Hundreds of Liverpool FC Fans Crammed Into a Raleigh Bar to Watch a Soccer Match Five Thousand Miles Away. To Make It to MLS, North Carolina FC Needs That Kind of Devotion | News Feature | Indy Week
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Hundreds of Liverpool FC Fans Crammed Into a Raleigh Bar to Watch a Soccer Match Five Thousand Miles Away. To Make It to MLS, North Carolina FC Needs That Kind of Devotion 

click to enlarge Liverpool FC fans gathered at the London Bridge Pub to watch the Champions League Final match on May 26.

Photo by Cole Villena

Liverpool FC fans gathered at the London Bridge Pub to watch the Champions League Final match on May 26.

Casey Peterson's job was to sing.

We've conquered all of Europe. We're never going to stop.

The Cary native looked around at the seventy others singing alongside him, maneuvering down Hargett Street in Raleigh past Saturday-morning shoppers and families who probably wouldn't like the next lyric.

From Paris down to Turkey, we've won the fucking lot.

A pair of high-school girls wearing long wigs and brightly colored costumes studied the red shirts Peterson and his fellow marchers wore. Some were adorned with white text that said "STANDARD CHARTERED" or "CARLSBERG." All featured an image of a tall, slender bird just over the wearer's heart. The girls looked at each other and smirked before heading to the anime convention up the street—somewhere a little less weird, perhaps.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly. The fields of Anfield Road.

A vaguely British accent called out to a man in a crimson Lexus trapped at an intersection: "We love the Reds!"

We are the supporters, and we come from Liverpool.

Peterson was lucky. He'd been to Liverpool three times, which was probably three more times than most of the people he was marching with.

Allez, allez, allez! Allez, allez, allez.

The parade ground to a halt upon reaching the London Bridge Pub, the wide swath of marchers becoming a narrow stream that slipped through the door into the dimly lit bar. Marchers took shelter within the familiar walls adorned by framed pictures of the Queen, a tapestry of scarves with words like "UP THE REDS," and a sign for the "Christopher Walken Fridge." A native Londoner noted that the bar looked just like something she'd see back home.

It was May 26, and there were still two hours until kickoff for Liverpool Football Club's Champions League Final match against Real Madrid. The broadcast from Kiev hadn't even begun. Peterson knew that pints of Guinness and mindless chatter couldn't hold off nerves forever.

Time to sing.

If the Triangle's North Carolina Football Club is ever to compete at the highest level of American soccer—something it unabashedly sees as its destiny—it will need fans like Casey Peterson and his obnoxious cohort of Saturday-morning revelers, Liverpool Football Club Raleigh.

Major League Soccer judges potential new franchises on three criteria: a committed local owner, a comprehensive stadium plan, and a history of strong fan support.

North Carolina FC has the first one locked down. Since purchasing the team in 2015, owner Steve Malik has shown his willingness to spend money to promote local soccer. He inked a deal with Capital Broadcasting Company to televise the team's matches, acquired first-rate talent, and relocated a top-level women's team to the area, now called North Carolina Courage. A year after taking over, Malik dropped the Carolina RailHawks moniker, redubbed the team North Carolina FC, and announced his plans to pursue an MLS franchise. He gave himself an eighteen-month window to make it happen.

Less than two weeks later, the league announced its intention to expand from twenty-three to twenty-eight teams within a few years. The ascension seemed fated.

To satisfy the second criterion, on July 19, Malik unveiled plans for a state-of-the-art $150 million mixed-use stadium in downtown Raleigh, designed by developer John Kane. It would be self-funded, Malik promised, though the planned location was on state-owned land—which, importantly, means the stadium will need the legislature's approval.

That same day, North Carolina FC held a large rally in City Market, a demonstration of the city's support for the franchise for MLS president Mark Abbott, who was in town as part of a tour of prospective franchise homes.

Malik was going to make it happen, if only by sheer force of will.

Except it hasn't happened. On May 29, his self-imposed deadline passed. No MLS—not yet.

The league awarded the twenty-fourth franchise to Nashville five days after unveiling its expansion timeline. A Miami team, pitched by the legendary David Beckham, was announced a month later. And then, last week, MLS awarded another slot to Cincinnati.

That leaves two spots left for ten ownership groups with league-expressed interest.

Malik says he's not worried. The club has accomplished every goal he'd laid out for the MLS bid, including forming a massive youth soccer program, which he considers a personal highlight. In any event, he adds, MLS is running behind its expansion schedule, too.

"I'm happy with where we are," Malik says. "MLS has strung out this process, which has given us an opportunity to get our ducks in a row."

Ryan Jernigan isn't ready to hit the panic button either. Jernigan, who founded the fan group Oak City Supporters in 2014, always thought North Carolina FC was aiming for one of the final two MLS slots. To his mind, the biggest obstacle is the General Assembly, which so far hasn't seemed inclined to work with the team on the stadium site.

"I think we have as good a shot as anybody if we can just have an agreed-upon plan with the land," he says. "Getting us the land is what makes me nervous."

But perhaps to convince lawmakers to get them the land, the team will first have to convince them that there's a real demand for professional soccer in the Triangle—that, one day, North Carolina FC will inspire the same devotion that Liverpool does, the same indelible sense of connection and family.

"The passion's there," says Jernigan, who was inside London Bridge that muggy May morning cheering on Liverpool. "It's just showing people what you want to happen. You've got to show up to games, you've got to show this community that it's there."

Real Madrid, with its roster full of star players called "Galácticos," played the part of Goliath well. Behind their Greek god of a forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, they'd won three of the last four Champions League titles and twelve throughout their 116-year history. The Spanish titans carried the swagger that came with being the most successful European club of the twenty-first century.

Colin Russell is a few years too young to have witnessed it, but Liverpool found similar glory during the seventies and eighties with eleven English league titles and four European Cup wins of their own. For him, watching the Reds started not as an obsession but as a way to bond with his English and Irish grandparents while growing up in Boston.

Russell easily met fellow Liverpool supporters in Beantown but had a harder time finding a bar willing to open for 8:00 a.m. weekend matches after moving to Raleigh in 2011. While in Boston for 2012's international preseason match between Liverpool and Roma, he met two Triangle-based Liverpool supporters by chance at a pub near Fenway Park. LFC Raleigh's Facebook page launched days later, and, by the time the English Premier League season began in August, Darren Bridger had agreed to allow his new London Bridge Pub to serve as the group's matchday home. By 2013, LFC Raleigh was an Official Liverpool Supporters' Club with officers, bylaws, and its own section on Liverpool's website.

Like most of LFC Raleigh's 150 paid and 350 unpaid members—paying for membership grants discounted merchandise and access to match tickets directly from the club—Russell felt confident that Liverpool's blistering attack and high-intensity style gave the former giant a real shot at proving its resurgence against the defending champions. Their "rock 'n' roll football," spearheaded by Premier League scoring leader Mohamed Salah, had already cut through some of the best teams in Europe.

Rock 'n' roll, coincidentally, is what converted LFC Raleigh chairman Ken Kendra into a Reds supporter in the eighties. He'd first heard of the team from an English youth soccer coach, coming to admire star forward Kevin Keegan mainly because of their shared initials. When he heard fans at Liverpool's Anfield stadium singing at the end of Pink Floyd's "Fearless," it brought him a little closer to his dream of hearing thousands of fans sing his name after a goal.

Kendra admitted that the atmosphere at London Bridge was more important to him than a victory over Real Madrid.

"No matter where you are around the world," he said, "you'll always find a family member that supports Liverpool [and] a friendly place and atmosphere you can go watch the match [and] hang out with other Liverpool supporters. We try to facilitate that atmosphere."

By the time the pre-match broadcast started, Kendra had helped facilitate entry into London Bridge for over 250 Liverpool supporters, twenty or so Real Madrid supporters in white shirts huddled in quiet corners, dozens of wives and girlfriends with varying levels of interest, one family using the viewing party as part of a birthday celebration for their son, two twenty-somethings wearing NBA jerseys, and two dogs. (LFC Raleigh's best guess at overall attendance was "more than three hundred." London Bridge's security detail stopped counting at "overcapacity.")

There was nothing elaborate about LFC Raleigh's pre-match routine as they peered through their digital window into Kiev's Olympic Stadium. After English pop singer Dua Lipa's six-minute set, they clapped politely. When Cristiano Ronaldo appeared onscreen, they booed. When his face was replaced by that of Mohamed Salah, they sang a new song: Mo Salah! Mo Salah! Mo Salah! Running down the wing! Salah, lah, lah, lah, lah! Egyptian king!

The singing began again immediately after kickoff. The opening stages saw Liverpool pushing forward quickly and confidently. London Bridge got a little bit louder whenever a forward player got a touch on the ball.

At twenty minutes in, some unseen conductor began a song in Kiev that was picked up by the drunken chorus of London Bridge. Another offensive chance provided an abrupt coda: "Keep hammering, boys!"

The score remained 0–0 through the first half hour.

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