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Does soccer success equal MLS? Charlotte has league’s attention

A Trinidad and Tobago fan cheers his team as they play Cuba during the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. Trinidad and Tobago defeated Cuba 2-0.
A Trinidad and Tobago fan cheers his team as they play Cuba during the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. Trinidad and Tobago defeated Cuba 2-0. AP

Two major soccer events in Charlotte in the next 10 days will feature large crowds and something more: another chance to get the attention of the country’s top pro league, Major League Soccer.

Wednesday, Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium will host two CONCACAF Gold Cup matches – Cuba vs. Guatemala at 6 p.m., followed by Mexico vs. Trinidad & Tobago at 8:30 p.m. Both games are on Fox Sports 2 and UniMás.

Ten days later – on July 25 – Chelsea of England’s Premier League will face Paris Saint-Germain of France in the stadium in an exhibition (or “friendly”) as part of the International Champions Cup.

Presales for each event were nearing the 50,000 mark last week, further enhancing Charlotte’s burgeoning reputation as a soccer-friendly city. Events from prestigious international tournaments or friendlies involving top European teams are a near certainty at the Carolina Panthers’ stadium.

We’re quite familiar with what’s happening in Charlotte, and we’re monitoring it.

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche

Could that reputation lure MLS?

“We’re quite familiar with what’s happening in Charlotte, and we’re monitoring it,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told the Observer. “The success of these international soccer events have caught the attention of all of us in the U.S. soccer community.”

Last summer, 69,364 fans watched England’s Liverpool play Italy’s AC Milan at the stadium in an ICC game. Charlotte was also the site of a Gold Cup doubleheader in 2011 that drew nearly 60,000.

“Certain cities have embraced us, and Charlotte has certainly been one of them,” said Charlie Stillitano, chairman of Relevent Sports, which organizes and promotes the ICC. “We will come to Charlotte as long as they will have us.”

One draw for Charlotte is that soccer organizations such as Relevent Sports or CONCACAF can use the stadium rent-free – saving them $250,000. When Charlotte’s City Council voted in 2013 to give the Panthers $87.5 million for stadium renovations, the team agreed to provide five rent-free dates a year for 10 years.

“(The soccer organizations) like that,” said deputy city manager Ron Kimble. “They believe that’s a great show of our interest and of support from the community at large. It puts us on par with other cities we’re competing with for these games, because they likely have other incentives they’re using.”

Kimble has met with several European teams about playing a friendly in Charlotte in 2016, including Spain’s Barcelona.

“We’re staying in touch with them,” he said.

Stillitano said cities that have supported international matches should be natural candidates for MLS franchises.

It’s always wonderful to find another community that embraces soccer. Sometimes it’s a surprise.

Charlie Stillitano

“It can really seed the market for pro soccer,” Stillitano said. “We’ve not done that intentionally, but it’s always wonderful to find another community that embraces soccer. Sometimes it’s a surprise.”

The interest MLS has in Charlotte is mutual.

The Charlotte Independence, the city’s first-year United Soccer League franchise, has designs on one day landing an MLS franchise. The USL is considered the third tier of pro soccer in the United States.

“We are working on our blueprint for that,” said Independence president Jim McPhilliamy. “We’ve seen what other markets are doing and the competition (for expansion) is heating up.”

The 20-team MLS will expand to as many as 24 franchises by 2018, adding teams in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and possibly Miami.

24 Potential MLS franchises by 2018. Charlotte won’t be among them.

Commissioner Don Garber has said the league will continue to grow after that, although he did not place a timetable on further expansion.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” Garber said in March.

McPhilliamy said he and Charlotte city and civic leaders will travel later this summer to meet with MLS officials.

“We’re going to listen to them and find out what they need us to do,” said McPhilliamy.

Courtemanche said MLS has four criteria for expansion hopefuls: Deep-pocketed local ownership; a team-controlled stadium, preferably in the 18,000- to 27,000-seat range; a market that is attractive to sponsors and television; and a history of solid fan support.

McPhilliamy said it is too early to have prospective MLS ownership lined up to help pay a hefty expansion fee of (the new Orlando City team reportedly paid $70 million).

$70M Expansion fee reportedly paid by new Orlando City MLS team

The Independence’s stadium situation is also in flux. After beginning the season at UNC Charlotte and Winthrop, the team is playing in a temporary stadium at the Ramblewood Soccer Complex in south Charlotte while it awaits word on the future of Memorial Stadium near uptown. The Independence’s average attendance is 1,760, well below the USL average of 3,145 (a number that is skewed somewhat by the league-leading average of the Sacramento Republic, which averages more than 11,000).

Luring MLS is one reason the city is considering using tourism money to help demolish and rebuild the aging stadium in Elizabeth.

“We have been talking about what’s the next step for the stadium,” Jim Garges, the county’s park and recreation director, said in June. “It’s probably a teardown and rebuild, so we can accommodate Major League Soccer if there is an interest someday. We want it to remain viable.”

In the meantime, international matches will likely continue to make summer stops in Charlotte.

“The more times people can go out and have fun at a soccer game, it’s an opportunity for us to win fans,” said McPhilliamy.

Charlotte’s pro soccer history

Minor league soccer

Charlotte has a long and notable history with minor league soccer. The American Soccer League’s Carolina Lightnin’ played from 1981-1983 (winning the league championship in front of more than 20,000 fans in Memorial Stadium). The Charlotte Gold followed the Lightnin’ for one season in 1984 in the United Soccer League (not connected to the current USL).

In 1993, the Charlotte Eagles were formed. The Eagles played in various leagues through 2014 (winning USL second-division championships in 2000 and ’05), before they were replaced by the Independence as Charlotte’s USL franchise this season. The Eagles are still playing in the USL’s Premier Development League. David Scott

Soccer in the stadium

1999, NCAA Men’s College Cup: U.S. women’s national team 9, Japan 0

2000, NCAA Men’s College Cup: U.S. women’s national team 1, Iceland 1

2005, Mexican league exhibition: Tecos 1, Atlas 0

2010, International friendly: Mexico 0, Iceland 0

2011, Gold Cup: Costa Rica 1, El Salvador 1; Mexico 5, Cuba 0

2014, International Champions Cup: Liverpool 2, AC Milan

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