This is the second of a three-part story taking in the experience of a birth of a soccer franchise. Part One, detailing Charlotte’s improving demographics is HERE. Part three, along with the complementary slashMLS podcast, comes out on Sunday
Trains are underrated. Travel doesn’t have to be stressful. Trains are a laid-back experience. Stations don’t bustle, not regularly anyway. The ones that double as other things like Metro Centers or tourist attractions are busier, but still infinitely more relaxing than almost any airport.
Trains are relevant because I took a train to Charlotte and because I’m a RailHawk fan. It’d be poetic (if extremely schmaltzy) if I ended this piece with some metaphor akin to “I arrived by rail, I left on horseback,” but that didn’t happen. Even though it would have been fucking cool, I did not leave Charlotte on a horse. Not even metaphorically. You see, no amount of promise showed by the Independence owner or fervor by Jack’s Militia converted me from a RailHawks fan, and I think that’s probably for the best. You don’t want to read someone whose allegiances are that fragile. And anyway that’s too tired a trope in American sport. Remember how annoying that Vikings/Steelers/Bengals/Eagles/Cowboys family was last fall?
The Charlotte Amtrak station off Tryon Road is not surrounded by the best neighborhood. But ojust ne 30-minute walk later, I was at a Brueggers on the second floor of the EpiCentre, which is indeed right in the middle of the Uptown commotion.
This sort of segmentation, while jarring, is typical of North Carolinian cities. In Raleigh, the historic and affluent Oakwood is but a couple blocks removed from the City Center in one direction and the troubled part of Raleigh in the other direction. What weirded me out in the past about Charlotte, though, was that this type of segmentation was rampant. While that’s becoming less true as the city center unifies, it was still noticeable.
The impetus for all this was to witness the first meaningful game in a franchise’s history, a franchise that may one day end up in MLS. This story runs two threads. The first is the practical, “Can this city, its team, and its supporters really position itself for an MLS run in the bear future?” It’s never a good idea to come up with a definitive answer to that question after just one weekend, but I think there are some indicators, some symptoms I was looking for that make for a successful soccer curve more often than not.
The second is a more personal realization of things I knew already but neglected. I’ll leave that a little vague as I’m sure it’ll permeate the story without having to outright say it. Show don’t tell and all that. All I’ll say is it’s been a weird last few months.
I stood waiting in the Hounds/Independence conference room, which lies in the back of a somewhat cramped office space in Charlotte’s Uptown EpiCentre. About half of the office’s walls were covered with a whiteboard material, indicative more of a laboratory tech setting than a professional sports franchise.
Many books on the top three shelves in the conference room’s bookcase had titles with words like “marketing,” “leadership,” and “inspiring.” You know, standard executive fare. But the exceptions were notable. Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball occupied the first slot of the top shelf, hiding behind a DVD of The Big Lebowski. Simon Kuper’s and friend of the show’s Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics occupied a prominent slot on the third shelf behind a Columbus Blue Jackets’ Season-Ticket Holder mug.
“Who in their right mind would wear jeans?” asked an authoritative voice from the other room, definitively settling a jeans vs khakis debate. Minutes later, owner Jim McPhilliamy walked in wearing a relatively ordinary reddish t-shirt and jeans.
I’d dressed like I had in my tech days, wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt (I made good money once upon a time), dark green dress pants and black dress shoes. I would have felt more comfortable in carpenter garb.
Insofar as American soccer history in general is unusual, Charlotte’s is particularly bizarre. Existing at some level of professional soccer for two decades has been the Charlotte Eagles, an organization that has done a lot of good things in the Charlotte community. But it’s a Christian non-profit organization whose primary objective was not to field a competitive USL soccer team. That’s not to say they didn’t try, they did make the USL-Pro title game just two years ago, but the growth in American soccer and the financial requirements of that growth was going to pass them by eventually.
McPhilliamy recognized the Eagles’ role in the community and mentioned that they and the Independence communicate cordially. I didn’t really expect anything different, both are respectful organizations who simply seek different things.
The Eagles’ presence in USL-Pro, and imminent self-demotion, was the impetus for Independence joining USL instead of NASL, where a true Charlotte-Carolina rivalry could have flourished. For Jim, this was more a matter of opportunity than seeking out USL over NASL. The Charlotte ownership slot was open.
But now that he’s in USL, he’s glad he’s here instead of NASL. “Maybe someday Sacramento Republic goes MLS one day. If that happens, the rest of the league will pat them on the back, say good job, and there will be plenty of teams left to pick up their slack. Minnesota United is leaving NASL and that’s more problematic.”
McPhilliamy also owns the Charlotte Hounds of Major League Lacrosse, who play in Memorial Stadium in Uptown Charlotte. The idea is that will serve as the eventual home of the Independence as either the commencement or the culmination of Charlotte’s MLS pitch. They’ll play their first couple games at UNC Charlotte before moving to temporary digs at Ramblewood, a situation similar to Sacramento’s.
Many of the particulars are visuals are intentionally set up to resemble a budding MLS contender. The first kit deal was with Adidas. The branding, even if the name wasn’t the first choice (USL rules prevented the team being named Queen City SC, which is still the name of the LLC headed by McPhilliamy), is solid. The color scheme is relatively unique and the crest advanced to the Round of 16 in the latest r/MLS tournament of crests. The first head coach, Mike Jeffries, coached the Dallas Burn in the early ’00s.
If MLS is the endpoint, many preliminary data points have to be hit before that curve is fulfilled. McPhilliamy refreshingly owns up to having a lot to learn on that front. “We’re going to make tons of mistakes,” he says, addressing supporters’ concerns over the Memorial Stadium issue (it was initially announced last year that Memorial would be ready for USL play right away). There are multiple ways to run an organization, and unfortunately many of the established, larger organizations have adopted a culture of over-preparedness, conducting meeting after meeting and study after study before finally deciding on what to present for public consumption.
For some reason, fear of public backlash has instilled a cautionary attitude into many executives around the country. Successful new tech companies take that negative public input (generally perceived as backlash) into account before a product is released or in its final form. After spending many years with the inertially challenged Charlotte Bobcats organization, McPhilliamy is ready to part from the culture of caution and adopt an experimental approach to sports management. I can say that with confidence, not just because those were among the words he said to me, but also because of those whiteboard walls I mentioned earlier, and the fact that he has already not only made some mistakes but publicly admitted to them.
I hung around Uptown Charlotte for a few hours after the interview, discovering a hipster haven in the Public Market. Located right off the end of one of the ever-expanding light rail lines (one significant advantage Charlotte enjoys over the Triangle) is a bastion of coffee, local beer, cheese, baked goods, and gourmet sandwiches (no I’m not taking advertising dollars from them). It was the first moment I was really convinced that maybe Charlotte could work out.