Chapel Hill smashes first-ever international soccer showcase

Wrexham-Chelsea exhibition brings full house to Kenan Stadium

Wrexham forward Sam Dalby (18) works against Chelsea midfielder Harvey Vale (39) during a FC Series match at University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC on July 19, 2023. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL

Usually the home of the Carolina Tar Heels football team, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium instead welcomed two international guests under its lights last Wednesday as it played host to two of the biggest names in the soccer world – Chelsea FC, one of the top team’s of the English Premier League, and Wrexham AFC, the star of the American sports documentary series, “Welcome to Wrexham.” 

In front of a sold out crowd of 50,596, the two UK clubs played an exhibition match as part of the Florida Cup Series, an annual club association football friendly exhibition competition held in the United States. 

“It was really nice, the full stadium,” said Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino. “Thank you to all the fans here in North Carolina. I was happy to be here and we really enjoyed the game.” 

It isn’t often that international soccer arrives in North Carolina, and it’s perhaps an even bigger rarity that it has landed in Chapel Hill. In fact, this was the first time Kenan Stadium had ever hosted an international soccer game.  

But Carolina proved it was ready and the event was a total success. 

“What an outstanding event,” said UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham through a UNC Communications post. “The ability to welcome more than 50,000 people to Kenan Stadium – many of whom have never been to Chapel Hill – is incredibly special for our University, town and community. Thank you to both teams for allowing us to share in a great game and experience.” 

Despite the 90+ degree weather and added humidity, Kenan filled out with raucous soccer fans eager to see two of Europe’s most popular teams. 

“We’ve been in town the last few days and the amount of people with Wrexham shirts on or Wrexham caps has blown us all away really,” said Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson. “It’s great to see really and we hope all of our supporters over here can continue following us in this journey next season. 

“We had a good tour around the university, looked around at all the facilities and had a great talk here about the history of the university which I think was great for our lads to hear that because in England and Wales, you don’t have the kind of sporting facilities at universities as you’ve got here. I think the lads were shocked, well we all were, when we saw the size of the stadiums. Not just this one, but the basketball arena and everything. It really is incredible and I can see why so many top-class athletes have come through this system.” 

The event had the full support of the UNC community, including head football coach Mack Brown who saw the event as only a net positive for the university. 

“The benefits are obvious,” said UNC Football head coach Mack Brown who eagerly gave his approval for the conversion of the stadium. “We have wonderful soccer programs and to bring two of the top international programs in here – that I’m learning about how popular they are in our world –  is really cool for our soccer teams and I can imagine our college players being around the international players is going to be really cool as well.  

“Secondly, it’s a great revenue producer for the university and we’re always looking to get more money. We’ve got 28 sports and we’ve gotta support those sports, so I thought it was an unbelievable opportunity there. Thirdly, anytime you can bring this many people into your community and have them shopping and buying stuff, I just thought it was a no-brainer. A win-win-win from all angles.” 

In addition to the obvious economic impact on the local community, the two clubs also combined to make a charitable donation with a portion of all ticket sales going to the UNC Children’s Hospital. 

Soccer has been growing exponentially in the Triangle for years and there was perhaps no better place to showcase it than on the campus of the team that has hoisted a combined 23 NCAA Championship trophies.  

“The exposure and just to feel it in real time will just be unbelievable for our guys that are around in the summer,” said men’s soccer coach Grant Porter. “It’s awesome for them, but it’s also great for our local soccer community. It benefits our players and everyone in the community.” 

“Trust me, we are going to use this in recruiting,” said women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance. “This is a recruiting weapon. We’re going to make hay out of this every way we can. 

“This is an additional feather in our cap. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve contributed to the growth of the game not just in the community but also nationally and to some extent internationally. I think we’re a part of the conversation.”