Charlotte FC’s attendance record draws Duke-UNC’s attention
CHARLOTTE – Even the most ambitious dreams years ago would have had trouble imagining this kind of night for Major League Soccer.
But as kick-off approached, Charlotte FC knew what could be possible. Those dreams were realized on Saturday night when 74,479 fans, an MLS attendance record, packed Bank of America Stadium for the team’s first home game. The LA Galaxy toyed with a spoiler Dream goal by Efrain Alvarez 1-0 win in the 77th minute. However, Saturday was less about the game and more about what happened off the pitch.
Take the national anthem, for example. As the stadium hummed, The Voice finalist Michelle Brooks-Thompson stepped up to sing and her mic was immediately muted. The nearly 75,000 people took over in unison and The Star-Spangled Banner continued as the fireworks went off. It was the perfect illustration of the level of supporter support in Charlotte for a team preparing to play only its second game.
“It’s wonderful. On the field. Off the field. In the stands. The new clubs coming on, the fanbases they have before they even play a game, the ticket sales and season ticket holders,” said Galaxy- Head coach Greg Vanney, who played in the inaugural MLS season in 1996. “All that stuff just shows how the league continues to grow. How it’s ingrained and ingrained in the culture of North America.”
To put it in context, a few hours away in Durham, Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski was practicing his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was one of the greatest rivalries in sports, Duke vs. UNC, with ticket prices approaching Super Bowl levels. And there was Charlotte FC grabbing some of that limelight.
“Coach K’s final night — this is one of the most historic sporting events in the history of our country,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “The fact that we can keep this game going and attract this attention only speaks to the passion of this market. This is a thriving city on so many different levels and clearly on a sporting level it is spectacular.
“We’re not in Barcelona or Munich, Madrid or London, Mexico City — it’s Charlotte, North Carolina,” Garber added. “If you can deliver that kind of energy, excitement and commitment to this part of the country, imagine what that will be like for years to come.”
Despite the result, the Queen City passed the rest of Saturday’s test with flying colors.
Thousands of fans marched from this tailgate parking lot and made their way through streets and parking lots for about a mile, waving flags, sing and fill the air with blue smoke. The march seemed to gather fans until it became an endless crush.
The stadium was already more than 80 percent full when Charlotte FC took the field to warm up. Carolina legends Steve Smith Sr. and Jimmie Johnson were guests during the pre-game celebrations.
“It was probably the best game I’ve been in, my whole life,” said 21-year-old defender Charlotte native Jaylin Lindsey. “I imagined 7 or 8 years ago watching Panthers games and countless ICC games in the summer with a nosebleed. Knowing that I am that person on the field was just amazing.”
Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan spoke about the growth in viewership.
“To think that 10-15 years ago I played where we are as a league today at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City in front of 5,000 fans is mind-blowing,” he said. “I personally never thought that we would be here so quickly. The league is in a fantastic place at the moment and it just keeps getting better.”
The game itself was a bit frustrating for Charlotte, who was outplayed by Galaxy 21-5. Since expansion is usually like this, it will take some time before they are fully comfortable.
There were a few positives for Miguel Angel Ramirez’s side, particularly the fight they put on for 90 minutes. Daniel Rios had perhaps the team’s best opportunity to score in the header break. That equalizer would undoubtedly have felt like a game-winner for Queen City in this instance. But when the final whistle blew, the fans were there with a standing ovation. Charlotte hasn’t scored yet this season but they achieved a big goal by breaking the attendance record as they set out to do.
Charlotte FC aims to have an average of 30,000 fans this season, which is another lofty goal. Whether or not they can achieve that remains to be seen, and it will have a lot to do with the product in the field. When football is at its best, the support numbers will go above and beyond.
Futbol has arrived in Charlotte in full force and the Queen City wants their crown.