Charlotte FC supporter groups create a captivating experience in inaugural MLS season

·10 min read

The trumpets from “Pepas” blared at Bank of America Stadium as every member of Charlotte FC’s Supporter Section turned their backs to the field and draped their arms around their seat neighbors.

The fans adopted the Polish tradition of the Poznań, during which supporters link arms and jump at their seats while facing away from the pitch, ahead of their team’s June 18 matchup against Columbus.

Then, lightning struck.

A near-three-hour weather delay forced the FC faithful to bottle up that energy as they amassed outside the entrance to the Supporters Section, many afraid to lose their spot near the front of the line as they prepared for a mad dash to grab the first-come-first-serve seats to be part of the coveted electric atmosphere.

Charlotte FC fans march along East Cedar Street on their way to the match between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Charlotte FC fans march along East Cedar Street on their way to the match between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

“You’re always going to have an experience that’s going to be fun,” said David Gusler, the president of supporters group Mint City Collective. “They’re loud, they’re passionate for Charlotte.”

For 16 glorious minutes, those fans roared, chanting amid a near-constant drumbeat before another flash of lightning and a crash of thunder forced another delay. This one turned into a postponement (the game will restart Oct. 5 at the 17th minute).

Rain-drenched fans walked home, or waited in the concourse. And though disappointed about the result of the evening, that ending was only part of the full game-day experience, one that started as early as 2 p.m. for some fans. From the tailgating, to the march to the stadium, to the mad dash for prime seats, the supporters’ burgeoning traditions surrounding the expansion squad reveal an already valiant collection of die-hard fans.

Tailgates down in Uptown

Small tents and mini-tailgates dotted the path to the McNinch Street parking lot, making a trail that ended at the official Charlotte FC tailgate.

A litany of tents marked the territory of each supporters group — Mint City Collective, Southbound and Crown, Blue Furia were each well-represented.

The smell of grilled hot dogs wafted through the air as the drumline’s beat echoed through the gravel lot and mixed with ambient chatter. Tailgaters wearing black, blue and orange Charlotte FC jerseys mingled with those clad in supporter group gear or the team’s multi-colored Unity Flower training jersey.

Blue Furia, Charlotte FC’s Latin American supporters group, had attached a royal blue banner to a wall near their tents. Underneath the banner, the Ecuadorian and Argentinian flags shared space with one depicting many South American flags on a soccer ball.

Pierre Maura, a Hickory-based art director who serves as the music director for Blue Furia’s drumline, said the group tries to get music from South America, Central America, North America and Europe.

Charlotte FC fans march along Stadium View Drive on their way to the match between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Charlotte FC fans march along Stadium View Drive on their way to the match between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

“It’s a carnival, it’s a party,” he said. “We’re trying to get everybody involved.”

Maura wore a harness that fastened his tarola, a snare drum, to his body. Other drummers similarly attached their drums. Some had repiques, tenor instruments, while others hoisted large surdo bass drums or carried murgueros, a sideways drum struck with a mallet with a cymbal affixed to the top.

They’d ordered the instruments from Argentina, with many drummers decorating the instruments upon arrival with Charlotte FC and Blue Furia stickers.

Around 5 p.m., fireworks hit the still-bright sky. Half an hour later, tailgaters began to gather near the entrance to the parking lot, the drumline still playing with vigor.

The music demanded energy from everyone, urging others to chant along. The conductor, Luis Sifuentes, let the beat build before cutting it off with a one-fingered stop symbol. The only music came from the murguero’s cymbals and a trumpet that began to play one of the 17 listed chants, Es Diferente.

The trumpeter, Andres Miere-Romero, is a 16-year-old from Porter Ridge High School who’s played the trumpet since learning it in middle school. The July 30 tailgate marked his first performance with the band, a group he’d joined upon request from his father’s friends.

“I just feel a rush,” he said after the rest of the band quieted down, adding that the feeling came from the supporters around him.

He learned the playing notes for the chants throughout the week by practicing at home, reading the sheet music off a paper he’d attached to his trumpet using a clamp.

Arturo Vasquez, of Charlotte, N.C., walks through colored smoke while marching with other fans before a game between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Arturo Vasquez, of Charlotte, N.C., walks through colored smoke while marching with other fans before a game between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

As Miere-Romero and the rest of the band played, the crowd began to build in energy, with some clamoring for the march down to the stadium to start.

Finally, when it seemed the crowd’s spirits hit their crescendo, the organizers let the dam burst and started the march. Puffs of blue smoke filled the air as the leaders hoisted flags to guide the way for the drummers and the following fans.

Sifuentes wore a T-shirt that read “La Banda de Blue Furia” (The Band of Blue Furia) on the front and “Los Guerreros de Reina” (The Warriors of the Queen) on the back, keeping his place as the band’s conductor.

“Vamos, vamos vamos Charlotte,” the crowd bellowed as they came through a parking lot perpendicular to South Cedar Street. “Que esta noche, tenemos que ganar.”

Children rode on shoulders, giving them the best view of the parade as they marched toward Bank of America Stadium with the skyline of downtown Charlotte in the background.

Clutch Kitchen & Pour House, which was also packed with Charlotte FC fans, sat at the intersection of the parking lot and South Cedar Street. Those in the bar largely stayed at their tables and watched, while some cheered the marchers and even joined in on the dancing.

