On Saturday night, Charlotte Football Club set the Major League Soccer attendance record with 74,479 fans in attendance for the first home game. In the hours before kickoff, thousands of supporters tailgated across Uptown. Everything that defines the fan experience during a match — exuberant soccer hooligans, a rowdy supporters section, loud team chants — all culminated in a fan-led rendition of the national anthem due to a tech glitch with singer Michelle Brooks-Thompson’s microphone.
Setting the attendance record certainly overshadowed the final score, with Charlotte losing 1-0 due to a brilliant goal by LA Galaxy midfielder Efrain Alvarez. While the milestone is a major accomplishment for the team and the Tepper Sports and Entertainment Group, Charlotte has a history of getting excited for new pro sports teams.
In their first season, 34 years ago, the Charlotte Hornets led the NBA in attendance at the old Charlotte Coliseum. Eventually, they sold out every game for seven straight seasons. Much of that early success was credited to North Carolina’s reputation as a college basketball state and the home of Michael Jordan, providing the young Hornets with a strong foundation.
Back in 1993, the Carolina Panthers seemed like the biggest thing ever to happen to Charlotte. During the Panthers’ first season, Charlotteans had to drive two hours to Clemson University for home games, but attendance still averaged over 55,000 fans per game. Making the NFC Championship Game certainly kept the Panthers relevant in their sophomore season, the first at their permanent home in Third Ward.
Charlotte FC started with a foundation for success as well: thousands of local soccer fans heavily invested in teams from around the world. MLS woke this sleeping giant.
While they all had different ideas for how our new MLS franchise could be successful in the years to come, one message stood out: long before the Charlotte FC arrived, the Queen City was a soccer city.
‘A sleeping giant’
Brevard Court, a pedestrian alley located across from Romare Bearden Park in Uptown, is well-known to Charlotte soccer fans. It’s home to many places where one can grab a pint and watch the “beautiful game,” including Courtyard Hooligans, which opens as early as 7 a.m. on Saturdays for English Premier League (EPL) and other European matches. Meanwhile, the nearby Valhalla Pub and Eatery on Church Street is the official home of the Liverpool Supporters Club of Charlotte, where I talked to President Carlos Quevedo one Thursday afternoon after his club’s 2-0 win over Leicester City.
Quevedo has been a Liverpool supporter since 2005, and he isn’t the only one in Charlotte.
“Pre-COVID, the Liverpool Supporters Club had 180 full members, and we were in the top three along with Arsenal and Chelsea,” Quevedo said. All three teams are in the EPL, with Liverpool and Chelsea currently ranked number two and three in the league, respectively.
Off the top of his head, Quevedo named 10 local supporters clubs for additional EPL, La Liga (Spain), and Bundesliga (Germany) teams.
“The football culture — soccer culture — here in Charlotte is a lot stronger than most people realize, and prior to us getting Charlotte FC,” Quevedo said. “I always tell people that it’s really a sleeping giant just waiting to be woken up.”
Quevedo intends to remain loyal to his current MLS team, but you’ll still see him in the stands at Bank of America Stadium for Charlotte FC games.
Luke Ivey knows how it feels to win it all. His team, Leicester City, won the EPL in 2016 in what the BCC called “one of the greatest sporting stories of all time.” On that team was Christian Fuchs, Charlotte FC’s biggest signing so far.
Now, Leicester is languishing in the standings, but Ivey is still a fan because the Leicester Foxes are an important part of his Queen City story. On one of his first weekends in Charlotte after moving here in 2014, he visited Courtyard Hooligans. When he visited again, Leicester was playing Manchester United, one of the traditional powerhouses of the EPL.
“They were supposed to just stomp them, but Leicester very famously went goal for goal with them … it was a complete shocker,” Ivey said.
That September shocker set Ivey’s fandom in motion.
“I started digging into the club and they were really interesting. This textile town in the [English] Midlands that got passed by, very much the story of the Midwest in the United States. Being from Michigan and growing up in a region that got passed by … so I saw this club and learned more about the people and I liked the way that they played, and they were scrappy, and they were kind of the underdog,” Ivey said. “There were all these compelling things about them and I said, ‘I’ll watch these guys, I’m just going to follow these guys,’ and I ended up watching every match for the rest of the season.”
Right before Leicester’s amazing run, Ivey started dating his wife, Ellie.
“Luke was always so into the games, if they won he was in a good mood, if they lost he was in a bad mood,” Ellie explained. The young couple would watch Leicester matches together, even at 7:30 a.m. on Valentine’s Day.
“He would do work most Sundays, but we were going to go to Hooligans and watch it. It’s a pretty good game, then right at the end it gets really intense, and Arsenal scores to win the game,” she said. “Luke is on his knees with his head crouched in his arms in the doorway of Hooligans … and so, we didn’t talk for the next two hours.”
“It wasn’t that long,” he chimes in.
“You were not happy,” responds Ellie.
“It was like 15 minutes,” he insists.
Charlotte’s soccer subculture became an even bigger part of their lives.
“Even people that we didn’t see anywhere else, there’s a soccer community so we’d see the same people every Saturday, and we were friends with them in that context but we wouldn’t see them anywhere else,” Ellie recalled.
“I think that was not only what made Hooligans attractive, but it also made getting into Leicester easier because there was a small community in Charlotte,” Ivey said.
With a new member of the family, Luke and Ellie aren’t ready to become season ticket holders just yet, but they enjoyed the first two games on TV and look forward to seeing them in person soon.
The giant is already awake
When I recently visited Dilworth Neighborhood Bar & Grille for a Saturday afternoon Real Madrid game, I was expecting some of the bigger crowds I’ve seen over the years, but at first the Madridistas were hard to find.
