The Charlotte Independence have made no bones about their desire to eventually move to Major League Soccer since their debut in USL last year.
Now, city and county officials seem to be kicking the tires on the prospect of assisting the Independence in their quest for a stadium, a requisite for any team looking to make the jump into MLS.
The Independence currently play in a temporary stadium at Ramblewood Soccer Complex in Charlotte. According to the Charlotte Business Journal, Independence managing partner Jim McPhilliamy and the team are exploring stadium possibilities and a potential public-private partnership, with an eye on renovating Charlotte’s 80-year old Memorial Stadium.
Charlotte is home to two major league sports teams, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. NASCAR also has a strong presence in the area, with many of the stock car organization’s drivers based near the city and the Charlotte Motor Speedway hosting several of the circuit’s biggest races.
The city, which has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, has also supported soccer in recent years, with the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium hosting over 55,000 people for a pair of Gold Cup matches last summer.
“If we can make an investment in Memorial Stadium and show the MLS that we can support soccer, our track record in sports is good,” James Mitchell, a Democrat who leads the City Council economic development committee, told the CBJ’s Erik Spanberg. “I think there is political will to get this done. So you can check that box off. The question is whether there is enough sponsorship support at a major league level to go with the Hornets, Panthers and NASCAR.”
Mecklenburg County owns Memorial Stadium, which, according to the CBJ, would need “extensive repairs even to serve as home of a minor league team, never mind an MLS franchise.” Still, the Independence are reportedly seriously looking into the facility, and have been presented by a local architecture firm a renovation plan that would make the field soccer-ready and put capacity at 10,000, with potential to expand to 20,000.
MLS announced in December that it plans to expand to 28 teams. The league is set to move to 24 teams in the near future, with Atlanta United FC schedule to join the league in 2017, Minnesota United FC set to move up from NASL in 2017 or 2018, LAFC set for a 2018 debut and David Beckham’s Miami franchise aiming to join MLS shortly thereafter. Sacramento, San Antonio and St. Louis are among the cities reportedly in the mix to move into the league after it moves to 24 teams.
“The success of soccer in Charlotte at the youth and college level serves as yet another strong indicator of the continued growth of the sport in the United States,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told the Charlotte Business Journal.
“Last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup crowd of more than 55,000 also illustrated the passionate support for soccer in the area. Independence owner Jim McPhilliamy provides us with regular updates regarding the progress of professional soccer in Charlotte, and we understand the city and county are very supportive of his vision for a soccer-specific stadium that could be the home for a Major League Soccer expansion team someday.”