By Ryan Bailey
Charlotte’s soccer pedigree was established long before Major League Soccer’s arrival, when its first professional team won a championship on its debut
CHARLOTTE—“We’re not bringing soccer to Charlotte,” said Tepper Sports & Entertainment President Tom Glick at the Charlotte Soccer Awards Gala earlier this year. “It’s been here for decades.”
In fact, when Charlotte’s Major League Soccer team takes the field in 2021, it will mark 40 years since the first professional team arrived in the Queen City.
That team was the Carolina Lightnin’. True to their name, they came and went in a flash. But they burned brightly and made a significant impact.
Theirs is a story of unexpectedly huge crowds, a maverick coach once known as “The Clown Prince of Soccer,” a bus driver who became the team’s top scorer, and a World Cup-winning legend who stunned opponents with his mere presence.
Oh, and the team won a championship in its debut season.
In April 1981, when the Lightnin’ first kicked a ball at American Legion Memorial Stadium, Charlotte’s ability to support a professional sports team was in question. The Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association and the Charlotte Hornets of the World Football League had both become defunct in the mid-1970s, when their respective leagues folded.
However, the Lightnin’ bucked the trend. At the time of their inception, soccer had piqued America’s interest due to the North American Soccer League. The glitzy top tier of the sport was at the peak of its powers thanks to the involvement of megastars such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Johan Cruyff.
As the world’s finest players helped elevate soccer’s new frontier, the Lightnin’ franchise entered the American Soccer League’s second-tier division. Their coach was Rodney Marsh, previously a skillful midfielder who had enjoyed a storied playing career in England, before leading the Tampa Bay Rowdies to the NASL championship game in 1978 and 1979. After beginning his coaching career with the ASL’s New York United, the boisterous Englishman arrived at the Charlotte start-up.
“I love Charlotte and I loved my time there,” Marsh said in a recent phone interview from his Florida home. “It’s a stunning, beautiful city.”
Marsh’s positive impression of the Queen City is undoubtedly shaped by the Lightnin’s debut season, in which they stormed to victory in the ASL Championship.
They finished the regular season with a 28-9-3 record. They proceeded to dismiss the Rochester Flash and the curiously named Pennsylvania Stoners in the playoffs, before meeting New York United—the squad Marsh had coached the previous season—in the final.
The match was supposed to be held in New York since the United had a better regular-season record. But it was moved to Charlotte because it was believed up to 10,000 fans could attend in the South. After all, the increasingly popular team boasted the league’s highest average attendance, at a little over 4,300.
The decision to move the game proved to be fruitful: an unprecedented 20,163 packed into Memorial Stadium to see the Lightnin’ claim a 2-0 victory.
The team wasn’t spearheaded by a former European great, or an American star with a proven track record. The top scorer of the 1981 campaign, with an impressive 22 goals, was the team’s bus driver, who only made the roster due to injuries. Cuban-born Tony Suarez came to tryouts and was not selected, but offered to shuttle the team to games instead. Suffice to say, Suarez stepped up when his unlikely opportunity arose.
In addition to Suarez, Marsh’s Lightnin’ team boasted a host of English talent, including NASL veteran striker Paul Child and Liverpudlian captain Dave Power.
One English import, however, stood above them all.
After a difficult second season, in which the Lightnin’ managed a mediocre finish with a 11-13-4 record, Marsh brought in an old teammate from Fulham in the 1970s. That friend was Bobby Moore, captain of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup.
Moore, once described by German legend Franz Beckenbauer as “the greatest defender in the history of the game,” had retired five years before, and was brought in as an assistant coach.
However, injuries on the team meant that a 42-year-old Moore played eight games for the Lightnin’ in central defense.
“Carolina had so many injuries they activated Bobby Moore to play that night against us,” reminisced former Pennsylvania Stoners player Glenn Davis in a 2012 interview. “I remember we had a 2-0 lead and we absolutely crumbled in the final 10 minutes, with their fans going nuts. We totally collapsed as a team and lost 3-2. I think a lot of us were just in shock that Bobby Moore was playing that night.”
Despite their luminary coach and elder statesman defender, the Lightnin’ finished the 1983 season at the bottom of their division. By that point, however, the bubble was starting to burst for professional soccer in the States. The top-division NASL folded in 1984 after failing to keep up with its own growth. The ASL made its final bow the season prior, and along with it, the Carolina Lightnin’ were consigned to the history books.
There are plenty of wonderful stories around Charlotte’s first professional soccer team, many of which revolve around its zany half-time entertainment gimmicks. According to an NASL history blog, Sparky the dog, owned by a local fan, would often entertain fans with its soccer juggling skills.
And various giveaways were organized to encourage crowds at Memorial Stadium: fans once had the opportunity to win a Volvo if they could kick a ball into its sunroof within three attempts. At halftime of another game, fans were offered the chance to win an actual plane, which was placed in the center of the field. The person who threw a paper plane closest to the nose of the real thing would be in the market for a hangar. Around 10,000 paper planes, and the flying machine, had to be cleared from the field before the second half could resume.
Charlotte’s MLS team may not be placing any light aircraft on the field at Bank of America Stadium, and a bus driver is unlikely to lead the scoring charts of the opening campaign. Nor are any 42-year-old World Cup winners likely to shore up the backline.
But the new team will certainly be looking to emulate the winning start and indomitable spirit of the pro team that preceded it by 40 years.