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What Charlotte FC taught me about triumph and heartache

Soccer fandom has transformed a city, but that comes with a cost.

It’s a muggy, brutal evening in Charlotte — the kind only those in the south truly understand. Shirts progressively become darker with sweat. Beer warms quickly in your hand as condensation pours from aluminum, and even the slightest breeze is met with collective relief, an entire crowd living as one. Despite every synapse telling the body that being outside is a bad idea, for the die-hard fans of Charlotte FC nothing will stop them from witnessing history on Saturday night.

For the first time in franchise history the team is hosting a LIGA MX team as part of the Leagues Cup. A win over Necaxa would more or less stamp Charlotte’s ticket to the round of 32, and with it the lingering promise of glory in the team’s inaugural season.

Soccer isn’t just surviving in Charlotte, it’s thriving. An MLS bid once met with skepticism has given way to a runaway success greater than anyone imagined. The expectation was that this wasn’t the right city in North Carolina for soccer, that it would be better to have an MLS team in Raleigh, where the only top-level professional sports competition would come from the NHL’s Hurricanes, rather than competing for attention with the Panthers and Hornets.

However, the concept has been proven in a resounding way, as Charlotte FC is second in attendance in Major League Soccer, attracting more fans than the established Seattle Sounders, and trailing only Atlanta in fans-per-game. The team has managed to build not just curiosity, but community — and it was on full display vs. Necaxa.

A tidal wave of black and blue approaches Bank of America Stadium in all directions in the hour leading up to kickoff. Dotted amongst the fan jerseys are the odd white and red of the Mexican team, parents in their native kits, toting along children wearing Charlotte FC gear. It’s the changing face of fandom in the most obvious way, as futbol fans head to a football stadium to see their native team and hometown clash.

The thing that immediately jumps out at you when seeing Charlotte FC, and really any MLS game in a multi-sport city is how much fans cherish being different. They love being the fringe. Sure, they might be back to this very stadium in the fall to watch the Panthers on Sunday, but Charlotte FC has become their sporting love.

A large group of fans occupy the row in front of me. All wearing Charlotte FC jerseys and pointing out the lineup for the Necaxa game. They’ve been here since day one, and quickly inquire if I’d bought the season tickets behind them. It’s not out of being nosey, but opportunity — a chance to meet a new friend. Quickly one of the women blurts out “WE GOT MARRIED TODAY!” linking arms with the woman next to her and kissing her on the cheek. “Sorry,” she says quietly, “we’re just so excited and haven’t told anyone but our friends yet — I just felt the need to tell a stranger.”

We toast to their wedding. I offer my congratulations. For the next 90 minutes we become fast friends, learning about each others’ lives, talking about our kids, as I do my best to explain why I’m covering this game, at this moment.

My new friends

It doesn’t dawn on me until later that night, back in my hotel room, the significance of that moment. It wasn’t long ago that people in the south had to hide their sexuality intensely, terrified that any gesture that let slip they were LGBTQ+ could lead to reprisal. It would be naive to say bigotry doesn’t exist anymore, but there’s something magical that in this stadium, with this team, someone felt safe enough to be their true selves in front of a complete stranger. That’s what soccer in the U.S. does though, and how it differs from the NFL.

Glancing around the stadium there are conversations breaking out everywhere between rows. Individuals leaning in to discuss plays and tactics, families laughing at their kids playing games between the seats, people from every background gathering in one place and legitimately enjoying strangers’ company in a way that’s totally foreign at most other sporting events. It’s a changing tide, both of generation and world view — and I’d lie if I said it didn’t make me emotional.

The game itself goes as many expected, not that it’s a bad thing. Charlotte FC is absolutely out-classing Nexaca and by halftime they’re leading 3-0. It’s a huge party in the stands, and leads to the unthinkable actually happening: A wave that worked. A maligned, oft-reviled social experiment, the wave is something that’s routinely attempted but rarely executed. Here, with the sun setting, it travels around Bank of America Stadium 15 times before finally petering out, as fans get distracted by a red card on the pitch.

With 10 minutes left I bid my new friends goodbye. They’re off to the bar to get good chairs before it gets packed with the post-match crowd. They’ll be drinking drink deep into the night to celebrate a marriage. The majority of the crowd stays glued to their seats for the duration, watching as Charlotte wins 4-1 and stamps their ticket to the round of 32.

I leave the stadium with a full heart, and a genuine lightness of being. I felt like I was a part of something special, and became intensely jealous that I lived too far away to make this a routine part of my life. It’s here I thought this story would end, a happy ode to soccer success and the fans whose lives have been changed by Charlotte FC.

