Ben Bender reflects on his breakthrough in Charlotte FC's inaugural season

Bender enjoyed a strong first season in MLS.
Bender enjoyed a strong first season in MLS. / Griffin Zetterberg-USA TODAY Sports

Despite missing out on the MLS Cup Playoffs, Charlotte FC have plenty to be proud of when looking back on their inaugural season.

From breaking the MLS attendance record in their first-ever home game against the LA Galaxy to standout wins against the likes of the Philadelphia Union and Atlanta United, CLTFC certainly left their mark.

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Another major positive was the breakthrough of midfielder Ben Bender, who went from SuperDraft pick to a key attacking piece in the space of a few short months. Even Bender himself didn't expect to make such a big impact, ending the regular season with three goals and six primary assists in 19 starts.

"Coming from college, I wasn't expecting to start as much as I did this season. I was just trying to get here, work as hard as I could, learn a lot from the veterans on the team," Bender told 90min in an exclusive interview.

"Guys like [Christian] Fuchs, some of the older guys, and just put my head down and get a lot better, because I knew that the speed of play is a lot faster in MLS. I was fortunate to have a starting spot and have some great opportunities this season, and I'm super thankful for that."

The SuperDraft isn't exactly a new feature of MLS, but that doesn't stop the transition from college soccer to professional from being a difficult one to manage.

Fortunately for Bender, he had plenty of veterans in the Charlotte FC ranks to call upon alongside Fuchs.

"I think all of the veterans on the team really helped," the 21-year-old explained. "The professional level, it's a mind game. It's tough mentally, and you really have to be focused the whole season, and confidence is a huge thing. You go up and down emotionally when you have a bad game. It's tough.

"I think Christian Fuchs is one of the guys that helped me throughout the season and told me to be confident even when things aren't going well. Another guy is Guzman (Corujo), and Anton (Walkes)."

Despite his youth and inexperience, Bender wasn't given any special dispensation and felt the tough love from a number of CLTFC's older players as they helped get him up to speed.

"I was definitely yelled at in small-sided games because I wasn't used to some things, but as time goes on, you get used to them and you pick up on little things that they know," Bender continued. "They've helped me along the way, and I'm super thankful for their leadership in the team, and I think they've done a great job this year."

"To be named among the top young players is a big honor"

Bender needn't have worried about his transition to MLS. In fact, so strong was his first season that he was named 18th on the league's '22 Under 22' list of talented young players.

The midfielder figured ahead of the likes of Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew), Bryce Duke (Inter Miami), and Jakheele Marshall-Rutty (Toronto FC), while international stars like Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas) and Thiago Almada appeared further up the same list.

Bender comically admitted he hadn't heard of the list until he was named on it, but understood the importance of it when scanning the players he shared it with, as well as those who have come before.

"Honestly, I didn't even know what the award was at first, and people had to tell me, so I was a little bit unaware of it," Bender said with a laugh, continuing: "But to see names like [Gabriel] Slonina and [Jesus] Ferreira, who just won Young Player of the Year, and Ricardo Pepi last year. To be named among the top young players is definitely a big honor.

"I'm just focused now on getting better. I don't want to get personal awards. I want to help the team in any way I can. So, that's my main focus."

Where can Bender improve ahead of 2023?

Though he's earned his spot and exceeded expectations, Bender is incredibly humble. The youngster is well aware that he's got a long way to go and plenty of improvements to make if he's to not only sustain this current level, but also allow for dreams of European soccer and national team appearances.

Already, his focus is on ironing out his flaws in 2023.

"I'd say I'm more of an attacking player, so I really like to be dynamic, but the biggest thing I have to work on is building up," Bender admitted, adding: "When I'm in tight areas, I'm not used to this level, and it's taking me time to really figure out how to use my body and where to position it and how to keep the ball.

"When there's an offensive transition, I want to make that play happen and get a shot off, or set a winger up to get a cross off. Sometimes I think I'm too slow and I slow that down, and then that doesn't help the team. I think that I need to keep the rhythm of the game going. So, continuing to be quick with the ball and protecting the ball so I don't lose it and give the ball to the other team."