Charlotte is the newest home for a Major League Soccer team, but the Carolinas — both North and South Carolina — have long been a hotbed for soccer talent in the United States.
Looking for proof? How about the All-Time Carolinas XI we put together below.
Before we announce the starters and name a bench, let’s get a couple of other procedural rules out of the way: Most of the players in our 18 are native to the Carolinas, but a few of them moved there at an early age after being born elsewhere.
And as I’m not a fan of naming honorary XI’s that couldn’t legitimately operate as a team in a real game situation, this lineup is fully functional.
Picking the man in goal was no easy feat. The Carolinas are so deep at the position, there wasn’t even room in the 18 for guys like Clint Irwin and Brad Knighton. For now, Hesmer is the only available netminder to backstop a club to winning MLS Cup, and he also celebrated consecutive Supporters’ Shields. It took him a while to earn a starting MLS job, but he eventually shined in the Columbus net (1.21 GAA, 71.6% save percentage, 42 shutouts in 133 games) for five seasons.
The no-brainer pick of the entire Carolinas bunch can expertly hold down the right side of our three-man backline. Able to make every play you could wish for from a defender, Pope was a four-time Best XI selection and raised eight pieces of silver during D.C. United‘s early-MLS dynasty. He also played in three World Cups with the US national team, and was a key member of their stirring quarterfinal run in 2002.
Though born in Orlando, our dominating central air marshal grew up in Greensboro before starring at the University of North Carolina. Though hampered by injuries far too often, Robinson still found time to be a part of four MLS Cup-winning teams with San Jose and Houston. He helped the Quakes claim the 2005 Supporters’ Shield in his healthiest campaign and earned Best XI honors two seasons later.
The reigning MLS Defender of the Year (one of just four players to garner the award more than once) provides the perfect bookend to Pope. Like Pope, Opara is as adept at spoiling ground advances as he is at owning the airspace in his zone, and loves to picks spots for surging forward. After beating a string of injuries to help Sporting KC win an MLS Cup and two US Open Cups, Opara was the key acquisition that led Minnesota United‘s first charge to the playoffs.
If we’re going to go with genuine wingbacks, that means we’re going to need defensively responsible, high work rate guys that can pitch in with a little offense to patrol the flanks. That description fits Thompson to a tee. The Winston-Salem native highlighted a solid rookie season with New England by scoring their 2007 US Open Cup winner. A few years later, he came on for the extra sessions to help Colorado win its first MLS Cup by holding on to a slim lead down a man for the final 12 minutes.
The formation chosen also requires a pair of expert gatekeepers that can also distribute forward. Enter Cronin to take one of those spots. Born in Atlanta but raised in Winston-Salem, he went on to star as Wake Forest claimed their lone NCAA title to date in 2007. He followed that act by embarking on a solid MLS career that was shortened by injuries. The midfielder, who was sturdy defensively and safe on the ball, was a key member of San Jose’s 2012 Supporters’ Shield winners.
Cronin’s midfield partner was an often unsung one-club man for Chicago Fire FC. Pause’s ability to clean up the middle of the field played a part in the Windy City bunch claiming a Supporters’ Shield and two US Open Cups inside of his first four MLS campaigns. After learning on the job from Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch, the former North Carolina TarHeel became a mainstay in the Fire lineup for nearly a decade. He stands second on the club’s all-time appearance list and took home team MVP honors in 2010.
Another ex-TarHeel star plays the flank bookend to Thompson. More known for his ability to join into attack early in his career, Harrington eventually rounded out his game while racking up 274 total appearances for Sporting KC, Portland, Colorado and Chicago. He was a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2007 and a US Open Cup champion in 2012.
The Carolinas are deep in blue-collar soccer workers, but not so much in the playmaking spots. Thank goodness for the precocious 17-year-old Greensboro product, who has already shown enough final-third creativity and end product (a very encouraging 0.50 goals + assists per 90 rate thus far) to draw reported transfer interest from the likes of Fiorentina and Manchester United.
The available attack stable is not the deepest, so we need to get a bit clever with the game plan. While the Charleston-area speedster is naturally a winger, we’re going to allow the US international to wander both wide channels to find the game at his discretion. Still only 20, Amon has proven to be a solid supplemental scorer (0.59 G+A/90) for Danish outfit FC Nordsjælland when fit.
Bjørn Maars Johnsen
Casting the lead striker role was fairly easy, with the Norway international standing above the crowd. Blessed with the physical tools of a No. 9 and the silky feet of a small forward, Johnsen offers great tactical flexibility. Raised in North Carolina after being born in New York City, his game has become more cultured after playing pro in five European countries. Boosted by a career-best 19 goals for ADO Den Haag in 2017-18, he earned a move to Eredivisie rivals AZ Alkmaar before helping loan employer Rosenborg pocket a Europa League invite in 2019.
FC Dallas shot-stopper Jesse González provides great competition in goal and a penalty kick killer for shootouts. Former Revs defender Darrius Barnes provides athletic cover all across the backline, while Sporting KC youngster Jaylin Lindsey offers tremendous upside at the wingback slots. Former D.C. United man Clyde Simms is the back-up gatekeeper behind Pause, whereas Chicago’s Brandt Bronico supplies two-way midfield play. Enzo Martinez (who was born in Uruguay, but grew up just outside Charlotte in South Carolina) brings attack ideas mixed with bite off the pine. North Carolina Soccer Hall of Famer Tony Johnson serves as the capable back-up striker