They’re a professional sports team whose players willingly stay on the field after the game to sign autographs and mingle with fans, and who never appear in a police report.
I’ve covered the Charlotte Eagles (http://www.charlotteeagles.com) minor league pro soccer team for The Charlotte Observer for the past 10 years, and they’re a different kind of professional sports franchise.
The Eagles, who will take the field for their 15th season in the United Soccer Leagues (http://www.uslsoccer.com) in April, held a pre-season news conference today. I attended, mostly to give my PR Cases and Campaigns class at Wingate a chance to watch the staging of a live media event. But it was a good reminder of what I like about covering this organization every spring and summer.
The Eagles are one of several pro soccer teams owned by Missionary Athletes International (http://www.maisoccer.com), an organization which incorporates soccer into the Christian ministry activities it sponsors. The team is highly competitive on the field — 12 out of 14 seasons making the playoffs, 6 championship game appearances and two league titles. All that has been accomplished during seasons which typically include long days conducting soccer camps and clinics for local kids, and going on at least one mission trip abroad before or during the season. Team members will leave Jan. 23 for Gulu, Uganda, where they will help break ground on a new community center. They worked with children in that troubled East African nation last spring.
Because of these activities, the fans get to have a closer relationship with the players than exists at higher levels of the sport. (The Eagles play in USL2, two classifications below Major League Soccer.) And because of the nature of the team, many of the players stick around for a while.
One of the players at Tuesday’s event was 32-year-old forward Dustin Swinehart. When I first started covering the Eagles, “Whitey” (the nickname comes from the color of his hair) was a speedy scoring machine out of Miami of Ohio. A decade later, he’s no longer the team’s top offensive threat –in recent years that’s been local hero Jacob Coggins, a strapping former Independence High star who didn’t play college soccer.
It’s been interesting to watch Swinehart’s transition to a “wily veteran,” whose goals are scored more on soccer smarts than on pure athleticism. These days, as Swinehart put it Tuesday, he stays in shape by chasing his three kids — one born during an Eagles game a few years ago — around the house.
Somebody pointed out that he’s only one year older than David Beckham, the English soccer star who will be coming to the U.S. later this year to play for the MLS’ Los Angeles Galaxy for $250 million over five years.
“But I don’t have his bank account,” Swinehart said, smiling.
Swinehart scored the 100th goal of his professional career, almost all of them with the Eagles, last summer. A few days after that game, I was talking with a media colleague at another sports event. He wondered — a little dismissively, I thought –what sort of achievement should scoring 100 goals in minor league soccer be considered.
But as I’ve said, the Eagles are different and so are their players. The game isn’t the point, not totally.
“They sacrifice a lot to be here,” said Mark Steffens, the team’s veteran coach who led New York’s American Soccer League entry back in the 1980s. “Many of them have passed up opportunities to move on up the ladder because they believed in what we were doing here.”
Similarly, the team’s Christian mission limits the talent pool it can draw from. “We have to do a lot more research on someone than just ‘Can he play?'” Steffens said.
Eagles officials expressed hope that a modest “soccer-specific” stadium might be in their future. The Eagles have called Waddell High’s football stadium their home for the last five seasons and have also played at Charlotte Christian, Charlotte Latin and Memorial Stadium in my tenure covering them.
General manager Tom Engstrom said he’d love to see the team play in a 3,000 to 5,000-seat facility modeled after minor league soccer stadiums in Charleston, Atlanta and Greensboro.
“Think of it this way,” said Engstrom, one of the original Eagles players. “Would you rather see a baseball game at Fenway Park or the Metrodome? I’d prefer Fenway Park and I’m from Minnesota.”