A pleasant North Carolina day in December 2019 began with Commissioner Don Garber appearing in Charlotte to officially award the city an MLS franchise. Also at the event was David Tepper, the billionaire owner of the newly minted Charlotte FC and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The day ended with Tepper surrounded by crazed Charlotte FC fans – literally day one fans – at a brewery where it wasn’t easy to identify who among the crowd was the man cutting the $325m expansion fee check.
Charlotte FC were little more than a theoretical concept on that day. Eight months ago, the team had no coach. Three months ago, they had only a handful of players. Five weeks ago, the coaching staff and players met together for the first time.
Pandemic be damned, Charlotte FC are here. And if they don’t yet have your attention, they will soon as they aim to set a new MLS single-game record for attendance with just under 75,000 at Bank of America Stadium on March 5 for their home opener.
It didn’t happen by accident, nor did it come with a little frustration along the way.
“I feel good, I feel positive,” Charlotte FC’s sporting director Zoran Krneta says. “I mean, this is a group of players that saw each other for the first time three weeks ago. No one knew each other, more or less.”
Charlotte certainly haven’t been boring during their time in the limelight this offseason. They have acquired a number of intriguing players, such as Spanish central midfielder Sergio Ruiz; Christian Fuchs, who won a Premier League title with Leicester City; and rising talents from South America including Ecuadorians Jordy Alcivar and Alan Franco, plus Brazilian teenage forward Vinicius Mello.
A few weeks after the preseason opened, though, Charlotte had filled just one of their three designated player spots, places reserved for stars exempt from the league’s salary cap rules. With Tepper’s billions and grand ambitions, fans had expected a little more than their one designated player so far, Poland striker Karol Swiderski.
Charlotte’s head coach, Miguel Angel Ramirez, seemed to expect more too. Ramirez was blunt in a video that went viral, choosing the phrase “estamos jodidos”, which can be politely translated from the Spanish as “we’re screwed.”
Ramirez’s comments came in the same week that Charlotte’s $6m deal to acquire Venezuela international Darwin Machis fell through at the last minute when the player was reportedly in Charlotte ready to be unveiled. The club is understood to have pulled out as Machis has a court case active in Spain that centers around a bar fight.
Another deal, for Poland international Kamil Jozwiak, collapsed around the same time, after the winger was injured playing for Derby County. That disappointment came a couple of weeks after a potential league record bid to acquire USA winger Paul Arriola fell short.
“I know that the fans might be a little bit less patient, and we’re frustrated too,” Krneta says. “I think that’s part of the game. This is a game full of emotions, full of passion. When things are not going the way you want them to go, you express frustration and passion. We have everything under control, everything is positive.”
Those fans are going to show up in force. Charlotte are aiming to set a new MLS record for single-game attendance. That record is particularly sought after because the current top 10 list for MLS attendance is dominated by their southeast rivals Atlanta United. At the time of writing, the club are on track to accomplish their goal, looking at a likely sellout of just under 75,000 fans.
“Honestly, I had some sleepless nights,” admits Nick Kelly, who was recently promoted to CEO of Tepper Sports & Entertainment after serving as Charlotte FC president.
“Look, to be perfectly honest, it was extremely challenging [aiming to set the attendance record]. To create a game in which you’re going to want to be there and be part of history – yeah, it’s old school marketing – but we really wanted it too. And the building we’re in, we’re the only team that can do it.”
Charlotte have already sold more than 20,000 season tickets, a figure comparable to the entire capacity of some other MLS stadiums. The club will share Bank of America Stadium with the Carolina Panthers, and the venue has undergone a $50m upgrade to accommodate Charlotte FC, including locker rooms specifically built for the soccer team. Capacity will be reduced to 38,000 for most of the team’s home games, with fans restricted to the lower bowl and club sections.
Despite a passionate fanbase and the club’s sky-high ambitions, Ramirez’s “estamos jodidos” quote has raised fears that Charlotte may struggle to match Atlanta United, who won MLS Cup in just their second season.
“We just want to be competitive and build, that would be a successful season for us,” Krneta says. “We cannot predict how much we will win, lose or draw, this is a long season. For me, I want Charlotte to be a place that teams don’t want to play because they know they will get a tough game. The rest? We’ll have to see what happens.”
It all starts on Saturday when they travel to DC United, before their home opener a week later, followed by a trip to Atlanta United.
“This is a part of history, it won’t happen again,” Kelly says. “We did it in the middle of a pandemic, we did it in one year. We should be proud of it.”
He pauses briefly.
“But, man, we can’t fall off a cliff from the highest high to the lowest low. We can’t roll out to Atlanta the next week and get smoked.”