The Charlotte-Atlanta rivalry shifts to soccer
Charlotte and Atlanta fans talk trash as Charlotte FC heads to Atlanta; New star winger signed; The making of the Queen Charlotte tifo; 5 Big Moments from record-setting home opener — and more!
It’s time for Fútbol Friday, The Charlotte Ledger’s weekly newsletter getting you up to speed on Charlotte FC, the city’s new pro soccer team.
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Close ties and crossover fans build tension for Sunday showdown in Atlanta; Smack talk: ‘You haven’t scored a goal yet’
Justin Lee (far right) cheering on Charlotte FC at home opener. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Garcia of RMG Photography.)
Is it possible for the Charlotte FC to be rivals with Atlanta United if the two MLS franchises are just meeting for the first time Sunday in Atlanta?
You could argue for hours who you’d rather have at quarterback, Cam Newton or Matt Ryan. Pull up a chair for the discussion about who’s the better young NBA buck, LaMelo Ball or Trae Young. You might even go a few rounds for Pepsi vs. Coke. But can you really have neighborly bad blood already when Charlotte FC is brand new and Atlanta United still fairly new, in its sixth season?
The banter materializing most so far is over attendance figures. Charlotte drew 74,479 to break the all-time MLS record in its home opener last Saturday. Atlanta holds the next 10 spots on the list.
“We see their 75 (thousand) and that's great,” Atlanta United fan Danny Palacios of Henry County, Ga., told The Ledger this week. “Congratulations. Does it mean anything? You haven’t scored a goal yet, so I don’t know.”
Ouch. Clearly, it’s not too soon to inflict a little pain. Compounding that truth (CLT FC enters its third game seeking the elusive first goal) comes a little good-natured patronizing from Palacios. He makes it sound like Atlanta fans are the big dogs and Charlotte fans little yappers.
“It’s like you have a toddler little brother who’s playing telephone, and he hands you a fake phone,” Palacios said. “What do you do? You pick it up. You say hi, then you hand it back. You give them that a little bit of attention that they need so they actually feel like they got attention. But that’s pretty much all we feel.”
Palacios says that, but he was the one initiating Twitter trash talk this week when he created a graphic to poke fun of an old friend from the Atlanta United supporters group Resurgence. Justin Lee, better known as @_Pancake_Papi, is now a Charlotte FC fan and member of the supporters group Southbound & Crown. Lee is a cook and got his nickname for loving pancakes. Palacios called him a flipper for other reasons.
Lee lives in Cherokee, N.C., about 2 ½ hours from both Charlotte and Atlanta. He pulls for N.C. teams like the Panthers, Hornets and Hurricanes, but as a soccer enthusiast, he adopted Atlanta United for its inaugural season in 2017. He was at Atlanta’s MLS Cup championship game in 2018.
“I didn’t expect Charlotte to ever get a team,” said Lee, who jumped at the chance to buy season tickets for Charlotte FC this time a year ago. “Ever since (purchasing tickets), I flipped. A lot of Atlanta fans came at me with some banter. Some of it was a little personal, but a lot of it was good-hearted. I would say it’s easy to pull against them now, especially with all the banter that’s been back and forth.”
Maybe it’s not so hard to see how a rivalry can be forming already. This is regional. This is personal. And guess what, it’s about soccer!
Broadcaster with Atlanta ties: Charlotte FC’s new radio color analyst, Jessica Charman, still lives in the Atlanta area and commutes to Charlotte to call games. She used to broadcast for Atlanta United 2 of the USL.
“At the end of the day, the biggest and best thing about all these interactions and somewhat rivalry is that soccer in the South is growing,” said Charman, who grew up in London before coming to Atlanta to play college soccer at Clayton State. “… There’s been a stigma against the South. It likes NASCAR. It likes football. It’s all a good thing.”
Up next: Charlotte FC (0-2) at Atlanta United (1-1)
When/where: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
How to watch: FS1, FOX Deportes
Charlotte is still seeking its first goal as a franchise. The closest it came was a header by Titi Ortiz in the opener vs. DC United that was called back for offside.
