CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Major League Soccer coming to Charlotte is generating a lot of excitement, but it’s not the first time professional soccer has created excitement here.
Forty years ago this month, in December of 1979, Charlotte was awarded its first professional soccer team. The Carolina Lightnin’ took Charlotte by storm and helped lay the groundwork for future professional sports in the Queen City.
When the Carolina Lightnin' first took the field in 1981, two years after Charlotte was awarded the franchise by the American Soccer League, no one expected the team to do what it did. And what it did was as good as it gets. The Lightnin', in its first year of play, won the ASL National Championship in front of a sold-out crowd at Charlotte's Memorial Stadium and it sent fans into a frenzy.
Former Lightnin’ player Bill Finneyfrock says it was amazing, “It was just an incredible time and to win it in the fashion that we did, which was a late goal, and to win it was just amazing for all of us and the celebrations afterwards of course. And you know, it was, the fans could come down on the fields back then and stuff, so we were, you know it was just unbelievable."
At the time, community support for the team was overwhelming. Ed Young was in the team’s front office and says, “With over 21,000 at Memorial Stadium for a soccer game was impressive. But the community really embraced us.”
Former player Pat Fidelia adds, “It’s just the fact that it brought community together. The fact that we were the only game in town made it even more exciting when you came to the stadium.”
Keep in mind, when the Lightnin’ came to Charlotte there was no Charlotte Hornets and no Carolina Panthers. Those teams were still years down the road from coming to Charlotte.
“And it was even a bit of an education," said former player Rick Marvin. "So, we held a lot of clinics, we did a lot of things with the community. Even the program in the evenings had the rules, the things in it that tried to introduce everybody to the game of soccer.”
The Lightnin’ caught fire and fans couldn’t get enough. A lot of that credit has to go to the vision of owner Bob Benson as well as Rodney Marsh, the former English soccer star who was the team’s coach.
Marvin describes Marsh as “A very charismatic coach. I mean, he was a personality.”
Young added that, “His nickname was the “Clown Prince of Soccer” when he played over in England and then came over and captured the U.S. market when he played for Tampa Bay. So he was well known.”
Due to various reasons the Lightnin’ disbanded after the 1984 season. Though short-lived, the impact the team had on professional sports in Charlotte can be felt to this day. And these former Lightnin’ members think Charlotte is ready for Major League Soccer.
“Well, the game has just expanded and grown so much. Certainly since the Carolina Lightnin'. Not only in this area but nationally and internationally,” says Young. Marvin says, “The game is totally different now. The youth programs locally, that have been led by like Bill Finneyfrock here, have just really grown this area. And they’ve got a really good fan following. I think if you look at the games that have been held at the stadium...the international games...you know, that’s a little bit different but I think it’s ready and I think you could see something like the Atlanta has done.”
Fidelia thinks the proximity to Atlanta could make for a great matchup between the two cities, “You know, they’re constantly putting 65,000, 75,000 in the dome there to watch soccer matches. I can see the rivalry now. Atlanta and Charlotte. It’s gonna be interesting.”
Many members of the Carolina Lightnin’ team still live in Charlotte and the surrounding area. Former coach Rodney Marsh lives in Florida.
The next time you see one of the team members, you may want to thank him because it’s quite possible that without the Carolina Lightnin’s impact on soccer in this area, Charlotte might not be getting a Major League soccer team today.