Then I decided to get something to eat.

Valhalla Pub & Eatery is a late-night institution. One of the few places within walking distance of the stadium that you’re guaranteed to get fed after 10 p.m. It helps that their pub fare is particularly excellent, making it a favorite for fans who didn’t gorge themselves on stadium concessions.

I sit at the bar, order my food, and begin to jot down notes from the game — wanting to ensure I don’t lose a detail to failed memory. Then the jovial atmosphere of the pub is cut like a knife with a guttural yell, tinged with a little pain. “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?!”

Everyone stops and turns to a high-top teeming with some of Charlotte FC’s most die-hard fans, members of the Mint City Collective, the largest supporter group. “WE DON’T EVEN GET THE NEXT GAME HERE!” a man yells, passing his phone around the table to show them this.

It’s met with seemingly-endless disgust which spreads through Valhalla like a virus. I can’t make out every sentence, but catch enough stray words to get the gist “Tepper,” “money,” “greed,” “bullshit.”

I introduce myself to Tim, one of the supporters at the table and explain that I’m writing about the game and the club. “HE DIDN’T BELIEVE IN US!” another yells, desperate to inject his feelings in the conversation. “That prick Tepper double-booked the stadium because he never thought we’d make it to the 32.”

David Tepper, the multi-billionaire owner for Charlotte FC and the Carolina Panthers had already committed the night before the Leagues Cup round of 32 game to be the yearly Panthers fan-fest, a welcome home from training camp for his NFL team and one of the biggest days on the team’s calendar in the lead up to the regular season.

“I get it, we’re not the NFL,” Tim says, “but surely they could have moved a training session for one of our biggest games.”

The logistics of turning around the stadium in 24 hours to get it ready for another Leagues Cup match were likely impossible, and the schedule timing was a problem — but that doesn’t stop it feeling like a betrayal to some of Charlotte FC’s most die-hard supporters.

“We came here. We supported his team. We made this work. Now it’s like we don’t matter. This was all a cash grab.”

I could interject and point out that no sports owner really cares. That fans are merely a number on a balance sheet to them — but it doesn’t feel right. This is sports naivety crumbling in real time, and it hurts to see.

“Yeah,” another fan pipes up, “we don’t even get to see Messi because of Tepper.”

Bank of America Stadium’s adherence to sticking with artificial turf over grass has been a routine sticking point for soccer players. The turf inherently feels worse, results in more injuries, and it’s starting to turn away the sports’ biggest stars. Lionel Messi has made it known that he won’t play any MLS games on artificial turf, ruling him out of Inter Miami’s matchup with Charlotte FC on August 20.

This is part of the push and pull for Bank of America Stadium being multi-use, with fans clamoring for Tepper to use some of his enormous wealth to build a dedicated stadium for his soccer team. That’s a seemingly impossible dream, as Tepper (who has a net worth of $18.5B) is putting pressure on the city to fund a new stadium for the Panthers and Chalotte FC with taxpayer money — killing any dream of giving soccer its own dedicated grass pitch.

The same sentiment is echoed again and again, in slightly different ways: Fans love this team, and hate their owner.

Some of that anger is unfairly placed, part of it is intensely justified. Either way it doesn’t change the outcome: Charlotte FC will play Cruz Azul in Frisco, Texas on Thursday night, and not in Charlotte. A technical home game for Charlotte will do a 180, as the crowd is expected to be almost exclusively Cruz Azul fans from Mexico City, with a local population with geographic ties, paired with visitors who need to make a much shorter trip to see the game than those in Charlotte.

The reward for the energy, emotion and support these fans have given Charlotte FC appears to be destined to be washed away as the club’s biggest game has been ripped from them by the machine of commerce. A sobering reminder that at the end of the day money is the highest power.

Charlotte FC will persist. It’s myopic to see this as a pivotal moment in the franchise. It will be forgotten, lost to history, as the growth of MLS continues to propel this team forward. Younger generations will pick up the mantle and fill seats as professional soccer keeps growing in the United States, and the greatest success for Charlotte FC is yet to come.

It won’t be the same for these fans though. Not the ones who stepped up and proved that soccer could work in this city. The child-like glee of getting in at the ground floor and building something to last is fast being replaced with doubt and disgust in ownership they feel isn’t showing the belief in them as fans. It was destined to happen, but perhaps not this soon.

On that sweltering night in Charlotte nobody knew that the night would end in both joy and heartbreak, but that’s what happened as the clock ticked midnight.