On Wednesday, Charlotte FC acquired midfielder Derrick Jones in a trade from the Houston Dynamo. Jones started 14 games and played in 20 last season for Houston.
Charlotte FC defender Anton Walkes was picked up in the expansion draft after Atlanta United left him unprotected despite his leading them in appearances (33) and minutes played last season (2,773). Walkes has missed the first two games for Charlotte with a leg injury.
Charlotte signs star Polish winger
The Charlotte FC whiffed on a couple of key acquisitions during the preseason but got some vindication Friday, with the announcement that they have signed Polish winger Kamil Jozwiak.
Jozwiak, 23, who was signed through 2025 with an option for 2026, becomes the team’s second of a possible three designated players who can be signed without regard for the salary cap. He spent the past two seasons with Derby County of England’s Championship League, which is the second division in English soccer behind the Premier League.
An earlier attempt to sign Jozwiak was thwarted by an ankle injury, but talks resumed as his injury healed. Jozwiak is still not 100%, but the team expects he will be close to game ready by the time he procures his visa, which should be a few weeks — meaning he won’t play this weekend at (rival) Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Charlotte FC is celebrating landing just the player it seemed they needed.
Jozwiak is a key contributor for the Polish national team, where he plays alongside Charlotte FC’s star striker Karol Swiderski. Jozwiak has 22 caps — or games played — and three goals for the Polish national team and played in 8 of 10 games during this World Cup qualifying round. Charlotte has needed a winger to compliment Swiderski and bolster an attack that’s gone scoreless in the first two games.
“He is a talented, technical winger that can play on both sides of the pitch who has started pivotal matches for one of the top national teams in the world,” said Charlotte FC Sporting Director Zoran Krneta. “…While any player moving to a new league will experience an adjustment period, having partnered up front with Karol on the international level, we’re confident he can hit the ground running and improve our attack from day one.”
Behind the curtain: the making of a ‘tifo’
Early in the overnight paint party Feb. 18. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Lewis.)
Two months of work culminated in two minutes of glory last Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium when a 54-foot banner of Queen Charlotte adorned in a “CLT” bandana was hoisted up a field goal net in front of the East stands. It was a big moment for the dozen or so members of the Charlotte FC Supporters Group Tifo Committee and another 60-some volunteers who chipped in, too.
Brandon Lewis, head of the committee, could see mostly duct tape, grommets and paint bleeding through from his vantage point behind it. But she was a thing of beauty.
“It was a proud moment for all of us on the committee and those that helped,” he said.
The unveiling of Charlotte FC fans’ first ever tifo (pronounced TEE-foe) introduced local fans to the soccer tradition of fan-created artwork. It can range from banners to card stunts to entire sections of fans wearing the same T-shirts.
“The tifo really brings together the culture and art in the community,” Lewis said. “It is a way for the supporters to express themselves.”
Hatched over beers: The idea for Queen Charlotte was born over beer at Hooligans sports bar, cultivated by admiration for European tifos, and ultimately collaborated on with designers from Glory Days Apparel, who came up with a similar concept on a Charlotte FC T-shirt.
“The inspiration that started the bandana queen was the Marseille (France) tifo from back in 2021,” Lewis said. “It had four supporters standing there holding smoke, with flares in the background going off. They had the bandana, the hoods up, everything. To put that hooligan-esque aspect on a regal queen is something you don’t see too often. We wanted to give that a shot.”
French fans from Marseille created this tifo in 2021. Marseille plays in Ligue 1, the top tier of professional soccer in France.
Her image was created on the iPad of Jordan Parks, a digital designer and, like Lewis, a Mint City Collective member. It was sewn at a warehouse in Indian Trail, drawn at Lenny Boy brewery and both painted and sewn on the concrete outside the North Gate of Bank of America Stadium.
