by Ryan Bailey
CHARLOTTE — What is a soccer club?
Well, on face value, it’s many things.
Objectively, it’s a sports team where 11 people chase a ball around a field for 90 minutes. Economically, it’s a business in a multi-billion dollar industry. And practically speaking, it’s a reason to have bragging rights over your friends when your team wins and theirs does not.
But at its heart, a soccer club is people. It is a community-oriented organization that brings people from all backgrounds together to strive for a common goal. A soccer club is nothing without people on the field, people in the stadium and people supporting it within its surrounding region.
“David Tepper said upfront that we want to be great on the field and great in the community,” said Dustin Swinehart, who on Monday was named Director of Community Engagement for Charlotte MLS. “And we want our communities to be better off because our clubs exists.”
In Charlotte, there are few better suited to community outreach in a soccer context than Swinehart. In his 22 years living in the city, 12 of them were spent as a professional player for the Charlotte Eagles (who play in the league structure below MLS). Swinehart, who retired as the Eagles’ all-time top scorer, formed part of two National Championship squads and earned a place in the USL Hall of Fame.
In addition to bringing prosperity on the field, Swinehart has dedicated much of his time to enriching the community through the game. Not only has he coached at all youth levels, but he has been involved in several charity and outreach projects.
Notably, Swinehart was Executive Director of Project 658, a soccer charity initiative in East Charlotte that helps at-risk members of the community, including immigrants and refugees.
“I’ve felt a calling to make a difference in Charlotte and serve the city well,” Swinehart said.
He will continue to make a difference by leading Charlotte MLS’s community operations via three core values: unity, access and long-term impact.
“Firstly, we believe the club can be a unifying factor for the city and the Carolinas,” Swinehart said. “Secondly, we want to increase access to the sport for those who can’t afford it, and who have obstacles in their lives that prevent them from enjoying soccer. And thirdly, we intend to make a long-term commitment with our efforts.
“We want to effect multi-generational change in our city.”
Charlotte MLS will achieve these goals by collaborating with existing charities and initiatives and creating its own programs.
“We will look at after-school programs,” Swinehart said. “Kids who want to be on a team will have a chance because of this club.”
There will also be neighborhood programs to reach those who fall outside of school age.
“We will try to elevate those neighborhoods,” Swinehart continued, “by providing better places to play and more structured programming.”
Charlotte MLS will strive to reach those who may have been disenfranchised by other sports, with the particular aim of harnessing the power of the world’s most popular pastime to engage with Hispanic and immigrant communities.
“The multicultural nature of Charlotte really lends itself to MLS being a success,” Swinehart said. “East Charlotte, for example, has over 20 nationalities and a beautiful culture. It’s an area where we really think our club can thrive.
“We want to be integrated into the Latino and multinational communities. We want to be a part of the fabric of this city.”
Swinehart is keen to stress that Charlotte MLS will work hard to reach families and communities who struggle to engage in the game due to the “pay to play” model that has tended to favor young talent from more affluent backgrounds.
“We will work incredibly hard to bring the game of soccer to those neighborhoods at no cost,” Swinehart said. “This club can unite everyone, regardless of economic status, ethnic background, or playing experience.”
Charlotte MLS Technical Director Marc Nicholls has spoken of the club’s intention to mine talent from all areas of the city, not just the traditional youth club structure. Community efforts could help shine a spotlight on the potential athletes who may have otherwise flown under the radar.
“Young players that can’t afford club soccer typically don’t get noticed, and therefore don’t have the same opportunities,” Swinehart said. “We hope we will see kids from those neighborhoods eventually come into our academy setup.”
Not only will Charlotte MLS community efforts encourage everyone to play, but there will be opportunities to come and experience the first team at Bank of America Stadium.
“We’ll arrange some great programs to get people to games who couldn’t typically afford it,” Swinehart added.
Soccer is by no means a new sport to the city, but Swinehart and his team are aware that the club has the opportunity to be the first MLS team of many Charlotteans. The club and the supporter network will grow from infancy together, and the key to the team’s success—in growth and enriching the community—is to listen to the people.
“We need to be a club that listens to the communities around us,” Swinehart said. “We have ideas, but we don’t have all the answers.
“If we listen well, we can really be a great partner to the city.”