¡VAMOS!: A Look Back at Charlotte FC’s Star-Spangled First Season
A photo essay by Logan Cyrus
On the morning of Dec. 17, 2019, hundreds packed the atrium at the Mint Museum Uptown for the announcement of Charlotte’s Major League Soccer expansion team. By then, anyone who ever doubted that the growing cities of the South could support professional soccer had gone quiet. Successful franchises in Dallas, Orlando, and (horrors) Atlanta had demonstrated fan interest, and Charlotte’s soccer fans, in groups like Mint City Collective, showed up and got rowdy for city officials and club owner David Tepper. The owner didn’t shy away from the new I-85 rivalry. “Screw that other city!” he exclaimed, to cheers.
The Home Opener
COVID pushed the inaugural season back a year. The first game wasn’t played until Feb. 26, 2022, a 3-0 loss at D.C. United. On March 5 came the home opener at Bank of America Stadium against the LA Galaxy, and fans began to fill parking lots around Bank of America Stadium at 11 a.m. for an 8 p.m. kickoff. As the sun dipped below the horizon, an announcement echoed through the stadium: 74,479 fans in attendance, an MLS record, just as the team’s front office had promised months before.
Then something even more remarkable happened: As singer Michelle Brooks-Thompson started the national anthem, her microphone cut out. The crowd spontaneously picked it up and sang it instead. The moment went viral and began a team tradition. Charlotte FC lost, 1-0. No one cared: Fans stayed in their seats and gave the team a standing ovation.
Charlotte FC started the season with three losses and one goal. That changed on the gorgeous evening of Saturday, March 19, against the New England Revolution at BofA. It took five minutes, 27 seconds of play for Karol Świderski to guide a soft left-footed shot into the net from beyond the box. The place went mad. Anyone in or near the stands took a beer shower. Charlotte scored twice more in its 3-1 victory, and as the final whistle blew, team members ran arm in arm toward the mass of ecstatic fans.
On May 31, a shock: The team fired Head Coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez. It didn’t seem to make sense. The fan base loved Ramírez: After nearly every match, he walked to the far goal to show his appreciation, and his no-nonsense approach had led Charlotte FC to a 5-8-1 record—not bad for an expansion team. But after his departure, it became clear that some players didn’t share the love. “I did not get the sense of Miguel willing to address (players’) concerns,” said team captain Christian Fuchs, an English Premier League veteran. “He wanted to brush them off and not deal with them.” Christian Lattanzio, a highly regarded coach for clubs like Manchester City and New York City FC, stepped in as interim head coach.
Down Goes Chelsea
Late in Charlotte FC’s exhibition match against Chelsea FC on July 20 at BofA, Lattanzio inserted 16-year-old academy player Brian Romero. The decision itself drew cheers from the 52,673 who’d come to see the first-year MLS team play one of the most renowned soccer teams in the world. They went crazy over what happened next: Romero drew a penalty, which led to Daniel Rios’ tying kick in regulation time and Charlotte’s victory in the extra period. Romero, born to a Mexican family in Concord, became an instant hometown hero. After the match, Lattanzio said, “I don’t think he was fazed that he was playing Chelsea.”
The Final Whistle
When you read this, Charlotte FC’s inaugural season will be almost over. Its final match is Oct. 9 at the New York City Red Bulls, and as of this writing in August, a playoff berth seemed unlikely. The club ranked 11th of 14 teams in MLS’ Eastern Conference. (Atlanta United ranked 13th. Just saying.) No one expected a banner year on the pitch—although the team did post a winning record at home. The team’s true value in its first year came from the emergence of a passionate fan base unlike any Charlotte has ever seen. The diversity in the stands at BofA matches the diversity on the field. From dream to novelty to fixture, pro soccer has evolved quickly. Now, it’s hard to imagine Charlotte without it.