Charlotte FC fans march along Stadium View Drive on their way to the match between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Charlotte FC fans march along Stadium View Drive on their way to the match between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

The path narrowed after Clutch. Fans squeezed together to cram between two metal barricades that defined the path. At various points, the flag-carriers and drummers paused, letting the marchers’ zeal build back up.

Then, they came to a complete stop underneath a bridge, lingering there to create a mini-party cloaked in blue smoke. When the march restarted, it continued all the way to the stadium’s east entrance.

Most who entered the stadium did so for the first time that day — but some had already entered earlier, to prepare for a successful Supporters Section experience.

A proper atmosphere

Soccer matches commonly feature tifos, large visual displays, which stretch across sections of the stadium’s seats. Charlotte FC’s Supporter Section proudly showcases their tifos, which range from 30-foot squares to near 60-foot tall behemoths that either attach to the rigging for NFL field goal nets or are carried by supporters.

Brandon Lewis, a Charlotte-based civil engineer and the Tifo Lead for Royal Family Tifos, helps organize these massive cloth artworks. He and his team throw around ideas, and decide the design for tifos weeks to months in advance of the games for which they’re created.

The designs incorporate historical references and cheeky nods to the opposition. When Charlotte hosted New England in March, the committee put together a 100-foot long black sheet that went over the heads of supporters and read “Hornets’ Nest of Rebellion” alongside honeycombs showcasing various supporters groups.

The quote references a story from the Revolutionary War, when British Army General Cornwallis described Charlotte as a “hornets nest of rebellion.”

Charlotte FC fans hold a giant sign behind the home goal during a game between Charlotte FC an Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Charlotte FC fans hold a giant sign behind the home goal during a game between Charlotte FC an Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

A depiction of young Charlotte FC star Ben Bender lifted Queen Charlotte in the air for the Tifo used in Charlotte’s 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls. The lift mimicked Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s iconic pose from “Dirty Dancing.”

The idea came from a student in the graphics academy at Lewis’ old high school, the Highland School of Technology.

“It was actually the most popular one on social media,” he said. “So that worked out pretty well.”

The tifo for the match with Columbus was “Queen Charlotte’s Revenge,” a play off the famous pirate Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

“The funny thing is, one of the supporter’s groups in Columbus is called Queen Anne’s Revenge,” Lewis said. “Based off the fact that we lost to Columbus on the last run, so it kind of fits.”

They brought the tifo in well in advance of kickoff, testing it to make sure the hoisting mechanism worked properly. Near the same time, Gusler and a few volunteers showed up at the stadium to pre-stage flags, drums and banners in the Supporters Section.

Their preparation would have allowed fans to engage in the celebratory atmosphere of the Supporters Section, where a sign at the entrance informs fans that smoke, flag waving, standing and cheering may obstruct their view.

Thunder in the seats, and in the sky

But no fans got far enough to see that sign until late into the night, as a near three-hour lightning delay forced them to cram together near the section’s entrance. The stagnant air from the crowd of bodies raised the already balmy temperature and prompted many to fan themselves — and each other.

One father fanned his daughter with a giant foam finger while others waited for the brief yet cooling breezes that occasionally made their way through. They craned their necks above the morass of bodies to watch Montreal’s match against New York City FC on the big screen, a dismally boring game that ended in a scoreless draw before fans could even enter the seats.

Each boom of thunder marked an extra 30 minutes of waiting, and was echoed by a chorus of boos and groans. Fans passed the time by watching each other chug beers and occasionally start chants that got weaker with each passing lightning strike.

during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Finally, at 9:40 p.m., the team allowed the crowd to enter. They streamed into the section, finding sections of rows and draping flags over them to save seats.

The drizzle continued, washing away the layer of sweat and grime that accumulated during the wait. Cheers erupted from the crowd as players came out to warm up, and from there the crowd maintained its exuberance.

Each and every deflection, pass, clear and shot earned a positive reaction from the assorted faithful. They pounded on seats ahead of corners and chanted goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina’s name after he made a save.

“May I have this dance?” a fan quipped after Yordy Reyna executed a set of fancy dribbles. All the while, the drum beat continued and flags waved about.

Then, lightning and thunder in the 16th minute spoiled the proceedings. Even after the delay’s announcement came over the loudspeakers and on the massive endzone video board, the drummers kept playing.

The crowd oohed as a second strike of lightning flashed. Some stood there agape, shaking their heads in disappointment.

One fan said she’d gone home during the first delay and returned to the stadium after hearing the game started. A minute after she sat down in her seat, the game paused.

Hannah Bernard, of Matthews, sits under a table as fans are told to shelter in place during a thunderstorm which delayed the game between between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.
Hannah Bernard, of Matthews, sits under a table as fans are told to shelter in place during a thunderstorm which delayed the game between between Charlotte FC and Columbus Crew at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Kevin and Kierra Sams, a Charlotte couple, had come to their first game. They too left during the delay but quickly returned after hearing about the start time.

“The second time I felt like we were in a good vibe but then it was like, ‘Dang not again,’ ” Kevin said.

The band exited the stadium around 10:45, playing in the streets for a few minutes afterward. Charlotte fans exited and found themselves drenched as the drizzle turned to a downpour.

At 11:37, more than four and a half hours from the game’s original start time, Major League Soccer finally called the game off, giving everyone in attendance an excuse to go home with no guilt about missing the game.

The lightning delay may have dampened the actual proceedings of the game, but the rest of the day emphasized Maura’s promise from the fans to the team’s players.

While the fans may show their backs for the pregame Poznań, Charlotte FC will never have to play a game in silence.