It has been more than a year since Dustin Swinehart stood on an athletic field in East Charlotte envisioning it filled with kids playing soccer. That was before the pandemic and after Swinehart was named the director of community engagement for Charlotte FC, the city’s new Major League Soccer team that begins play in 2022.
Although developments on Charlotte FC’s efforts to connect with local communities slowed as the spread of COVID-19 quickened last year, Swinehart did not stop working to turn his vision into reality. And on Wednesday, he stood on a giant team logo in the center of a turf mini pitch at The Apartments at Sailboat Bay in East Charlotte and encouraged everyone to cheer. The roughly 50 children in attendance from the Street Soccer 658 program screamed in response, and Swinehart smiled.
“I just needed to make sure you guys were awake,” he said.
Then, after Charlotte FC president Nick Kelly and representatives from partnering organizations kicked an official first goal into the net, the children with Street Soccer 658 mixed in with players from Charlotte FC’s U17 Academy team and they played soccer.
It was one of at least three events Kelly said he intended for Charlotte FC to host at the complex this summer as the club works to establish at least 22 total turf mini pitches for communities around Charlotte and the Carolinas over the next five years as part of the club’s “Pitches for Progress” initiative.
“The ability to come out and do practice, us being able to provide (the kids with) meals to take home to their family becomes more and more important beyond just soccer,” Kelly said. “So yes, we want to develop some amazing talent, but we also want to make sure we’re impacting the community.”
Charlotte FC has partnered with Ally Bank to install the fields and will work with nonprofit Street Soccer 658 to develop the afterschool and summer programming to benefit children from underserved neighborhoods. Other partnerships and sites for the next fields in areas such as Raleigh, Greensboro, Rock Hill and Columbia are being discussed, Kelly said.
The 658 group’s neighborhood outreach coordinator Logan Thompson said he lives at the Sailboat Bay complex. Although its official opening was Wednesday with the team, he’s already seen the field used since it was installed a few weeks ago.
“We’ve snuck out onto it a couple times,” Thompson said. “... It just shows you how important it is for the kids and how much they love it.”
“They play soccer every day, usually it’s just in the grass or on a court or parking lot,” he continued. “So to have a state-of-the-art turf field is amazing.”
Kelly said that the same turf being installed at Bank of America Stadium in preparation for the Carolina Panthers’ NFL season and Charlotte FC’s MLS debut in 2022 is also being used at the local fields. Bank of America Stadium is switching from grass to FieldTurf this summer. Kelly said the kids using the mini pitches will be getting the “best of the best.”
“We want to be able to take a piece of the field that our pros are going to play on and put it in these communities,” Kelly said.
Impactful community engagement has been a primary goal for the new MLS club based in Uptown. Charlotte FC leadership has also expressed its desire to host at least 74,000 fans at a single match in its first year and sellout crowds in the lower bowl of Bank of America Stadium, or around 30,000 fans. The club is building its fan base early with prominent branding around its first mini pitch. All the participating children at Wednesday’s event, who ranged from elementary school to high school age, were given a Charlotte FC shirt with an Ally logo on the front.
Thompson said most of the younger participants in his program probably haven’t made the connection between the new fields and the MLS team coming to their city. Most of them likely don’t recognize the names of the team’s five signed players — Sergio Ruiz, Riley McGree, Jan Sobociński, Brandt Bronico and Christian Fuchs — but Thompson said that once the kids go to a game, he expects it will “click.”
“It will be like, ‘Oh, there’s a professional sports team and their logo is in our neighborhood, and we have their shirt, and they visit us,’ ” Thompson said. “Right now, I try to explain it, and they don’t really know what MLS means.”
There are still multiple developments needed before the team is match-ready, including hiring a head coach. Kelly said Wednesday that “it may be weeks, it may be a month or so” before the manager is named, although club leadership has candidates narrowed down to a vague short list.
But Wednesday’s focus wasn’t on coaching hires or kit designs that have yet to roll out. It was about how the team could benefit Charlotte-area kids by enhancing their experience with soccer. With a single field, Thompson said the team doubled Project 658’s previous field space, which he said has become all the more important as he encourages the kids to exercise during and after the pandemic.
And there are at least 21 more mini pitches to go.
“It’s a very special day for us,” Swinehart said.