It’s time for new beginnings in Charlotte.
As the MLS expansion club Charlotte FC fills out its roster and coaching staff, the USL Championship’s Charlotte Independence welcomed in a new era at American Legion Stadium.
“This is the rebirth of an 85-year-old asset,” said W. Lee Jones, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department Director. “We’ve been able to rebuild this stadium to its original elegance but modernize it.”
Last night, Charlotte Independence hosted its first home match at the newly renovated American Legion Stadium, a venue located right in the Uptown District of downtown Charlotte.
For years, the team played its home matches on the outskirts of the city. The previous stadium, Matthews Sportsplex, had plenty of amenities of its own but lacked one of the key things most soccer venues need to succeed – proximity. Attending Charlotte Independence games before meant driving 25 minutes outside of the city, sometimes during the peak of rush hour traffic.
Now that’s a thing of the past and soccer fans in Charlotte are giddy about the change.
“We would still drive to games out at Matthews Sportsplex from time to time, but American Legion Stadium is three blocks from my office,” said Edgar, one of the first fans in the gates last night. “This makes things so much easier and allows us to support the local restaurants and breweries before matches too. We’re excited for the new stadium.”
Among the many changes, American Legion Stadium features more concessions, more seats, and a beautiful view of the downtown Charlotte skyline. Fans were even treated to a post-game fireworks display to celebrate the new beginning.
However, one notable omission from last night’s first home match was a discernible supporter section. There were a few drums and flags present in the southern corner of the stadium, but the ongoing ownership issues have eroded what was once a buzzing supporter culture in Charlotte.
Some members of Jack’s Militia, one of main supporter groups for the club, were in attendance to cheer on the players and check out the new stadium from individual seats. Others opted not to go entirely as part of the ongoing boycott against toxic owner Dan DiMicco. And a few even draped a “DiMicco Out” banner from a nearby parking garage.
It’s a sad situation when you begin to imagine what the atmosphere could have been like. Most locals would agree – a new downtown stadium like American Legion Stadium deserves to be filled with the energy of fans singing and chanting for a full 90 minutes. Instead, the muted tone last night reflected the uncertain state of supporter culture in Charlotte.
One longtime fan summarized his feelings on Twitter, posting, “The lack of outreach to the supporters, the years of over-promising and under-delivering from the [Charlotte Independence], leadership, and the failure to separate from DiMicco have left a club without a supporters’ group and in an embarrassing cultural position in the USL.”
He goes on to note that he will “continue to support the players and their initiatives to improve our community” but that the club needs to address the glaring issues before things change back to what it was. He is not alone either. His sentiment reflects many other fans who have spoken on background about the current state of soccer in Charlotte.
Similarly, Charlotte FC is already facing challenges of its own based on how it launched its brand.
Right now, all eyes are on North Carolina’s largest city to see how soccer continues to grow in the community. And this community is quickly becoming the nation’s best case study for what happens when clubs do and do not prioritize supporter culture as part of a brand.
In a few years, will we see a southern supporter culture that matches Charlotte’s most similar southern neighbor, Atlanta? Or will the issues surrounding the two clubs be too much to ignore? Only time will tell.