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Soccer backers see bright future for Charlotte
Sport growing, but can it support pro team?
 
Published Monday, January 25, 2016 3:41 am
by Ashley Mahoney

PHOTO/CURTIS WILSON
The Charlotte Independence joined the USL last year, replacing the Eagles, who moved down to the Pro Development League.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlotte wants to join soccer’s elite.


The city has housed numerous minor league franchises over the last 35 years, which have faced varying challenges, financial and otherwise, which forced them to scale back or fold. Soccer’s local supporters, though, feel the market is ripe for a breakthrough, perhaps to Major League Soccer, North America’s top level.


“Soccer-wise, I’m learning the market a little bit, but I think the level of soccer is good,” Charlotte Independence coach Mike Jeffries said last summer. “We do want to be a group that all the youth teams, the young players and so forth, know about and want to be a part of, want to see play, etc. I think that’s very important.”


Since 1981, Charlotte has had four minor league teams — the Carolina Lightnin’ (American Soccer League), Charlotte Gold, Charlotte Eagles, and the Independence. When the Lightnin’ disbanded in 1984, the Gold took its place and joined the United Soccer League. However, the Gold ended almost as quickly as it emerged.

In 1993, the Eagles joined the USL. Under coach Mark Steffens, the Eagles enjoyed success on the pitch and in the community by spreading a Christian message through service and soccer. As such, the club decided to make its faith-based message a more pronounced priority by stepping down to the Premier Development League after the 2014 season.

Steffens departed to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and the Independence acquired the Charlotte USL rights, finishing 10-8-10 its first season, one spot short of the playoffs.


“You have to start with the addition of a layer,” said Independence defender Bilal Duckett, who also played for the Eagles in 2014. “The Eagles were a USL team; they broke the mold and when the Independence comes in you see more of a traditional style USL team that’s forward-thinking, wants to move players forward, but also has those Major League Soccer aspirations where they want to move themselves forward as an organization. I think you can see people taking Charlotte more seriously as a soccer city, not that it wasn’t taken seriously with the Eagles, but everybody in the soccer scene understood that they were different.”


As MLS expands throughout the United States, whispers of a franchise coming to Charlotte continue to circulate. With the Super Bowl-bound Panthers and the Hornets, Charlotte has proven that it can support the highest level of professional sports. International soccer has recognized Charlotte’s NFL presence with English Premier League-leading club Leicester City sending jerseys to the Panthers to show its support.


“We have a bunch of guys who really do follow up on what’s going on around in different areas, and it’s kind of neat to know that we’ve become more than relevant now,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said earlier this month. “I think that’s important for us. It’s about us creating the buzz, and just trying to be relevant.”


Said Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who received a jersey: “That’s big that international teams have our back. I’m a soccer guy.”


What makes professional soccer’s appeal different from football or basketball?


Mecklenburg County has multiple youth soccer clubs from Charlotte United to Charlotte Soccer Academy. The Charlotte 49ers have enjoyed collegiate success with senior striker Kyle Parker drafted earlier this month by the MLS Columbus Crew and sophomore midfielder Zhuvonte Wilson spending last summer with the Eagles.


“I think the soccer culture is continuing to evolve in Charlotte,” said Eagles coach Dave Dixon. “We have everything from elite youth soccer clubs all the way to the professional level with the Independence.  We, the Eagles are able to provide the bridge between both levels.  A young soccer player can play for a local elite club and then move onto UNCC or another local college to play.  Then he can come home in the summer and get a taste of the professional experience, within the PDL, playing for the Eagles. Upon graduation he can then represent the hometown professional team, hopefully Uptown someday, with the Independence.”


While Charlotte has hosted international matches such as the Gold Cup and International Champions Cup the past two summers at Bank of America Stadium, top-tier European teams such as Liverpool and Chelsea of the Premier League, A.C. Milan of Italy’s Serie A, and Paris Saint-Germain of France’s Ligue 1, have proven a greater attraction than what Charlotte currently has.


“I think growing the game and culture from both an organic and commercial standpoint will help sustain a good product in the Queen City and hopefully attract MLS in the future,” Dixon said. “I think the biggest piece we have to figure out is working together to achieve the goal of growing the game in Charlotte. Once we figure that out I think the sky is the limit for the soccer culture in Charlotte.”

Twitter: @ma_honey7
 

Comments

Insightful article. It will interesting to see the"next step" for the area as the sport moves forward.
Posted on January 26, 2016
 

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