The Real Madrid supporters club in Charlotte has “a little over 200” paying members, but like everything else these days, club treasurer Will Walters says the pandemic has taken its toll on in-person watch parties — numbers are down 60-70%.
“The whole reason why there’s a football club here in Charlotte now — MLS getting ready to kick off [on Saturday] — is how great the culture is here,” Walters says. “There’s a lot of passionate people that come out and show up week in and week out for their clubs, whether it’s a 7 a.m. game or a 3 p.m. game on a Sunday. There’s a lot of support, and I think that Charlotte FC is going to be the one that unifies everybody.”
Something that’s special to Walters about Real Madrid and La Liga teams is the diverse nationalities they bring together.
“We identify a lot with our players from our national teams that we get behind.” Walters is Portuguese, and with him is Jordi Lobos, who is Guatemalan. “You identify with those people from your country.”
Walters is excited about Charlotte FC as a unifying force for soccer in the city.
“This is the one team that we’re all getting excited about collectively together … we can own this together and share in this together,” Walters says. He attended the opening match and picked up the green and black “Minted in Charlotte” jersey.
“Reminds me of the 2017 Madrid [kit],” Lobos says.
As for the “sleeping giant” of Charlotte soccer fandom?
“I think it’s been woken up, it’s trying to get its balance, and it’s ready to run,” Walters says. He’s ready for Charlotte football — even if it might take awhile for the club to be good.
“The overall talent level is just not there compared to other clubs in the MLS, so I think people are just going to have to be patient and have a realistic expectation that [David Tepper] is building this team for the long haul and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Lobos also encouraged patience: “We’re going to want players from Barcelona, Liverpool, and Chelsea to come to Charlotte to make the team bigger, [but] we’re not going to see that soon.”
However, he thinks proximity may trump other factors for true fans.
“[Real Madrid and Barcelona fans] are used to always winning because we’re the big teams. We’re great teams,” he says. “[But] seeing another team come to where we live, we don’t have to travel to watch games anymore. We can travel to a stadium in our city.”
Join the club
Like Quevedo, Walter and Lobos, many of Charlotte’s most loyal soccer fans are members of a local supporters club, the club they support, or both. When I joined Matt Cramer at his Plaza Midwood townhouse at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday for an FC Bayern Munich game, he had just received a full-blown membership kit. Included was a personally embroidered scarf, other pieces of FC Bayern Munich swag, and his official team membership card. He had finally become a member after a decade of fandom.
“My whole family is from Germany, they’re from Northern Bavaria, they’re all Bayern fans … How could I not pick Bayern?” he explained.
I’m also a member of a German Club: 1. FC Union Berlin, the Iron Union, which only recently joined the top tier of German Soccer. While they sent me an official membership card, I’ll have to pick up my scarf next time I’m in Germany. (If you’re not ready to take the plunge and join a foreign club, Charlotte FC has many official supporters groups open to season ticket holders, and the Charlotte season ticket packages come with a scarf and swag.)
Joining us at Cramer’s was our mutual friend Adrian Singerman and their friend Marcel Martel. Like many soccer fans in Charlotte, they’re two of the 20% of Charlotteans who were born outside the U.S. The French-born Singerman is a casual soccer fan, while Martel is a semi-pro footballer who played in Germany’s fifth division.
Since moving to Charlotte, Martel hasn’t had any trouble finding fellow soccer fans. He’s also joined a local United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) club and has continued playing.
“There’s a huge soccer culture [in Charlotte], no doubt … It’s a big culture,” he said.
From his personal experience, Martel believes blending the American emphasis on strength and speed training with the European emphasis on skills and talent has the potential to create winning players.
“They’re already big in Charlotte, they [sold out their first home game], that says a lot … it needs two or three years or they need the right management,” he said.
Cramer had similar thoughts: “They’re going to have to pay big money in the first three years because they don’t have the infrastructure yet … I think the first couple years Tepper’s going to have to pay a lot out of pocket to get the talent he needs.”
Cramer also mentioned the importance of increasing the official ties between elite European teams and Charlotte’s new MLS team, like the existing player development relationship between FC Bayern and FC Dallas.
Singerman’s advice was more concise: “A winning team is going to get people excited.”
Martel and Cramer attended Charlotte FC’s first home game; Adrian already had tickets to the Hornets game that night. However, all of them came together for a pregame tailgate.
Taking the crown
Charlotte FC may have lost its first two games, but given the strength of Charlotte’s play — especially for a newly minted team — either game could have been a draw.
Griss-Janvier Whitakers attended both matches; we caught up in the 32 Club at Bank of America Stadium immediately after Charlotte’s first home game ended with a standing ovation for the players.
“I was at the D.C. United game; thought MLS did us really bad as far as officiating,” Whitakers said. “[Saturday’s home game was] totally different. I thought it was better.”
He thought Polish striker Karol Świderski, who was missing from the first match due to international paperwork issues, gave the team more chances on offense. Overall, Whitakers was happy with the play of the team as a whole.
“We did very well on defense,” he said. “It was just not our day.”
His final thought: “We bleed blue.”
Mbye Njie, the Gambian-born mind behind the Legal Equalizer app, was in the suite next door. Though he’s an Atlanta fan, he’s in Charlotte for the year.
“I thought Charlotte did an incredible job of coming out and supporting. Not only Charlotte, but the Carolinas as people definitely drove in from all over for the game,” Njie said. “The atmosphere definitely reminded me of the Atlanta United opener.”
Njie only had one piece of advice: “Charlotte should have come out to Petey Pablo’s ‘Raise Up.’ That would have blown the roof off of the stadium.”
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