any new player that comes in, there’s always going to be an adaptation period. I think he’s been shorter than most if I’m honest,” Smith said.

Abada brought plenty of European experience with him to Charlotte despite his age, scoring 29 goals and adding 22 assists in 112 appearances across all competitions at Celtic and helping the Scottish side win five of six possible domestic trophies. He brought international pedigree as well, earning 11 appearances and scoring a goal since making his debut for the Israeli national team in June 2021.

The winger has slowly integrated himself into the team and scored his first goal for the club in a 3-2 victory over Toronto FC in April. Following a brief injury layoff in May that caused him to miss four games, Abada scored twice in Charlotte FC’s 3-2 win over Atlanta United on June 2. He has three goals and an assist in 11 appearances for the Queen City side.

“We probably saw the best of what he’s going to be, what he can give us in spells in the game against Atlanta,” Smith said. “The finish for the first goal was terrific, his movement during the game was really good.”

Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner (27) and Charlotte FC forward Liel Abada (11) in Saturday’s first half at Subaru Park. Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner (27) and Charlotte FC forward Liel Abada (11) in Saturday’s first half at Subaru Park. Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

While Smith has aimed to manage Abada’s minutes since the injury by subbing the forward out in each of his five starts since returning, he’s served as Charlotte FC’s creative outlet during one of the club’s best runs of the season.

Charlotte FC produced 24.67 expected goals and scored just 19 times in 18 games entering Wednesday’s back-and-forth tie against Orlando City SC, which ranked 23rd and 27th of 29 teams in the league, respectively.

“The biggest thing is that we need to start to have more quality in our finishes,” midfielder Brandt Bronico said on June 17. “I feel like we have been creating chances, but it’s just about getting the ball in the goal.”

The Queen City side has created and taken more of its chances in its last two matches, scoring four times — one of which came from Bronico — and producing 4.49 expected goals.

Charlotte’s eight goals in its last four matches is its best offensive streak across any four-game stretch this season, which has helped the club earn 10 points from a possible 12 in those matches. While Abada is providing a spark, his teammates up top have shown improvement throughout that stretch too.

On Wednesday, Abada played a quick one-two with Scott Arfield and took a big touch past his defender before cutting the ball back across the penalty box. An Orlando City defender couldn’t clear his cross and the ball fell to Kerwin Vargas, who scored his second goal in as many games to give Charlotte FC an early lead.

Agyemang broke a seven-game scoreless stretch with a brace in seven minutes during Saturday’s win, powering a diving header off the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net before receiving a pass from Abada, gliding past Jakob Glesnes with a stepover and beating the opposing goalkeeper at the near post.

“[Agyemang] just keeps going, he must be horrible to play against for the defenders,” Smith said. “He’s gonna keep getting chances and he’ll keep missing some, but when he’s on fire like he was in the second half tonight he’s a joy to watch.”

The striker feels like a front line featuring Abada that could see further additions as the summer transfer window is starting to find its form. That’s good news for a Charlotte FC team sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference 20 games into its regular season.

“Today it felt a little bit more fluid, it felt like a lot of things were going well,” Agyemang said on Saturday. “In general, just the front four, I think we’re starting to lock it in and I think we’re going to be dangerous.”