New Major League Soccer Team coming to Charlotte:Charlotte had a team, the Carolina Lightnin’ and they won the American Soccer League/ASL title in 1981(20,163 fans saw the Lightnin’ win that Title)

Recent Soccer News for Charlotte, N.C.:
Major League Soccer announced a new Charlotte team on Tuesday in the Queen City….MLS Commissioner Don Garber joined Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles for the 10 a.m. announcement…..

Charlotte had a team back in the early 1980’s and their team, the Carolina Lightnin’, won the American Soccer League Championship in 1981…The team’s bus driver and gofer became the ASL Rookie of the Year in 1981…It was a remarkable team coached by Rodney Marsh….

I was at one of their playoff games that Summer and there must have been 10-15 thousand screaming soccer fans at that playoff contest and their Championship Game, drew 20,163 fans…

The Carolina Lightnin’ are a team from the past, but they were winners and Champions, and I still remember that Thursday night back in 1981, being at that playoff game with local soccer players Paul Bivens, Dean Smith and Danny Hawks and how much fun it was to sit in that packed old Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, and witness the Lightnin’ strike and win…

Those were the days and now Charlotte has hit their soccer and professional sports stride again, and let’s see if they can recreate some of that magic, from back in 1981…..

from the American Soccer League)
The Carolina Lightnin’ were a popular 2nd division soccer club that played three seasons in Charlotte during the early 1980’s. They were the first pro soccer franchise ever established in the Carolinas.

Founded as an American Soccer League expansion club in December 1979, the club debuted a year-and-a-half later in April 1981. In the interim, the Lightnin’ made a key acquisition, signing recently retired English soccer star Rodney Marsh as Head Coach in September 1980. Marsh, a long-time star for Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City, came to the United States in 1976 to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. The Rowdies were a big draw at the time and Marsh’s shaggy hair and magnetic personality made him a media star, by the modest standards of American pro soccer at the time. Marsh even had his own Miller Lite TV spot in 1980……

Marsh retired as a player in September 1979 following the Rowdies loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps in Soccer Bowl ’79. He decided to stay in the States and become a coach, hooking on with New York United of the American Soccer League in 1980. The United were attempting an ambitious move into Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets, that summer. It was an odd venue for an anonymous minor league soccer team and the United played to acres of empty grandstands. Marsh separated from the team at mid-season, but latched on with Carolina a few months later and found a much happier circumstance.

Building a Champion
The Lightnin’ took advantage of the American Soccer League’s annual disarray and financial distress to pilfer other clubs for many of the 2nd division’s top players. Carolina landed Mal Roche, the league’s top scorer in 1980 whose previous club had disbanded. Playmaking midfielder Don Tobin was a league All-Star but, like Roche, became available when his former club folded. Goalkeeper Scott Manning was the best netminder in the ASL in 1980, but Carolina snatched him away from the Pennsylvania Stoners franchise nonetheless.

The club’s most remarkable find was Tony Suarez, a Cuban who moved to Charlotte at age 16. Suarez came to the team on a tryout with no previous pro experience. He failed to make the team but as a consolation was offered a job as the team’s bus driver and gofer. Injuries eventually open a roster spot for Suarez, who promptly scored 9 goals in his first 12 pro matches. He ultimately led the Lightnin’ in scoring in 1981 (and finished 5th in the league) with 15 goals and 4 assists. He was named the ASL’s 1981 Rookie-of-the-Year.

1981 ASL Championship Game
The Lightnin’ won their division with a 16-9-3 record and made it through the playoffs to earn a date with Marsh’s former team, New York United, in the 1981 ASL Championship Game. The United should have hosted by virtue of having the league’s best record at 19-5-4. But their attendance continued to be dismal in New York, while expansion Carolina led the ASL with average crowds over 4,000 per match and a couple of late season gates in excess of 8,000. The league voted to move the September 18, 1981 championship match to Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.

A strong crowd was expected, but Carolina shocked the American soccer scene when a league record 20,163 fans packed the stadium for the match. The game was deadlocked until the 64th minute when United’s Solomon Hilton beat Manning to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage. But Don Tobin tied the match on a header in the 69th minute to rally Carolina and send the game into overtime. Hugh O’Neill scored the game winner for Carolina in the second overtime period and Carolina had the league title.

From the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame website:
The 1981 Carolina Lightnin’, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of winning the American Soccer League championship, will be recognized as the first “National Champions Hall of Honor” team by the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame on January 21, 2012 at the Sheraton Four Seasons – Greensboro.

