CHARLOTTE — Even the most ambitious dreams years ago would’ve had trouble envisioning this type of night for Major League Soccer.
But as kickoff got closer, Charlotte FC knew what could be possible. Those dreams came to fruition Saturday night as 74,479 fans, an MLS attendance record, packed Bank of America Stadium for the team’s inaugural home game. The LA Galaxy played spoiler with a stunning goal by Efrain Alvarez in the 77th minute of the 1-0 win. However, Saturday was as much about what happened off the pitch than the game itself.
Take the national anthem for example. With the stadium already buzzing, “The Voice” finalist Michelle Brooks-Thompson stepped up to sing and her mic instantly cut off. The nearly 75,000 people took over in unison and “The Star-Spangled Banner” continued on as fireworks went off. It served as the perfect representation of the magnitude of fan support in Charlotte for a team that was getting ready to play only its second game ever.
“It’s amazing. On the field. Off the field. In the stands. The new clubs that are coming in, the fanbases that they have before they even play one game, the ticket sales and the season ticket holders,” said Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, who played in the inaugural 1996 MLS season. “All that stuff just shows how the league continues to grow. How it’s getting engrained and entrenched in the culture of North America.”
To put it in context, a couple hours away in Durham, Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski was coaching his last game ever at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was one of the biggest rivalries in sports, Duke vs. UNC, where ticket prices were nearing Super Bowl levels. And there was Charlotte FC, taking some of that spotlight.
“Coach K’s final night — that’s one of the most historic events in sports in our country’s history,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “The fact that we can have this game going on and capturing this attention, that just speaks to the passion of this market. This is a rising city on so many different levels and clearly in the sports level it’s spectacular.
“We’re not in Barcelona or Munich, Madrid or London, Mexico City — it’s Charlotte, North Carolina,” Garber added. “If you can deliver this kind of energy, excitement and commitment in this part of the country, imagine what this is going to look like in the years to come.”
Despite the result of the game, the Queen City passed the rest of Saturday’s test with flying colors.
Charlotte FC set an MLS attendance record on Saturday vs. the LA Galaxy wth 74,479 fans at Bank of America Stadium. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Thousands of fans marched from that tailgate lot and made their way about a mile through streets and parking lots, waving flags, chanting and filling the air with blue smoke. The march seemed to gather fans as it went until it became a never-ending swarm.
The stadium was already over 80 percent full by the time Charlotte FC ran on the field for warmups. Carolina legends Steve Smith Sr. and Jimmie Johnson guest starred during pregame festivities.
“That was probably the best game to be a part of, I’ve been part of my entire life,” said 21-year-old defender and Charlotte native Jaylin Lindsey. “I was picturing myself 7 or 8 years ago in the nosebleeds watching Panthers games and countless ICC games in the summer. To know that I’m that person on the field, it was just unbelievable.”
Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan spoke about the growth the crowd represented.
“To think that I was playing at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City in front of five thousand fans 10 to 15 years ago to where we are today as a league, it’s mind-blowing,” he said. “I personally never thought that we would be here this fast. The league is in a fantastic place right now and it is getting better.”
The game itself was a bit frustrating for Charlotte, which was outshot 21-5 by the Galaxy. As expansion typically goes, it will take time for them to fully feel comfortable.
There were a couple positive takeaways for Miguel Angel Ramirez’s squad, specifically the fight they showed for 90 minutes. Daniel Rios had perhaps the team’s best opportunity to score in stoppage off a header. That equalizer would’ve undoubtedly felt like a game-winner for the Queen City in that instance. But as the final whistle blew, the fans were there with a standing ovation. Charlotte has yet to score a goal this season, but they checked off a big goal by breaking the attendance record like they set out to.
Charlotte FC has aspirations of averaging 30,000 fans this season, which is another lofty target. Whether or not they can achieve that has yet to be seen, and it will have to do a lot with the on field product. If the soccer is up to par, the support figures to be beyond that.
Futbol has arrived in full force in Charlotte, and the Queen City wants its crown.