Record crowd welcomes Charlotte FC to Queen City

The newest MLS expansion team held its home opener Saturday

Fans cheer for Charlotte FC in the team's inaugural home game against the LA Galaxy on Saturday at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

CHARLOTTE — It looked and sounded more like an outdoor rock concert than a competitive sporting event, complete with a light show, smoke machines and plenty of singing.

The vibe that enveloped Bank of America Stadium and its surrounding area both before and during Charlotte FC’s inaugural home match Saturday was so strong that it carried over to the participants on the field.

For at least this one night, the final score didn’t matter.

As Charlotte coach Miguel Angel Ramirez noted, the moment was simply too special and the party too festive to be spoiled by a 1-0 loss to the more established LA Galaxy.

Charlotte FC forward Karol Swiderski, right, and LA Galaxy defender Sega Coulibaly go for a header during Saturday’s match. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

“We play football because we want to win, but I believe that I am the happiest coach in the world,” Ramirez said after the match, which was decided in the 77th minute on a goal by the Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez. “I cannot describe it in words, the energy, and I would like to thank everyone that joined us in this party because it really was a party.”

The crowd of 74,479 on hand for the festivities was the largest in Major League Soccer history for a team debut and, according to MLS commissioner Don Garber, was the second biggest for a soccer game in the world this year.

As electric as the atmosphere was inside the stadium, it was equally as raucous around the streets of uptown Charlotte in the hours leading up to the 7:30 p.m. nationally televised kickoff.

In addition to the restaurants and bars being filled with crowds decked out in the expansion team’s distinctive teal jerseys, hats and scarves, a tailgate area was set up in a nearby parking lot.

About an hour before game time, many of those fans took part in an organized parade in which they marched about a half-mile to the stadium down Graham and South Mint streets — which were both closed to traffic — chanting “Charlotte (clap, clap) FC” and singing “Olé, Olé, Olé.”

It was a scene that was familiar to Lincolnton resident Matt Perez, a native of Uruguay whose father wrapped himself in the blue, yellow and white flag of his native nation.

“This is great,” Perez said. “There’s still not as much singing and chanting as there would be for a match in Uruguay, but this is just the start. It’s going to take some time. We’re going to get there.”

For some who aren’t as familiar with the passion soccer evokes in other nations, the atmosphere was already off the charts — especially compared to that surrounding a Carolina Panthers game in the same stadium during the struggling NFL team’s past few seasons.

Charlotte FC midfielder Alan Franco battles for the ball with LA Galaxy forward Javier Hernandez during Saturday’s game at Bank of America Stadium. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

“It’s way better for a soccer match because everybody wants to come here.” Charlotte native Josh Canady said. “It is the first home game, so it might be more packed because of that, but as many people as I’ve seen buying their merchandise, it will probably be packed for multiple games.”

Even those who aren’t avid soccer fans were gobbling up Charlotte FC swag. Jacob Gallimore was wearing a Charlotte Hornets NBA jersey as he sat at an outdoor restaurant table across from the stadium waiting for the game with friends Max Hester-Newnam, Ans Liebert and Zade Eldomiaty.

But he said that would change as soon as he got through the gates.

“The plan is to get something,” he said. “A scarf, for sure. I’ve got to rep the home team.”

It’s yet to be seen what attendance will be like once the novelty of having a new team wears off, especially if it has trouble winning as most expansion franchises do. But the competitiveness of Saturday’s home opener was a good sign.

Although scoring chances heavily favored the visiting Galaxy, which held a 21-5 advantage in shots attempted, possession time broke down almost evenly — with LA maintaining a slight 50.5%-49.5% edge.

The game’s only goal came on a counterattack less than a minute after Charlotte FC nearly scored on a shot by captain Christian Fuchs and a rebound that hit the goalpost by young Benjamin Bender, the No. 1 pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft.

Between the performance of the team and the diversity of its home region, local resident Elvis Orellana said that the team stands a good chance of having staying power among the fans.

“Charlotte has always been a big soccer market,” he said. “I’m sure if you ask everybody, they have a favorite foreign club. But this is a big change. Everybody actually has a home team they can root for now and get emotionally involved.”

More than 74,000 fans packed Bank of America Stadium for MLS expansion team Charlotte FC’s first home match. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

That’s what MLS had in mind when it awarded Charlotte and owner David Tepper its 28th franchise on Dec. 17, 2019.

As high as expectations have been for the new team among league officials, Garber said that Saturday’s home debut — which was delayed a year because of the COVID pandemic — far exceeded anything he could have hoped.

“We’re not in Barcelona, we’re not in Munich or Madrid, London or Mexico City. It’s Charlotte, North Carolina,” the MLS commissioner said. “If you can deliver this kind of energy and commitment in this part of the country, imagine what this is going to look like in the years to come.

“We always knew the Carolinas would be great for Major League Soccer. It took us 27 years to get a team here, but it’s been terrific.”

Tepper celebrated the occasion by making a lap around the field before the game, high-fiving fans and leading them in cheers.

Other than the owner, no one in the stadium Saturday was more excited about the new team and the welcome it was given than defender Jaylin Lindsey, who grew up in Charlotte and attended International Challenge Cup matches at Bank of America Stadium dreaming of the day he might play in a game there.

It’s a dream that was realized Saturday.

“That was probably the best game I’ve been part of my entire life,” he said. “Walking off the pitch, I saw right in the middle of the field and was just trying to soak it all in.

Charlotte FC goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina stretches to make the save against the LA Galaxy in Saturday’s home opener. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal

“I was picturing myself seven or eight years ago in the nosebleeds watching Panthers games and countless ICC games in the summer with European teams. To know I’m that person on the field, it was just unbelievable and why I’m so proud of myself and the team, how we played.”

Lindsey said he was also proud of the fans, not just for their support during the game, but for singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” en masse when the on-field performer’s mic malfunctioned.

“What hyped me up the most was the national anthem when everybody was singing,” he said. “That’s when it hit me that this is it. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life. It’s a remarkable thing, and I feel like I’ve accomplished it now and can just build from this.”

As can his team.