A Friday night painting party at the Crafty Beer Guys Warehouse started at 6 p.m. Feb. 18 and didn’t end until the sun came up the next morning.
Queen Charlotte was shrouded in secrecy, which is saying something given the social media habit of the supporters groups. And she rode to the stadium in the dead of night, rolled up and hanging out the back of Lewis’ pickup truck. The day he retrieved her for the raising rehearsal, a stadium employee asked: “Are you sure there’s not a dead body in here?”
Hardly. Queen Charlotte came to life in front of 74,479 fans and a national TV audience. Parks designed her with cutouts for that very purpose.
“We tried to get that scarf flowing and get the dress flowing,” Lewis said.
Queen Charlotte is getting her own piece of immortality, too. Lewis said the historian for the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte FC is working on a plan to preserve her.
Meanwhile, the tifo committee is on to new things. They’re planning tifos for all 16 remaining home games this season.
“The Queen won’t be our largest, I’ll say that,” said Lewis, who said they received compliments from fans in L.A., Nashville, Atlanta, Austin and in the U.K. “We have big ambitions, and we will do our best to make them happen.”
5 moments to remember from home opener
The atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium during last Saturday’s record-setting home opener (a 1-0 loss to the L.A. Galaxy) was electric. Here are five of our favorite moments from it.
1. Spontaneous singing of national anthem: Just having 74,479 people show up for a soccer game in Charlotte was news enough, but when they broke out in unison to finish the national anthem when singer Michelle Brooks-Thompson’s microphone malfunctioned, it was magic. The Charlotte FC captured the highlights in this video:
2. Sentimental jersey swap: As poignant as anything before or during the game was what happened after, when Charlotte FC midfielder Chris Hegstadt and veteran L.A. Galaxy player Sacha Kljestan swapped jerseys. They recreated a moment from 12 years earlier, when Kljestan visited Hegstadt in an L.A. hospital as an 8-year-old undergoing liver cancer treatments.
Only when approached by Hegstadt’s parents in the team hotel Friday night did Kljestan learn that the boy he spent an hour with one morning was now a rookie for the Charlotte FC. Both came off the bench late in Saturday’s game.
“I’m just happy to see you, man,” Sacha said as the two shook hands on the field and embraced. “Sometimes you go see kids and you never know what happened. … I’m glad you’re doing well. I’m happy for you. I’m looking forward to following your whole career.”
3. Soaking it all in: Charlotte FC defender Jaylin Lindsey paused and sat at midfield after the game to savor the moment. He played 90 minutes of the first ever Major League Soccer game in the town where he grew up cheering on Cam Newton and the Panthers.
“I was picturing myself 7 or 8 years ago in the nose bleeds watching Panthers games and countless ICC (International Champions Cup exhibition soccer) games in the summer. To know that I’m that person on the field, it was just unbelievable.”
(Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC)
4. Queen Charlotte tifo unfurling: One very visible way diehard Charlotte FC fans are introducing professional soccer culture to this city is through the creation of “tifos” or large artistic displays. The name comes from the Italian word “Tifosi,” which means “those infected by typhus disease.” Charlotte’s fan groups showed their “soccer fever” with a 39-by-54 foot bandana-wearing Queen Charlotte. It took some 75 fans in all, some of who happened to be graphic designers and engineers — more than 500 hours to create.
5. Kahlina save. As far as on-the-field action, the highlight of a shutout loss for the Charlotte FC had to be when goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina punched a shot away from L.A. Galaxy’s world class striker Chicharito (formally Javier Hernández.) It was as if he was setting the tone that the one of the most storied franchises in the MLS was going to be in for a fight. Kahlina finished with five saves.
Previous editions of Fútbol Friday
You can find previous issues of The Charlotte Ledger’s Fútbol Friday newsletter online, including:
Carroll Walton is a longtime baseball writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution now cutting her teeth on soccer and the Charlotte FC just as fans in Charlotte do. She would love to hear from you. E-mail her with questions, suggestions, story ideas and comments!
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