Ever since Marcus Smith and Co. launched a bid earlier this year to bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte, a debate has raged through the city: Can Charlotte support an MLS team? Should public funds be used for the stadium? Does Raleigh have a better bid?
While the MLS4CLT drama has been stealing the headlines, Charlotte’s current soccer teams have been quietly going about their business. And during a Saturday double header at the Sportsplex at Matthews they showed that, MLS or not, there’s already quality soccer being played in Charlotte.
First, the Charlotte Eagles, beat the Thunder Bay Chill 2-1 to win their first national championship in the USL Premier Development League in a match broadcast live on ESPN3. The game featured a ridiculous scissor kick from the Eagles’ Joao Costa that made ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays over the weekend.
No. 1 on @SportsCenter‘s Top 10 Saturday and No. 7 on Top Plays of the Week! 😲👏
— USL PDL (@USLPDL) August 6, 2017
Later that night, the Independence thrashed Louisville City 3-1 behind a hat trick from Enzo Martinez and moved into first place in the USL’s Eastern Division. The team has now gone 11 matches without a loss and has yet to lose a match at the Sportsplex this season.
If you didn’t know any of this before now, you’re not alone. Not many people are watching.
Many of the city’s big media outlets don’t cover the teams — our friends at the Observer included, though the paper did cover the Eagles’ championship match — and each play in small stadiums outside of center city: The Eagles at Charlotte Christian School in south Charlotte and the Independence at the 2,300-seat Sportsplex.
The Eagles play just seven home games a season, and the team is made up of college players looking to get more experience.
The Independence play in the USL, a pro league one tier below MLS. The team was announced to great fanfare in the soccer community three years ago, but has since struggled to build a strong fan base.
The Independence averages just 1,671 fans per game this season (which is actually up from last season), fewer than the league average of 4,351 and way lower than FC Cincinnati’s league-leading 20,466.
— Mike Pendleton (@phat7deuce) August 7, 2017
It probably doesn’t help that, before Sportsplex, the team bounced around stadiums after a plan to play at Memorial Stadium didn’t work out. The Independence bounced from UNC Charlotte to Winthrop to a temporary stadium at Ramblewood Soccer Complex that was a pain to get to.
So yeah, off the field things haven’t been ideal for the Independence. But on the field the team — like the Eagles — have given soccer fans plenty to cheer for.
Who knows if MLS will come to Charlotte. It’s not looking great after Mecklenburg County voted last week to give the city of Charlotte control of Memorial Stadium and not help the MLS4CLT bid in any other way financially.
But if you really want to watch quality professional soccer in Charlotte, you don’t have to wait for MLS. The Independence have seven regular-season home games left this season, starting with a match against Bethlehem Steel FC Aug. 16. Or you could plan ahead for next summer’s Eagles season.
Because what better way to prove that Charlotte is ready for the Major Leagues then by really supporting the teams that are already here?
Photo: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer