At 9:30 in the morning one Saturday in September, vendors were busy setting up booths for a weekend flea market at a vast concrete expanse just off of Central Avenue in east Charlotte.
For decades, the property housed the Eastland Mall. But for the past six years, it held an open-air market, a community staple nestled among human-sized weeds and cavernous potholes. Sellers arranged displays with Fortnite T-shirts and cellphone cases, piles of coconuts and Western apparel. Mattresses leaned against a truck. Shampoo bottles and power tools were lined neatly on folding tables near a stand selling churros and chicharrones.
There were also rows and rows of soccer jerseys.
They were the thinner, cheaper kind of jersey typically sold at unofficial shops. A few bore the names of European superstars, but most came from Central America: Chivas and Club América, the giants of Mexico’s Liga MX, plus the national teams of Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Fifteen minutes away, following Independence Boulevard toward the glittering bank buildings and construction cranes of Charlotte’s skyline, is Valhalla Pub & Eatery.
The same morning, a dozen members of the Official Liverpool Supporters Club of Charlotte gathered to watch the six-time European champions kick off against Crystal Palace in the English Premier League. The men, almost all in officially licensed Liverpool jerseys, cheered and sang songs and drank pints of beer, despite the morning hour.
A tourist couple wandered in, attracted by the noise, and the bartender explained that the group came every weekend. Soccer was growing in Charlotte, the bartender continued, and next year the city’s new Major League Soccer franchise, Charlotte Football Club, would begin play.
In an interview with The Assembly six weeks later, Charlotte FC President Nick Kelly made clear that it’s an operation with big ambitions.
“Ten years from now, I’d like to rival the Panthers for attendance every year,” he said.
North Carolina’s soccer market is actually many markets—divided along lines of race, gender, and class. It’s also divided between the passion of small, devoted fan communities and the potential of the broader public.
The sport’s growth is defined by what happens when those cultures meet. Charlotte FC won’t be able to grow the way it hopes unless it can bring them together.
But doing so is complicated.
In September, the flea market at the old Eastland Mall shut down, clearing the way for a development project anchored by fields and offices for Charlotte FC’s “Elite Academy” youth program. Even as the team tries to build a community of Latino fans, the financial realities of its growth mean other parts of Charlotte’s Latino population, and their own soccer culture, are under threat.
Charlotte FC builds on a long history of soccer in North Carolina.
While it’s the first MLS team in the state, it’s far from the first professional club. The U.S. Soccer Federation oversees a hierarchy of men’s leagues across the country, similar to baseball’s minor league system, except most franchises are independent, not owned by a major league affiliate.
Charlotte was already home to the Independence, a team playing in the United Soccer League (USL) Championship, the nation’s second-tier men’s league. Next season, Charlotte Independence will drop down a division into USL League One, the third-tier league, joining Cary-based North Carolina FC—the franchise Charlotte had to fend off for the rights to an MLS team.
Soccer is in the middle of a popularity boom in the United States, which saw last summer’s European Championship tournament receive more viewers than some NBA finals games and the English Premier League’s U.S. television rights sell for $2.7 billion. Hoping to capitalize on the interest, especially before the United States co-hosts the 2026 World Cup, the MLS has been in expansion mode.
From a base of 24 teams in 2019, it is now growing to 30. After the MLS awarded franchises to Austin and St. Louis in 2019, North Carolina entered the fray.
In many ways, Raleigh looked the more likely destination: North Carolina FC’s ownership counts one of the best professional women’s teams in the world, the North Carolina Courage, as part of its Triangle-centered holdings. It also launched a massive youth soccer organization, NCFC Youth, with over 13,000 members. NCFC ownership had plans to add a purpose-built 20,000-seat stadium as part of the $2.2 billion Downtown South development in southeast Raleigh. In November, the stadium was put on hold.
What gave Charlotte the edge is the financial might of billionaire Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper. In the end, he backed a reported $325 million bid to the MLS, dwarfing the $200 million fee that St. Louis paid for its team.
The City of Charlotte supported the bid—as local governments often do—and backed Tepper, pledging $110 million toward the effort. Those commitments were scaled back to $35 million after COVID-19 altered the team’s plans, but the city later added an additional $38.25 million to support the Eastland development.
Ultimately, the thing that justifies all that money, that gives soccer’s financiers confidence they can make it back and then some, is the passion of the fans.
Jay Landskroener is a 36-year-old department manager at Harris Teeter. His life took a new direction when he started watching the English Premier League on cable in high school.
“When you’re watching, especially the English game, you always hear this audio in the background,” he said. “The game’s going on and there are the oohs and aahs, but there’s always this humming sound. You can tell it’s a group of people singing and chanting or whatever. I’ve always been drawn to that noise until I discovered what it was, and then it was like this light went on. I knew that soccer culture was different.”
For the sport’s most passionate fans, that experience is often held up as the ideal. The singing, the chanting, the drumming. Organized groups waving banners large enough to cover a whole section of the stadium or marching with lit flares.
“Argentina’s atmosphere is different,” said 22-year-old Agustin Mejia, describing the famed Superclásico rivalry game between Buenos Aires clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate. “They shake their stadium. That’s the level we’re trying to reach.”
Fans like Agustin Mejia and Jay Landskroener are organizing to get there: Mejia is president of a small group of Triad-based, Latino Charlotte FC fans called Carolina Hooliganz. Landskroener founded an official supporters group for the Independence and served in leadership roles for groups devoted to the U.S. national team and the MLS club D.C. United.
After being lured back to the Queen City, in part due to rumors of a Charlotte MLS team, Landskroener helped start Mint City Collective, the largest of Charlotte FC’s three officially recognized supporters groups. He didn’t even wait for Charlotte to win the bid: Mint City Collective is older than the team.
Powered by a community board and notably slick branding, the group now has close to 1,800 members, according to Landskroener. (It’s worth emphasizing that the team still doesn’t have a full roster.)
Of course, most fans aren’t as dedicated as Landskroener and Mejia. While drunk, singing British men and raucous South American rivalries are the paragons of passion for some, that intensity has to coexist alongside the thousands of families who give soccer moms their names and make up the ticket-buying public Charlotte FC needs to meet its goal of 30,000 fans per game.
“It’s going to be very segregated within the stadium, in terms of the experience you’re going to have,” Kelly, the Charlotte FC president, said. “We’ll have 3,800 people in our supporters section that are having a far different experience than those on the opposite end in the community section that we just launched.”
The hope, for both the fans and the team, is that the passion of the die-hard supporters creates a unique experience that can bring in the masses, sparking a groundswell that continues to grow the sport.
“Soccer is more than just supporting your team,” Landskroener said. “It’s about building a culture and showing a passion for the city and the people that feel the same way that you do about that team, but also trying to bring people into that experience.”
There’s one group, in particular, Charlotte FC is trying to attract: Hispanic fans.
The notable whiteness of officially sanctioned soccer spaces is common knowledge, from youth levels and up. High school teams, recreational leagues organized by parks and local governments, crowds at the growing roster of soccer-themed bars: they all skew toward white, English-speaking Americans.
Nowhere is that more true than in club soccer, the competitive youth teams that are the first step toward college and professional careers. “The makeup of club soccer, especially in this area, is predominantly white, upper middle class, wealthier families,” said Durham-based coach José Santibañez.
The demographics are notable, because while American soccer organizations often look to Europe as soccer’s guiding light—hence their Anglophilic “football club” monikers—the country’s strongest international tie is across the southern border.
Liga MX games regularly dwarf Premier League viewership numbers, making them the most watched regular-season soccer games in the U.S. Over 40 percent of the TV audience for both MLS games and European finals games tunes into Spanish-language broadcasts, even though only 13.4 percent of the U.S. population speaks Spanish at home. When MLS all-stars took on their Liga MX counterparts this year, viewership was more than four times higher on the Spanish-language broadcast than the English one.
“If all our fans look like me,” said Kelly, a white man, “we’ve done something wrong.”
That’s why the team has a marketing plan specific to Latinos, a TV deal with Telemundo Charlotte, and bilingual communications.
“We want Spanish-language DJs talking about us during the week so when these guys are at work they’re hearing about Charlotte FC,” Kelly said.
Mejia, the Hooliganz president, praised their efforts, excitedly recounting a time when Kelly recognized him at an event. “We’re at this table thinking we’re small, and Nick Kelly comes over and introduces himself and says, ‘You’re the Carolina Hooliganz.’ When he said that, man it was like, yo, we got recognized.”
There are some causes for optimism. Kelly noted that the percentage of Hispanic season ticket holders is already four times higher than the Panthers’. Over 700 people attended the team’s Hispanic Heritage Month block party in September, and Latino fans seemed to be the clear majority.
But given the national context of the sport, Kelly admitted it’s difficult to read too much into those early efforts. “From an index of fan base, it is what it is,” he said. “The biggest question is: what does the Telemundo rating look like?”
And once you look more closely at which parts of the Latino population Charlotte FC is attracting, there are also reasons for skepticism.
Charlotte FC’s most prominent Latino supporter is Chico Sánchez.
He’s the kind of fan who pops up in photos with Tepper, the team owner, and gets interviewed for the team website. That’s what happens when you get a tattoo of a team’s logo hours after it’s unveiled. And when you’re the kind of fan who will lead a procession of fans at a block party, wearing a mariachi suit and skull mask, waving a giant Mexican flag.
The 38-year-old father of three from Salisbury is a Mint City Collective board member and capitan of the local battalion of Pancho Villa’s Army, the Mexican national team supporters group. But he didn’t mention either when I asked how he ended up in costume at the block party.
“It’s the Mexican culture,” he said. “It has to represent me, and I’m Mexican.”
For Charlotte FC, the problem is that there are both too few and too many Sánchezes.
Too few, because the team’s most committed supporters remain overwhelmingly white. Sánchez estimated that only 20 of Mint City Collective’s 1,800 members are Hispanic. Mejia, the Carolina Hooliganz president, also said his Latino supporters group was only a couple dozen members.
Part of the difficulty is differences within the two cultures, even among the most passionate fans. “[Mint City Collective] is a whole different experience,” Sánchez said with a laugh when I asked how it compared to his time organizing Mexico fans with Pancho Villa’s Army. “You know, they’re a little more organized,” he said of Mint City Collective.
The connections have been beneficial to both—“I try to learn things from them and bring it into PVA and vice versa,” Sánchez said—but there are also different aims.
“I don’t have a problem with it, but [the people in Mint City Collective] like to go to craft beer bars,” Sánchez said, noting that Mexican fans tend to gather at restaurants or family cookouts. “Latinos—we don’t drink that kind of beer. We’re used to Corona or Bud Light. In some of those places, you can’t really get loud. It’s so mellow, so calm. We’re not used to that. We want to get rowdy.”
Like all of the Latino fans I spoke with, Sánchez noted that being raised in a Hispanic community meant the beautiful game has always been part of his life. “Soccer’s in the blood,” he said. The passion is nurtured in the self-organized Latino community soccer leagues that Hispanic fans constantly mention as an important component in their experience with the sport.
Whether at New York’s Pier 40 and “the trenches” of Harlem, where Mejia was raised, or across North Carolina’s public parks, Latino leagues are community events bustling with food and families. But they’re also much more competitive than sanctioned recreational leagues or even high school soccer, according to their participants.
“They’re tough, bro,” Mejia said. “Sometimes they’re a little bit violent, but that’s just because of the passion.”
Charlotte FC’s dilemma is how to reach more of those fans, especially the ones who have a harder time navigating white, English-speaking spaces than committed fans like Sánchez.
About a third of Hispanic Americans are born outside the United States, but the only first-generation immigrants I met came with their American-born children or had spent the majority of their lives in the United States. Sánchez moved to the U.S. when he was four, and Mejia was born in New York.
Despite their focus on Hispanic marketing, Charlotte FC officials only spoke in English at the block party, without translators. But it also seemed that English was the most commonly spoken language at the event, even among Latino fans.
Creating an audience among Hispanic soccer fans born or raised in the United States doesn’t necessarily mean the team will be able to build a community among newer immigrants, who live in different social conditions.
“My parents came here to work, so they watched soccer, but they were not as passionate as they used to be in Mexico,” said Sánchez. “Here was more work and making money, making sure all of us were doing good.”
In Charlotte, the neighborhoods surrounding the old Eastland Mall where Charlotte FC is building the headquarters for its youth teams are a hot spot for new immigrants to settle.
“For a lot of the immigrant populations, this is their first stop,” said Ismaail Qaiyim, a member of Housing Justice Coalition CLT and a lawyer who works with the area’s Latin American Coalition.
“Right now, it’s predominantly Central Americans,” he added, also noting the presence of Somali, Bosnian, Palestinian, Vietnamese, and African American communities.
But the neighborhoods are rapidly changing, according to Housing Justice Coalition activists. East Charlotte has long been known as a refuge of affordable housing, especially after areas closer to the urban core were gentrified—including African American enclaves like Enderly Park and the Third Ward, formerly centered around a historic Black hospital and now around Bank of America Stadium, home to both the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte FC.
“There’s been such a dramatic shift in the past five years [near Eastland Mall],” Qaiyim said. “You have all this culture and a lot of vulnerable populations, and if all this affordable housing just ceases to exist, there will be mass displacement.”
That’s the context that Charlotte FC’s Latino-focused marketing plans are operating in.
In the team’s eyes, their Eastland Mall project provides much-needed economic development, including increased tax dollars, new jobs, and opportunities for children in the area, who can take advantage of the fields and programming, both in east Charlotte and at other fields they’ve funded across the city. That includes public recreation areas and the team’s academy, meant to train future MLS stars.
But Charlotte FC is also trying to distance itself from the trickier political decisions at play.
“We’re not in a position to dictate what’s best for those neighborhoods,” Kelly said. “We’re focused on building the facilities and programming them with camps and clinics, and making them available. But we leave [the rest] because there are a lot of people trying to figure out what the future of the Eastland area looks like, and we should not be one of them.”
Yet, since team-owner Tepper “buys what he wants,” as soccer fans chanted at an event when Charlotte FC was announced, reported Sports Business Journal, the team does decide.
It’s the organization’s search for a profitable business model—one that goes beyond just ticket sales—that threatens immigrant communities’ ability to live in the city; the same communities the team is hoping to bring to games.
The contradiction is likely to be exacerbated as Tepper’s more ambitious plans come online, because the economics of sports franchises demand a “placemaking” strategy that turns sporting events into daylong experiences, replete with restaurants, hotels, and other businesses.
Tepper Sports & Entertainment, the umbrella company owning both Charlotte FC and the Carolina Panthers, has already begun booking high-profile concerts at Bank of America Stadium, including the Rolling Stones and Billy Joel. And Tepper has indicated his interest in building a brand new stadium to replace Bank of America Stadium, surrounded by a wider “entertainment district.” Those decisions shape nearby markets, shifting the culture and economics of the area.
The Eastland project will also include retail and housing, including 82 units of affordable senior housing and 250 market-rate units serving residents making 80 percent of the Charlotte metro region median income. But activists say they felt cut out of the discussions, thanks to Tepper’s financial might.
“Here we have a project where somebody basically snapped their fingers, threw down some money, had a back-room deal with the city, and now all the sudden this thing is going to be a reality,” said Jimmy Vasiliou, a Housing Justice Coalition CLT member.
The fact that the Eastland project takes advantage of the Opportunity Zones program, which gives developers tax breaks to develop in low-income areas, makes activists worry that the rich will just get richer—something that has happened with Opportunity Zones across the country.
Without clear guarantees for living-wage jobs reserved for current residents of the area, activists say the projects will only increase land values and force out the most vulnerable residents.
I asked Qaiyim if he thought Charlotte FC could achieve its goal of bringing together a diverse cross-section of the city. “It doesn’t really make sense that that could happen, if the communities you’re talking about can no longer afford to live in the area,” he replied.
From its current fans, it seems Qaiyim is right: Charlotte FC’s most fervent Latino supporters don’t actually live in Charlotte. Sánchez is from Salisbury—a point he often emphasizes—and Mejia is from Lexington. But that hasn’t limited their commitment to the team.
“Charlotte FC needs to look at where the Hispanics are at in North Carolina,” Mejia said when I asked how the team could reach Latino fans.
The answer is still largely Charlotte: One in four of the state’s Hispanic residents lives in Mecklenburg or Wake County, according to Carolina Demography. But with large populations in Forsyth and Guilford—where Mejia is organizing the Hooliganz—plus rapidly growing rural populations, a more regional approach may be possible.
“Me personally, I drive down to Charlotte like every other weekend,” said Patrick Aquiano, a 30-year-old furniture delivery driver from Lexington and vice president of the Hooliganz. “We were like, we’re getting a team, I definitely want to come watch them play, so it’s not a bad idea [to buy season tickets].”
Because so few sports fans have any real soccer loyalties competing for time and money, the state’s first MLS side has a chance to attract a wider audience, Kelly said. One exception is Mexican immigrants who still watch their favorite Liga MX teams each week. But even that can drive Charlotte FC fans.
“If we play a top three or four [Liga MX team at home], we could probably do 50 to 60,000 tickets,” Kelly said. “Maybe the not-so-great part is that it’d be 50-50 home and away fans.”
“We have to be okay that we’re their second favorite team or even third favorite team,” he added. “But we want to be their MLS team.”
There’s one clear way to ensure those loyalties, which all parties are aware of: fill the roster with high-profile Mexican stars. But Kelly is quick to say the team will never make sporting decisions for marketing reasons. The team has only signed a single Mexican player so far, even after this week’s expansion draft. Its highest-profile player is former English Premier League champion Christian Fuchs, spotlighted in several marketing efforts.
In the meantime, fans themselves are taking ownership, hoping to create the atmosphere that will turn Charlotte FC into an inclusive experience attracting soccer fans of all stripes.
Supporters groups protested the team’s decision to charge “personal seat licenses,” a fee fans must pay in addition to the cost of a season ticket, arguing that it priced out many would-be supporters. (Tepper has cited the practice as one way to help fund a new stadium.) And they’re taking on marketing duties for the team.
“Bro, who haven’t I talked to?” Mejia said of his efforts to convince Latino fans in the Triad to buy season tickets. “I’m trying to make this scene even bigger, because everybody deserves to have that passion, to have something to be proud of, to jump up and down, to scream, to just enjoy themselves.”
As the world’s game, soccer is uniquely positioned to create ties among a diverse cross-section of the state’s population.
It’s already happening for some of the team’s fans: Mejia moved to North Carolina to be near his cousins, who introduced him to Sánchez; the resulting relationships helped him land his current job at Furnitureland South.
But the most impactful experience will always be in youth programming.
“All my closest friends now are from soccer,” said José Santibañez, the Durham-based coach. “The game is a great tool when it’s done the right way.”
“I definitely think soccer can bridge the gap between [different backgrounds],” said Omar Cruz, one of Santibañez’s former players. “I’ve had teammates from different religious backgrounds, different races, different ethnicities and only saw them as a brother and a teammate.”
Charlotte FC heralds its youth efforts as part of that effort, telling The Assembly it consciously seeks out players in Latino leagues and that 33 percent of its academy players are Hispanic, compared to just 11 percent of the state’s population. (About the same percentage of professional MLS players is Hispanic.)
Yet Santibañez is skeptical.
“It makes sense that they’d want to [reach out to Hispanic families], especially in the last four or five years when it’s been a big part of diversity initiatives,” he said. “But it’s all bullshit.”
Santibañez’s judgment is based on years of navigating the state’s unequal soccer communities. A formerly undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. as a young child, the longtime soccer fanatic didn’t see much of a future for himself. It wasn’t until he picked up odd coaching gigs between shifts at Ross after high school that Santibañez realized soccer could be the career he wanted.
But even after he became a coach—first at the Chapel Hill-based Triangle United Soccer, then as youth sports director at the YMCA, and now at North Carolina FC Youth—Santibañez wasn’t helping kids who shared his background. Instead, his players were mostly well-off white children.
For elite Latino players, Charlotte FC will be a boon, he said. But the rest of the families need those experiences, as well.
He argued that if the teams want to have a real social impact, they have to be okay with accepting everyone. “They step away from [the less talented] kids, so they’re losing a lot of people.”
Santibañez is attempting to build the soccer culture he wants with Bull City Futsal Academy, an organization that aims to connect low-income families to resources through soccer. It works on a simple principle: It’s free.
Working with local public schools, he provides no-cost soccer programming, typically on campus during the school day, as well as competitive teams available on a pay-what-you-can basis. The result is a membership that is 80 to 90 percent Hispanic, according to Santibañez.
But when COVID forced Bull City Futsal to move to local parks, it suddenly became “60 percent white, American families,” even though the programs were still free.
“I don’t have a research team, but the biggest thing for me is we’re no longer in schools so now you have to get a ride,” Santibañez said.
Similar dynamics impact the rest of the sport, from the money and time it costs to secure coaching licenses—limiting the diversity of coaches—to complex scholarship applications that make some immigrants wary. Combined, it all limits the sport’s social impact.
Costs are even at the root of Liga MX’s TV ratings dominance, as Santibañez sees it. It’s not driven by any particular immigrant cultural attachment, he says, but the fact it’s on basic cable. “That’s why it’s the most watched league,” he said. “It’s free.”
Despite all that, Santibañez guesses Charlotte FC will have plenty of Latino supporters, based solely on the size of the soccer-watching public nearby. But even the team’s most fervent fans, like Mejia, admit that when life changes, so too might their commitment.
“Bro, I’m 22 and have no kids and I’m not married,” Mejia said. “Maybe in a couple years I might not even be a season ticket holder, because everybody’s situation changes. But for right now? Charlotte FC has got 100 percent—2,000 percent—of my support.”
At the end of October, the Bank of America Stadium hosted a game between Mexico and Ecuador.
The corporate headquarters surrounding the stadium were suddenly host to what felt like a different city. Seven hours before the Wednesday night kickoff, the streets were already filled with soccer fans. Vendors lined the sidewalks, hawking Mexican fare. Jerseys and flags for both teams were spread across every spare patch of grass.
There was an official pregame area, safe behind a row of metal detectors, but it was empty and lethargic compared to fan-organized tailgates down the street.
With corporate towers lit up in Mexico’s colors behind them, the nearly 40,000 people who attended the game ate free tacos and lined up to meet retired Mexican players in an event arranged by Pancho Villa’s Army. In one small, tightly packed square, there seemed to be a brass band playing in front of port-a-potties.
Inside the game, Pancho Villa’s Army rolled out a Mexican flag large enough to cover most of their section. They drummed and sang, but it was hard to pick them out in particular because the rest of the stadium was just as loud.
Families laughed and cheered with their small children. A fan in a Spider-Man mask filled it with smoke from an e-cigarette, holding up his hands sheepishly when the usher chastised him, smoke billowing from the eyes. When Mexico scored, the place erupted, thrown drinks casting a mist over the stands.
For Charlotte FC, the game was both another outreach to Hispanic fans and a dry run for holding soccer matches in Bank of America. It worked. The sport’s most passionate supporters and casual fans, a cross-segment of different nationalities and ages and genders, came together into an energized, lively whole.
As the game ended and the predominantly Hispanic fans filtered out across the city and state, I spoke to a driver who was taking me east, toward the neighborhoods around Eastland Mall.
A second-generation Dominican, she told me she hadn’t known there was a game until she hit the traffic. She wished she could have taken her two grandsons, she said.
She added that she was excited about the growth a new professional team represents, because she owns five businesses and more people means more revenue. But many of her passengers and friends hate it, she admitted.
It’s getting too expensive and there’s nowhere they can afford to live.
Matt Hartman is a freelance writer and reporter from Durham. He’s written for The Ringer, Jacobin, The Outline, and other outlets.