Two shades of blue blended together as a crowd of fans sheltered in the Bank of America lobby, waiting for thunderstorms to dissipate from the rapidly darkening sky.
Charlotte FC supporters wore sky blue kits while Chelsea supporters opted for navy shirts in a Charlotte win due to penalties (Charlotte FC had a 5-3 penalty shootout advantage). goal, after a 1-1 tie in regulation time) in a game that started about an hour late due to thunderstorms. A number of North Carolina natives attending the game found themselves cheering on the home team and instead took the opportunity to watch their favorite team, one they had rarely seen play in person.
Wednesday marked Chelsea’s first game at Charlotte since 2014 when they faced Paris Saint-Germain. The years gave fans who had seen the two a chance to reassess the football climate of the city following the introduction of the expansion team.
“There are just a lot more people here (than in 2014), the atmosphere is just a lot livelier,” said Jared Waters, a Chelsea fan and longtime Charlotte native.
“When I came for the PSG game it was a bit of a mix of people here, and here you have a lot of Charlotte fans here, Chelsea fans here, it’s just a lot of fun.”
Waters, who said he attended nearly every Charlotte FC home game, represented a popular demographic at the game: Charlotte natives who supported both teams but immediately knew they would support Chelsea in the Wednesday.
Nathan Wright, 30, who has always lived in the area, called the game between his hometown team and his favorite team ‘a bit bittersweet’ before his fiancée, Kaley Vead, intervened .
“He hopes they blow up Charlotte FC,” she said.
“I mean it would look bad if Charlotte FC put on a good performance,” Wright replied before the game.
The fledgling MLS club did just that, sending a crowd of over 50,000 into a frenzy as Kamil Jozwiak scored the fifth and final penalty to give Charlotte FC victory.
Wright’s Chelsea fandom started in college when he played FIFA video games. Vead, 28, has also spent his entire life in Charlotte and picked up the fandom from there. Both are Charlotte FC fans but have noted that their love for Chelsea goes beyond that of the home side.
The couple spend almost every game Saturday morning, sometimes as early as 7:30 a.m., heading to Jackalope Jacks, a sports bar in Plaza Midwood, and watching Chelsea play.
“Maybe I had a few drinks tonight before, but I always wake up and watch Chelsea play,” said Wright, who showed up in a Didier Drogba shirt. “It might be a bad game, but I’m still watching it.”
He cited the time he had rooted for both teams as justification for his rooting interest. Vead made his case to the star of the United States men’s national team: Chelsea attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic.
“You have to cheer on Captain America,” she joked.
Ose Mukenge, a Chelsea fan from Durham, moved from Congo to North Carolina when he was 12 years old. He picked up his fandom because of Drogba, the team’s striker. Mukenge’s love for Drogba extended beyond his contributions to the Premier League side.
He respected the striker for playing for Ivory Coast and helping bring a ceasefire to a civil war.
Mukenge attended the match with his 5-year-old son, Owen. The elder Mukenge wore a Thiago Silva jersey, calling the defender an inspiration due to his professionalism and dedication to the sport. Owen wore a personalized Chelsea kit with his name on the back and matching shorts.
“No choice,” Mukenge, who also wore a gold chain with a Chelsea lion pendant, said of her son’s fandom. “He was born with it.”
The 36-year-old had traveled in the past, both to the United States and to London, to watch his favorite team play.
His vast experience of observing the club has given him the unique ability to see a shirt and get a good idea of when it has been worn.
Passing a faded Frank Lampard shirt, he quickly referred to it as the one the team wore in 2013, the year after winning the Champions League due to the distinctive gold Adidas logo.
Mukenge still remembers that 2012 win well. When Drogba’s trusty penalty kick hit the back of the net, he sprinted past his parents’ house and shouted into the street, a reaction similar to what Charlotte FC midfielder Brandt Bronico, a Chelsea fan, had that year as a boy.
“My friend and I…we ran outside and we’re like…running through the streets. It was funny, but it was definitely a time of a lot of happiness,” he said.
Charlotte FC created a similar energy with a 90th-minute equalizer from Daniel Rios that sent everyone dressed in powder blue into a frenzy of cheering. Charlotte ultimately prevailed in the penalty shootout as the match showcased the city’s ever-growing football culture and raised hope for the fan base the home side could create.
“I was here opening night and it was just an amazing atmosphere,” Waters said. “It was just fun watching him grow.”
This story was originally published July 20, 2022 10:58 p.m.