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Southeast soars higher: How the Southeast expansion of soccer and its supporters are reaching historic milestones

By Ryan Donahue

Photo courtesy of Abigail Mangum

Almost two years ago, Charlotte FC broke the MLS single-match attendance record on its inaugural home match against LA Galaxy with 74,479 spectators in Bank of America to watch the state’s first professional major league club kick off in the Queen City. Despite a disappointing result on the night, Charlotte FC has continued to generate exceptional fan engagement around the team, with its average home game attendance consistently rising above 30,000 supporters. Additionally, in Charlotte’s second season home opener against New England Revolution, over 69,000 supporters were in attendance, and against Lionel Messi and Inter Miami at the end of the season, Bank of America filled 66,101 seats for the event.

While we can expect that this year's home opener against New York City FC on February 24 will once again yield strong attendance records, Charlotte is not the first club in the Southeast that has received this level of support from its fanbase. Atlanta United, who entered Major League Soccer in 2017, has generated exceptional attendance exceeding 70,000 in Mercedes Benz Arena on several occasions. This past season the club also broke the record for the fastest team to reach five million in attendance for regular season games.

Inter Miami and Nashville SC, since their inauguration, have demonstrated an ability to generate high volumes of game-day supporters. Nashville SC finished with the fourth-highest average attendance and in first for soccer-specific stadiums filling 93% of its capacity and recording six sellout games. 

Inter Miami, in previous seasons, averaged around 12,000 supporters. In the club's current home stadium, however, the signing of Messi in 2023 led to the club having the highest percentage (36%) increase in fan attendance, totaling 17,000 in average support. While the MLS saw around a 5% increase in in-game attendance from 2022 to 2023, the signing of Messi has exponentially surpassed the rest of the league.

With each of the respective clubs generating a wide range of gameday engagement from its supporters, it is evident that as a collective, the explosion of MLS soccer interest that was once dominated by clubs in the Pacific Northwest has now found a new home in the Southeast in recent years.

MLS is not the only soccer organization that is thriving in the Southeast market. In December 2023, US Soccer announced its plans to develop its headquarters in Fayette County, Georgia. The decision from the US Soccer Federation to move its operations from Chicago to Georgia was seen as an opportunity by both the Federation and Georgia to make the state the central hub and forefront of the US sporting project ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

The US headquarters and the national training center going to Georgia will be a huge economic benefit for the state creating 440 new jobs through this project’s investment.

The move for US Soccer’s headquarters to Atlanta and the exponential growth the market has generated will only continue to increase ahead of the anticipation for the upcoming World Cup, in which both Atlanta and Miami are slated to host one or multiple tournament fixtures. The Southeast has two destinations and five across the entire East Coast (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Atlanta) the Southeast is now starting to pace the Central and West Coast markets (LA, Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City).

Although the city of Charlotte will not be a World Cup destination it holds up as a hot destination for major international fixtures. In 2023, the US Men’s National Team featured at Bank of America Stadium in the Gold Cup against Trinidad & Tobago. This upcoming summer, the Bank will host the CONMEBOL Copa America tournament as a venue for a semi-final and third-place fixture, which should bring approximately 150,000 people to uptown Charlotte.

But it is not just US Soccer and MLS that are experiencing success in the area.  NWSL is also benefiting from the expansion of Southeastern soccer. The NC Courage, established in 2017, recently broke its single-match attendance record at Wake Med Park with 10,434 in its final match last season against the San Diego Wave. Beating its previous record for the 2019 NWSL Final. With the Courage winning back-to-back NWSL Challenge Cup trophies in 2022 and 2023, the interest in the professional women’s game will continue to gain more attention as success raises the club's profile.

North Carolina and the Southeast have also made strides in their efforts to expand opportunities for young athletes to have pathways to the professional level through local academies and development teams. The addition of MLS Next Pro and Crown Legacy FC has strengthened the scope of youth talent the clubs can develop. MLS Next Pro teams also provide opportunities for fans and youth players in the local areas to attend competitive reserve team matches at a lower cost than the first-team home game experiences. 

While respective clubs have shared different levels of success in recent years it is without question that the fan bases supporting the clubs are passionate about their sport and want to see these teams reach new heights. With steady and consistent growth across the Southeast region supplemented by the addition of the US Soccer HQ in Atlanta and the upcoming 2026 World Cup, the Southeast looks capable of being a major player in the American soccer landscape.