North Carolina is turning into a major soccer market in 2023

By Isaiah Lucas

May 15, 2023

This summer, North Carolina will be a soccer hotspot with multiple soccer competitions taking place on state soil. 

The inaugural The Soccer Tournament (TST) 7-on-7 soccer tournament takes place in June featuring teams fielded by Premier League clubs West Ham and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund along with Charlotte FC, the U.S. Women’s team, and Wrexham AFC. Charlotte will also host the U.S. Men’s team for the first time with the Concacaf Gold Cup on July 2, as they take on Nicaragua at Bank of America Stadium. 

In July, Wrexham will also play Premier League club Chelsea for the first time ever at Kenan Stadium, marking the first event of its kind hosted at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Who is Wrexham AFC?

The Welsh soccer club was founded 1864 and is the oldest club in Wales and the third-oldest professional association football team in the world. Prior to stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney obtaining ownership of the club in 2021, Wrexham was struggling to keep things afloat. The fan-led trust that had purchased the club back in 2011 wasn’t doing enough to keep the Red Dragons competitive. 

Many came across the team’s story through FX’s docuseries, Welcome to Wrexham, which in its first season provided an in-depth look at Wrexham’s history and how things have progressed during the first two years under the ownership of Reynolds and McElhenney. 

They strived to return the Red Dragons to a state of relevance in the English football league system. Their efforts have paid off so far, with Wrexham slowly climbing the ranks in the National League before securing a promotion to League Two, the fourth-tier of the English football league. Wrexham won the National League championship a few weeks ago on April 22, meaning a return to a level of football the club hasn’t seen since being relegated in 2008. 

Wrexham is a hot topic right now and has become the darling of the English-speaking soccer world. 

North Carolina’s Relationship with Soccer

While soccer isn’t one of the first sports one would associate with North Carolina, the state is an intricate part of the country’s soccer DNA. 

  • The college level is where the state has its biggest imprint. The NCAA’s most storied soccer program is in Chapel Hill. UNC’s women’s soccer program has won 21 national championships and produced some of the most prominent members of the USWNT. Gregg Berhalter, the current manager of the USMNT is also a product of the UNC men’s program. 
  • Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park has been a prominent host site for the NCAA soccer national championships, hosting the last four men’s national championships and a combined total of 18 title games between men’s and women’s soccer. UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, and N.C. State have all hosted women’s national championships, and Charlotte has hosted the NCAA men’s national championship twice. 

Before Charlotte FC began play as Major League Soccer’s 28th franchise last March, the highest level of men’s professional soccer in the state was being played by Cary’s North Carolina FC (previously known as the Carolina Railhawks). Carolina FC is a member of USL League One which is the third tier in the American soccer system. The highest level of women’s soccer is played by the NC Courage, a member of the National Women’s Soccer League, the top league in the American women’s soccer system. 

Despite the absence of competition in the upper tier of America’s professional ranks, the state has been a destination for high-profile soccer matches for some time now. WakeMed Soccer Park and Bank of America Stadium have hosted various national team fixtures dating back to the early 2000s. 

NC hosting European teams is more of a recent trend.

  • The first instance of European soccer taking place in NC was in 2014 when Liverpool took on A.C. Milan at Bank of America Stadium. Since then, four matches between European clubs have been played in Charlotte, including Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Inter, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Florentina. The most recent occurrence was in 2019 when Arsenal and Florentina squared off.
  • In 2016 a team from North Carolina took on a European club for the first time. The Railhawks hosted West Ham at WakeMed Soccer Park and, in 2017, hosted Swansea City as Carolina FC.
  • In the most recent occurrence of this kind of match up, last summer Charlotte FC hosted Chelsea in Bank of America Stadium.

The Wrexham and Chelsea match-up will be the first time soccer between European opponents is played at a location in North Carolina outside of Bank of America Stadium and WakeMed Soccer Park. Tickets for the July 19 event have sold out, meaning around 51,000 strong will be enjoying the spectacle.

What this means for North Carolina

The games this summer won’t insert soccer into the conversation of the state’s household sports. However, they will serve as another boost for the sport’s popularity in the state. Much like the inaugural season of Charlotte FC, this summer is going to be another monumental year for the state. 

There is a level of exclusiveness that comes with hosting these clubs and fixtures. TST (The Soccer Tournament) isn’t happening anywhere else and, while other cities will host European clubs throughout the summer, as of now North Carolina is one of a few confirmed states that Wrexham will be playing in. 

Soccer will be taken more seriously in the state as time passes. The MLS deeming Charlotte fit enough to be the home of a franchise was a huge step for the sport’s popularity within the state. North Carolina now boasts competitive soccer at every level from youth all the way up to the pros, and residents no longer have to travel to Atlanta or D.C. to watch MLS soccer. Large turnouts combined with the media attention these games will bring will only improve North Carolina’s reputation as a soccer market.

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