Pope relishing challenge of building North Carolina's newest club

Carolina Core Chief Sports Officer Eddie Pope (L) played for the USA in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. (THOMAS COEX)
Carolina Core Chief Sports Officer Eddie Pope (L) played for the USA in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. (THOMAS COEX)

On Sunday morning, 500 fans of a third division club that has never played a competitive game will board a bus in High Point, North Carolina, to travel to see their team's debut.

It's a 90-minute journey down to the suburbs of Charlotte, the kind of trip which football fans in Europe and South America are well accustomed to making for games but until recently has been rare in most of the United States.

Carolina Core is the latest club to be formed in a further sign that the game is growing, not only in big markets such as Miami and Los Angeles, but in small town America, particularly in the South.

For Eddie Pope, who played in three World Cups for the USA and is now the Core's chief soccer officer, the cultural shift in the country has been noticeable.

"The game is on television all the time. There are stadiums where you can go to watch the game. Kids are now walking around in (team) jerseys, they understand the sport. There are more fans. It has just grown," he told AFP in an interview.

The Core hope to develop local players as well as the recruits they have brought in from Europe and South America, but also aim to be part of the thriving soccer culture.

"It's also about giving this community more entertainment from a football standpoint, a team of their own to watch and support," said Pope who played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

The Core is a hometown team for Pope, born in High Point, a town of 114,000 located in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina -- a state very much at the heart of the 'soccer boom.'

MLS club Charlotte FC averages more than 30,000 for home games and drew a crowd of 62,291 fans for a home opener last month.

The Core will take a bow in MLS Next Pro, a third-tier league featuring affiliate and reserve teams of MLS clubs along with new independent teams like the Core.

Sunday's opponents, Crown Legacy, are Charlotte's reserves but North and South Carolina are home to a number of other professional clubs.

Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, Greenville Triumph and Raleigh-based North Carolina FC play in the United Soccer Leagues lower division structure.

Attendances for such clubs are far from MLS levels but the Core are spending significant money on facilities, in contrast to the years when clubs had to play on high school American football fields.

The club are completing a $38 million, 5,000-capacity stadium and investing an eight-figure sum in a new training center.

The latter is a project close to Pope's heart.

"It's understanding that you have to have a place for players to ply their trade as opposed to bouncing around (like) in the early days from behind this school and at this field," he said.

Another former US national team player, Roy Lassiter, is the club's first coach and had the rare opportunity, together with Pope and head scout Andy Williams, of building a playing squad from scratch.

"It has been good to bring in players I want instead of inheriting a team that already had players on it, where some players may not fit my liking but I got to pick every last player," said Lassiter.

- 'Going to be enjoyable' -

Just 16 months after the club was formed, the first 90 minutes awaits and for the two former players, the old butterflies are returning for the tough start against last year's Eastern Conference champion.

"It's going to be enjoyable. They are right down the road from us. It will be fun to watch the fans interact and we're excited," said Pope.

The Core's coaching staff includes some well known former players from MLS including Honduran international Amado Guevara and ex-Jamaica goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.

"The pressure is already there (on the players) because they feel they have to impress in front of a coaching staff that has been there, done that," said Lassiter.

And Pope says there are also expectations from supporters.

"We have to make sure we're winning some games."

Especially, perhaps, local derbies.