Scott Fowler

Charlotte fans hungry for soccer

It was August and it was football, but you have never seen an exhibition quite like this one.

Instead of an ultimately meaningless but somewhat entertaining Carolina Panthers football exhibition, this was an ultimately meaningless, somewhat entertaining and incredibly well-attended “futbol” exhibition between AC Milan and Liverpool, two of Europe’s best soccer clubs.

Liverpool won 2-0, but the score was secondary to the spectacle.

There were 69,364 tickets sold for the game at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night, and almost all of those people showed up. Only a few thousand seats went empty. I’d wager this was at least 15,000 more than the average turnstile count at a Panthers exhibition.

But that made sense. The 2014 World Cup generated more buzz in America than ever before. This came right on its heels. And if you were a soccer family from anywhere in the Carolinas – and my family is – this was a destination event.

Even though it wasn’t nearly as important as the World Cup, there were still great players sprinting around where Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly usually roam. And for once, you didn’t have to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to see them.

The home team turned out to be the Liverpool Reds, whose fans took over the stadium. Before the game started, you could walk outside the stadium and hear a half-dozen (sometimes boozy, sometimes not) renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song that has long been adopted by Liverpool supporters as its anthem.

The red scarves flashed by thousands of fans when the song blared over the new Panther sound system just before the game began bore that same motto. That made the stadium look even more like it was hosting an N.C. State home football game. They played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after the game, too, and it sounded just as cool as the Liverpool players made a slow circle of the stadium and acknowledged the sea of scarves.

As in NFL exhibitions, both teams rested their stars. AC Milan’s best player, forward Mario Balotelli, didn’t enter the game until the second half. Balotelli has a Dennis Rodman-esque stripe of blond hair, but more importantly than that, his touch with a soccer ball is extraordinary when he’s fully engaged (which appeared to be about half the time).

Liverpool’s incredibly popular Steven Gerrard entered the game with only about 30 minutes left and drew a standing ovation, with the clapping all the more fervent from the thousands in red Gerrard No. 8 jerseys.

It was good stuff, and more evidence that while soccer will never reach the popularity in the U.S. that it enjoys in most of the world, its place at the American sports table is secure.

I played youth soccer in the 1970s. I now enjoy coaching it and watching three of my own kids play the sport. There are millions of second- and third-generation soccer families just like mine all around America.

I think Charlotte could support a Major League soccer franchise. The soccer fans are already here – if you watched the World Cup at any Charlotte sports bar, you could see that – although the venue would be the big question.

But let’s get something straight: What happened Saturday night was not a fluke. A soccer “friendly” featuring Mexico in Charlotte in 2010 – and really, that was mostly Mexico’s “B” team – drew more than 63,000 fans.

There have been only a handful of non-Panthers events since the stadium opened in 1996 that truly felt big. The Billy Graham crusade. The Rolling Stones concert. The ACC football championships. Maybe a Belk Bowl or two.

The Liverpool-AC Milan game joined that list, and it showed the appetite for soccer in this area continues to grow.

It was a far cry from another game I sat through in 1999, when a U.S. women’s national team led by Mia Hamm only drew 10,119 fans for an April exhibition against Japan in the very same Panthers stadium.

That crowd 15 years ago was awful. This one was awesome. And I hope the renewed soccer appetite in the Carolinas continues to be fed.

Because for more than 69,000 people, Saturday was a night worth savoring.

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