The Lightnin’, which averaged over 6,000 a game, defeated the New York United 2-1 on the championship game in front of a record crowd of 20,183 at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium on Sept. 18, 1981. The Lightnin’ went 19-10-3 in 1981, the first of three seasons in the American Soccer League. Tony Suarez, the MVP of the championship game, was the 1981 ASL Rookie of the Year, and was named to the ASL First Team All-Star team along with Don Tobin. The Lightnin’ was coached by former Tampa Bay Rowdies star Rodney Marsh.

After the ASL went into dormancy following the 1983 season, most of the team played one more season as the Charlotte Gold in the United Soccer League. The Gold closed operations after the 1984 season. Along with the Lightnin’ National Champions Hall of Honor recognition, two players from that Lightnin’ team – Bill Finneyfrock and Tony Suarez – will be inducted into the NC Soccer Hall of Fame – Class of 2012.

1 comment

  1. Interesting piece here from WBT-TV and heading down the same alley we have been taking….

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – Major League Soccer coming to Charlotte is generating a lot of excitement, but it’s not the first time professional soccer has created excitement here.

    Forty years ago this month, in December of 1979, Charlotte was awarded its first professional soccer team. The Carolina Lightnin’ took Charlotte by storm and helped lay the groundwork for future professional sports in the Queen City.

    When the Carolina Lightnin’ first took the field in 1981, two years after Charlotte was awarded the franchise by the American Soccer League, no one expected the team to do what it did. And what it did was as good as it gets. The Lightnin’, in its first year of play, won the ASL National Championship in front of a sold-out crowd at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium and it sent fans into a frenzy.

    Former Lightnin’ player Bill Finneyfrock says it was amazing, “It was just an incredible time and to win it in the fashion that we did, which was a late goal, and to win it was just amazing for all of us and the celebrations afterwards of course. And you know, it was, the fans could come down on the fields back then and stuff, so we were, you know it was just unbelievable.”

    At the time, community support for the team was overwhelming. Ed Young was in the team’s front office and says, “With over 21,000 at Memorial Stadium for a soccer game was impressive. But the community really embraced us.”

    Former player Pat Fidelia adds, “It’s just the fact that it brought community together. The fact that we were the only game in town made it even more exciting when you came to the stadium.”

    Keep in mind, when the Lightnin’ came to Charlotte there was no Charlotte Hornets and no Carolina Panthers. Those teams were still years down the road from coming to Charlotte.

    “And it was even a bit of an education,” said former player Rick Marvin. “So, we held a lot of clinics, we did a lot of things with the community. Even the program in the evenings had the rules, the things in it that tried to introduce everybody to the game of soccer.”

    The Lightnin’ caught fire and fans couldn’t get enough. A lot of that credit has to go to the vision of owner Bob Benson as well as Rodney Marsh, the former English soccer star who was the team’s coach.

    Marvin describes Marsh as “A very charismatic coach. I mean, he was a personality.”

    Young added that, “His nickname was the “Clown Prince of Soccer” when he played over in England and then came over and captured the U.S. market when he played for Tampa Bay. So he was well known.”

    Due to various reasons the Lightnin’ disbanded after the 1984 season. Though short-lived, the impact the team had on professional sports in Charlotte can be felt to this day. And these former Lightnin’ members think Charlotte is ready for Major League Soccer.

    “Well, the game has just expanded and grown so much. Certainly since the Carolina Lightnin’. Not only in this area but nationally and internationally,” says Young. Marvin says, “The game is totally different now. The youth programs locally, that have been led by like Bill Finneyfrock here, have just really grown this area. And they’ve got a really good fan following. I think if you look at the games that have been held at the stadium…the international games…you know, that’s a little bit different but I think it’s ready and I think you could see something like the Atlanta has done.”

    Fidelia thinks the proximity to Atlanta could make for a great matchup between the two cities, “You know, they’re constantly putting 65,000, 75,000 in the dome there to watch soccer matches. I can see the rivalry now. Atlanta and Charlotte. It’s gonna be interesting.”

    Many members of the Carolina Lightnin’ team still live in Charlotte and the surrounding area. Former coach Rodney Marsh lives in Florida.

    The next time you see one of the team members, you may want to thank him because it’s quite possible that without the Carolina Lightnin’s impact on soccer in this area, Charlotte might not be getting a Major League soccer team today.

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