Here’s what you need to know about the Charlotte Independence, which opens its first United Soccer League season against the Charleston Battery at 7:30 p.m. Friday at UNC Charlotte’s TransAmerica Field:
A local family affair
Two of the Independence’s top players will be brothers Enzo and Alex Martinez. The Martinez family moved to Rock Hill from Uruguay when Enzo and Alex were kids, and they went on to become stars at Northwestern High and for local club teams. Enzo played at North Carolina, where he helped the Tar Heels to the 2011 national championship, while Alex went to N.C. State. They played together briefly last season for the North American Soccer League’s Carolina RailHawks. Alex won’t play Friday as he serves the final game of a three-game suspension after being red-carded late last season.
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The Independence continues to finalize plans to play most of this season in a temporary, 4,300-seat stadium at Charlotte’s Ramblewood Soccer Complex. Team president Jim McPhilliamy said that permitting and other logistical issues are nearly complete and that the Independence should be at Ramblewood by its third home game on May 2 against Louisville City. The Independence will play at Memorial Stadium in 2016 after soccer-specific renovations are complete.
The Rapids connection
Like several other USL teams, the Independence has a relationship with a Major League Soccer franchise. The Colorado Rapids have sent three players – goalkeeper John Berner and strikers Caleb Calvert and Charles Eloundou – to Charlotte for seasoning. And Independence midfielder Ben Newnam recently signed with the Rapids. The USL is soccer’s equivalent to Class AA baseball.
(Blue) devil of a coach
The Independence is coached by Mike Jeffries, who won the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player in 1983 at Duke. Jeffries, who played three games with the U.S. national team, is a former assistant with the MLS’ Chicago Fire and coached the Des Moines Menace of the USL’s Premiere Development League last season.
Midfielder Jorge Herrera played for eight seasons with the Charlotte Eagles, the city’s former USL franchise. One of the USL’s top players over that period (53 goals, 29 assists), he was the first player signed by the Independence.
What about the Eagles?
The Eagles are now playing in the PDL. The Eagles, coached by Dave Dixon, open their season May 15 against Columbia-based South Carolina United at the Queens University Sports Complex. Former Eagles coach Mark Steffens is now coaching the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds.