History of the Carolina Lightnin’

Earlier on this year Ed Young, the ex-General Manager of the Carolina Lightnin’ asked me to write a history of the team for the 30 year reunion for their 1981 ASL Championship win. Below is the history of the first professional soccer team in the Carolinas, the last club that Bobby  Moore played for, and one of the most successful teams in ASL history.

Thanks to Ed Young for helping with research and letting me write this piece.

The roots of the first professional soccer team in the Carolinas began nine years before the team would take to the field for its first professional game. Ed Young was a soccer player at Western Carolina University, playing for the university team in goals. During the summer he found that there was no chance to practice his game, and no environment for soccer in his home state.

Taking the matter into his own hands he founded the Charlotte Summer Soccer League, a 6 team indoor league predominantly featuring university players on their summer break. After graduating he became a player and a Head Coach of numerous amateur teams in the Charlotte area including the Charlotte Soccer Club, and the Lowenbrau Soccer Club (formerly the Press Box Soccer Club). The Lowenbrau Soccer Club (with its $20,000 sponsorship from the beer company) would win 6 Carolina Soccer League Governor’s Cups and go on to qualify for the nationwide Open Cup competition. In addition to this Young would officiate high school and college games as well as serving as a director of the Charlotte Junior Soccer Federation.

By 1979 soccer was finally achieving a nationwide profile in America. The twenty-four team NASL was thriving with superstars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Rodney Marsh, Bobby Moore, Giorgio Chinaglia and many others having passed through and thrilled the 1st generation of pro soccer fans. Over 70,000 fans would watch the Cosmos, and although few other teams could come anywhere close to that figure many franchises were getting above average fans.

Below the NASL level was the American Soccer League (the ASL). Still a fully national professional league, but with a far lower budget and profile, it served as a 2nd tier to the NASL, providing numerous players (and the occasional franchise) to the higher level league.

One area where the NASL had thrived was one introducing professional major league sport to cities that had not had much of a look-in with regards to Football, Baseball, and Basketball. Cities such as Portland, Tampa Bay, and Tulsa had successful teams and large support within their communities.

The Carolinas had never had a professional soccer game played in their states, let alone a team. Indeed, even the established American sports struggled with the market there. In Charlotte the Carolina Cougars (basketball) & charlotte hornets (world football league) had not been successful, and it was felt that the Carolinas and Charlotte could not support a pro sports team.

Undeterred by this, Ed Young, Gene Goldberg, and Richard Roddey formed Charlotte Soccer ’79, an organization to promote soccer in Charlotte and gauge the public’s mood regarding pro soccer. In December 1978 NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam had visited the group in Charlotte for preliminary talks about the possibility of locating an NASL team in the city. These talks sparked the group into using 1979 to see if the idea held weight.

Charlotte’s youth soccer program was also shaping up to become one of the larger programs in the Carolinas, despite the lack of facilities available for the kids to play and practice on. This proved that there was an interest in playing soccer in the area, but to test the waters regarding professional soccer the group attracted the NASL’s Atlanta Chiefs and Minnesota Kicks to play an exhibition game at Charlotte’s memorial stadium. Gene Goldberg’s son Steve was part of the Atlanta Chiefs and he felt that pro soccer could work in Charlotte. For him the Tampa Bay Rowdies, with their family and youth friendly approach, was the model to work from.

The event was accompanied by another first – a weekend long 16 team youth, adult, amateur, and collegiate indoor soccer tournament held at the Park Center.  The 2 events were designed to serve up family entertainment, and if they went well in terms of attendance, show the NASL league officials that soccer was a viable concern in the city.

It wasn’t just the NASL that had been looking at Charlotte however. The ASL was also interested in the area and talking to potential investors. One of the plus points in favour of the ASL was that it offered pro soccer (albeit at a lower level than the NASL) at a fraction of the cost. A franchise in the NASL cost 1,500,000 or more to set up, whereas in the ASL this would largely cost around $500,000.

The ASL’s Director of Franchise Development Rich Melvin was interested in adding a Southern Division to the ASL for the 1980 season, and was looking at Charlotte, Jacksonville, Birmingham, and Norfolk as potential cities. To try out facilities the ASL’s New Jersey Americans were going to attend a 2 week training camp in one of the cities to test the area’s suitability for pro soccer. If they chose Charlotte, four outdoor exhibition games were lined up against amateur teams, plus one indoor exhibition at the Charlotte Coliseum against a team of all-stars from Carolina’s colleges.

Melvin (who had previously been coach and co-owner of the Americans) favored Charlotte, and stated that even if the Southern Division was a non-starter, expansion was still on the cards. Charlotte would lose out however, with the Americans instead choosing to hold their training camp at the University of South Florida in Tampa Bay. The indoor exhibition was also cancelled due to the logistics of holding the game, plus the NASL exhibition match that would be taking place on the same night. The Americans would actually relocate to Miami for the 1980 ASL season, a move which would prove an unmitigated disaster.

This left the NASL exhibition as the only game in town. To drum up interest in the game a special advertising pull-out was placed in the local paper to promote the events and explain the rules of the game Ticket prices for the NASL exhibition were priced at $4 for adults, whilst a ticket for the 2 days of the indoor tournament was just $3. Goldberg estimated that around 10,000 tickets had been sold for the game.

On the 24th March 1979, the Chiefs and Kicks took to field in front of 3,742 fans in the first professional game in North or South Carolina. The attendance was a little lower than expected, put down to the cold weather on the day of the game. The Chiefs ran out 2-1 winners, thanks to a last gasp goal from Yugoslav forward Nino Zec.

Although the attendance was disappointing, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam said that Charlotte’s chances of joining the NASL were not hurt by this. He explained that any decision would not just be based on attendance, but also the stadium, the team’s organization and a strong financial commitment from the ownership group. Woosnam was very complimentary about the area’s suitability for a franchise, but any team would have to be relocated from an existing city.

After this it seemed that the chances of NASL soccer in Charlotte was in out of reach in the short-term, so the ASL seemed to be the only option for outdoor professional soccer.

The Carolina Professional Soccer Ltd. Was a group of five investors ready to enter a Charlotte-based team in the 1980 ASL season. President of the group was Pittsburgh-raised Bob Benson, the owner of Pnucor, a local engineering sales firm, who said that their application would be entered in August 1979, and they should know if they were successful the following month. An estimated $350,000 dollars had been pledged towards the running of the team, and if they were successful a similar amount would be required for the team to start the season in April 1980. Benson would not reveal the names of his co-investors but it was known that Rich Melvin, who had favoured Charlotte for the training site of the New Jersey Americans, had pledged to invest a portion of the money. The group was also holding youth soccer camps in Charlotte with staff and coaches from New Jersey, where Melvin ran youth camps. The ASL was reputedly looking for 4 new franchises to join the league, with each franchise costing a 250,000 fee payable to the ASL. Benson and his group were looking for at least $700,000 before they would commit to fielding a team, as this would allow them to field a team for 3 seasons. At the present time it was a not-for profit investment, but there was the potential if the team and league performed well for the sale of the franchise to reap a profit. The additional investors and funds were found, and on December 1st 1979 the group was granted an ASL franchise.

Benson was the group’s figurehead and named as President of the nascent franchise. A former Clemson University basketball star, he had previously tried to save the Carolina Cougars ABA team without success, and was now the driving force behind soccer in the Carolinas. Benson had always been interested in soccer, but his passion was truly stoked by a college soccer game between Clemson and St. Louis University in 1974 that attracted over 10,000 fans.  Married to his passion for the game was pragmatism about why soccer could be successful in Charlotte whilst traditional American sports couldn’t. The city lacked the 50,000 capacity stadium to make football or baseball viable, whereas for an NBA franchise the team would have to average huge attendances in order to not make a loss. Ice hockey was ruled out as the manager of the Charlotte Coliseum stated that it was too warm to make ice. This just left soccer, which by happy coincidence would fit snugly into the Memorial Stadium. The team would train at the Leroy Springs Complex in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

In order to promote the team and the sport, the Carolina Professional Soccer Ltd group also staged an exhibition match between an ASL All-star team and the Israel national team.

Rich Melvin was named as the first General Manager of the team, and the first appointment made b was that of Ed Young, who was named as Director of Operations due to his background with soccer and connections within Charlotte. He would also assist Melvin with his GM duties, and become known as the “hardest working executive in the ASL’.

In the September of 1980, 7 months before the team would take to the field for the first time, English soccer legend Rodney Marsh was named as the Lightnin’s inaugural head coach. Marsh had arrived in the states in 1976 to play in the NASL for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he quickly won over the American soccer fans with his skills on the pitch and personality off it. He was also familiar with the ASL having spent the 1980 season as head coach of New York United. The signing of one of the most recognizable soccer stars in America as head coach gave a great boost to the Lightnin’s wooing of fans, especially as Marsh’s nationwide TV adverts for Miller Lite beer had further raised his profile in the states. Other new signings to the front office team were Conrad Smith as the team’s PR director, and Judy Adkins, who would work on team operations and equipment management. Another key player would also be John McGillicuddy as ticket manager. On the training staff Steve Horne was appointed as the playing squad’s athletic trainer responsible for getting them fit and ready to play.

Conrad Smith’s appointment was part of Bob Benson’s strategy to promote the team within a 50 to 80 mile radius of Charlotte, mainly through getting stories in the media to spread the word of soccer in the Carolina’s and working with local businesses. The Lightnin’ staff’s hard work and skill in promoting the team saw them receive extensive media coverage and support from the local media. The Charlotte Observer newspaper, and in particular their soccer-savvy sports reporter David Scott covered the Lightnin’s birth tirelessly, and Paul Anderson, the Sports Director for WBTV (local CBS affiliate), also helped promote the game and the team to the Charlotte public.

Supporters from the business community included local banker Wes Sturgis (now President of the Bank of Commerce), Carolina’s number one grocery store chain Harris-Teeter, and Belk’s Department Stores (the number one department store chain in the Carolinas). Harris-Teeters’ “HT” logo was also incorporated into the team’s name on their shirts. The support of the media and business would be vital in promoting the game in the city and wider area.

They also targeted families, as Smith noted: “we want to promote families. We have to promote for entertainment because people yet don’t understand the game. We try and give it the personal touch and hope that that person will come back again and again and in time will learn the game. A lot of people have not been exposed to soccer in this country”. Part of this ‘personal touch’ approach was to heavily expose the Lightnin’s players to the public. Prior to the team’s first game players were sent out to schools, local soccer clubs to make speeches and hold clinics and training sessions for the children. The amount of kids playing the game in the local area was also encouraging, as they would influence their parents into going to see a professional soccer game on their own doorsteps. All this would hopefully see the Lightnin’ reach Benson’s goal of a 6,000 average attendance for their first season on the field.

The ASL (under the auspices of their commissioner, news anchor Mario Machado) placed the Lightnin’ in the Freedom Conference, where they would line up for their first season alongside the Detroit Express, Rochester Flash, and the Cleveland Cobras. The other conference (named the Liberty Conference) would feature New York United, New York Eagles (based in Albany), Pennsylvania Stoners, and the New England Sharks. The ASL’s scoring system was 5 points for a win, 2 for a tie and 1 bonus point for each goal scored up to a maximum of 3, meaning that a 3-0 win could earn a team 8 points.

The Lightnin’ had a front office, committed ownership, a stadium, and a nationally famous and respected Head Coach, but what about the important people: the players who would take to the field for the Lightnin’

On the roster was 4 year ASL veteran striker Mal Roche, who would come to be known as the Lightnin’s “Penalty kick King”. Roche had been the leading goals and points scorer in the 1980 ASL season whilst with the Golden Gate Gales.  He had also been voted as the “Rookie of the Year” in 1977, so was well versed with the ASL. Ex-American international forward Joey Fink was signed from the ASL’s Cleveland Cobras. He brought experience to the frontline having previously been with the New York Cosmos and the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL. He had spent the previous 2 seasons in the ASL and was familiar with the style of play required. Spanish born defender Santiago Formoso was signed from the defunct Houston Hurricane after a 4 season NASL career, including 2 seasons with the Cosmos. The goalkeeping position would be filled by Scott Manning who was the ASL’s leading goalkeeper in 1980 whilst with the Pennsylvania Stoners. Englishman Stuart Metcalfe, a veteran of 386 games with Blackburn Rovers was signed to play in the midfield.

One player on the roster that would become the team’s star player, and be Charlotte’s top sports star of the early 1980’s was Tony Suarez. Born in Cuba, his family emigrated to the US in 1972 when he was 16 years old. After graduating from Belmont Abbey College with a B.A. in Business Management he decided to have try outs for the Lightnin’.  His trial was unsuccessful, but he was placed on the team’s reserve roster, as well as being employed as the bus driver for the team on their road trips. It wasn’t long until he received his chance with the first team. In preparation for the team’s second game, the Lightnin’ suffered an injury crisis and Suarez was in the starting line-up. He was an immediate hit with the crowd, who liked seeing a hometown player on the roster, as well as enjoying his style of play. Fans also warmed, according to reporter David Scott, to his “shoulder length hair and toothy grin”. His playing style was uncomplicated; being to knock the bass passed the defender, race after it, and then put a shot in at goal. He was also adept at latching on to passes into space behind the defenders and haring through to score. He would go on to honors with the team and become the biggest sports star in Charlotte during the early 1980’s.

Another notable player was New Jersey native Hugh O’Neill who was signed from the NASL’s Memphis Rogues. His career had started in 1976 with the Hartford Bicentennials, but wanting to gain experience, asked them to find a club in Europe during the off-season. They loaned him to Scottish team Rangers, unaware that as a Catholic he would not fit in with Rangers’ protestant only policy. Despite being aware of this, and knowing that Rangers had never signed a Catholic player, he went on to play every game that season for Rangers’ reserve team, although he never appeared for the first team.

In defence for the Lightnin’ would be Curtis Leeper, nicknamed “Louie the Leep”, a right back who was an excellent marker with a good throw-in. Partnering him at the back was Kevin Murphy, who was the youngest American soccer player ever to sign a pro contract when he was drafted by the Philadelphia Fury in 1978. Back-up goalkeeper to Manning was Bill Finneyfrock, a brave goalie with good hands who acquired the nickname “Barney Rubble” from his team mates. Steve Scott was a forward runner with signed for the Lightnin’ after free tryouts, and who Marsh felt was the best athlete on the playing roster. Corner kick specialist Miguel Avila would play in right midfield after signing from the Sacramento Gold. English defender George Borg was signed from English semi-pro team Wycombe Wanderers to play at fullback, where he would compete for a starting spot with Formoso.. Irish midfielder Don Tobin was a key addition to the Lightnin’ midfield, where he would become regarded at the team’s “quarterback” dictating play. Completing the defense were Dave Power & Dave Pierce. Pierce had spent the previous six seasons with New York United ( or Apollo as they were known up until the 1980 season) and was named as the team captain, whereas Pierce was a rookie, but they would go on to play a major part in the Lightnin’s success.

Another important member of the team, and fan’s favourite was the “12th man”. Sparky the dog would entertain the fans pre-match and at half-time with his excellent heading and ball control skills. He secured his place on the roster by trialling at the franchise office in front on Rodney Marsh and Ed Young. He was on loan to the team from his owner and trainer (and Lightnin’ fan) Donna Hammer.

The team’s first ever training session was held at the Tega Cay Country Club, the first day of a two week training camp that would be held at their Fort Mill training complex. Rodney Marsh was happy with the fitness of the players, as well as the Americanization policy of the ASL. During the training camp one of the best known American players in the NASL, Kyle Rote Jnr. was said to be having discussions regarding signing for the Lightnin’. Alas this would come to nothing and Rote would retire from professional soccer.

Lightnin’ started season with 5 back-to-back home games, which saw Miguel Avila score the Lightnin’s first ever professional goal. Throughout the season, various promotions would take place to try and persuade the Charlotte public to come and attend games. Their third game of the season would see them face the Rochester Flash at home, with the American Cancer Society receiving a share of the profits.  The first 500 children through the gates would receive a balloon and the half time giveaway was a color television. June was named as Coca-Cola bottle top month where fans could get $1.50 off match ticket if they presented 6 coke bottle top caps when purchasing a ticket. Entertainment was also provided for the fans in musical form with each win by the Lightnin’ greeted with Kool & The Gang’s – “Celebration” being played as the players walked off the field. Likewise during every stoppage in play the “Budweiser” song would ring out around the stands.

May also saw the Lightnin’ face the Chinese national team in an exhibition match at Memorial Stadium. The China team was facing ASL teams on tour, and had already downed the Rochester Flash and the Pennsylvania Stoners. The Lightnin’ were unable to improve on that record, going down 2-0.

In June Marsh told the St. Petersburg Evening Independent that he had received job offers from 2 NASL  teams (California Surf was one, maybe Tampa the 2nd?), and one MISL team. Marsh however said that he was happy in Charlotte and would make a decision about his future after the season. The Lightnin’ according to Marsh was a “Dynamite” franchise, although he said he “would be a liar if I said everything was perfect about the ASL”.

By mid-season the team led ASL in average attendance with around 4,000 (1,000 more than the others), proving that soccer had well and truly caught on with the Charlotte public. Benson stated that if attendance grew at present rate the team may be the most successful 1st year soccer franchise in the country ever, in turn proving naysayers wrong about Charlotte being a good sports town. A week before this story appeared, the Carolina Chargers of the American Football Association had folded due to non-payment of players. Benson said that the success thus far of the Lightnin’ was due to the fact that before he set up the team he had studied the mistakes that other sports franchises in the city had made, and learned from the process. He agreed that Charlotte was not capable of supporting a major traditional American sports team but that soccer was the right size for the city. The city also provided ample room for growth, with approximately 20,000 kids playing in the metropolitan area. These same kids were being targeted by the Lightnin’ with the team’s personal appearances.

July saw Hollywood come to the Lightnin’ as the game at home against the New York Eagles was named as “Victory” night, named after the soccer movie starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine  & Pele (alongside Werner Roth and some other NASL players) that had just been released. “Victory” was shown at a special preview for the Lightnin’ team, and for the fans attending the game posters, a soccer ball signed by Pele, and a complete soccer uniform worn in the movie “Victory” would be given away.  Unbeknownst to players watching “Victory”, one of the footballing stars in the film, Bobby Moore, would also come to play his part in the success of the Lightnin’ in the coming years.

By August the Lightnin’ were playing well and attracting the fans, but were described as “low-scoring” in the press. They had the lowest goals for in the league at this stage with 22 goals from 16 games, with most of the goals being scored by their bus driver-turned superstar forward Tony Suarez. His ongoing success on the field with the Lightnin’ led to him signing 2 year joint contract between the Lightnin’ and the MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League)’s Cleveland Force. The deal was worth just over $100,000, and included an option on the Lightnin’ part to extend his contract for up to another 2 years. Bob Benson stated that Suarez was “exactly the type of player we’re looking for”.  The team’s performances led the owners to move quickly to secure other players to longer contracts. Confirmed signees were Dave Philpotts, Dave Power ( given a 3-year contract and a role as assistant coach for the 1982 season), Curtis Leeper, Hugh O’Neill, Dave Power, and George Borg, who had displaced Formoso at left back with some tough tackling displays.

The Lightnin’ promotions got larger and larger as the team became more successful. Probably the most unique half-time giveaway in soccer history occurred when the prize at stake was an actual airplane. The Charlotte Observer Airplane Giveaway was the brainchild of Ed Young, with Rodney Marsh pushing it through and making it happen. The prize was supplied by Piper Aircraft, the Observer, and Coca-Cola. To stand a chance of winning the plane, fans had to buy a copy of the Charlotte Observer the day before the game. Each copy contained a pasteboard plane model that could be folded into the shape of an airplane. The fans then brought this to the stadium where at half-time they had to stand in the stands and throw their planes towards the real thing stood in the centre circle of the pitch. The nearest paper plane to the airplane’s nose won the plane. The contest caught the imagination of the Charlotte public, and saw a half-time clean up of 10,000 plus paper planes from the pitch after the competition.

Another regular giveaway was a Volvo car, which was won on match days if a fan could kick the ball into the car’s sunroof in three attempts. As is standard in these giveaways, prior to the event insurance had to be acquired, so a  prestigious agent and actuary from Lloyds of London attended to assess the risks of maybe giving away a car every other week. The actuary asked Ed Young to arrange a trial, whereupon a cross section of the Charlotte public (amateur soccer players, children, parents etc) would have five attempts at the challenge to see how likely it was that cars would be flying out of showrooms in prizes. Every person had three attempts, and all ended in failure, leading to the Lloyds agent starting to prepare a very favourable quote to Ed Young. Exactly at the wrong moment Rodney Marsh appeared asking what was going on. When told, he gets a ball and kicks it straight into the sunroof at the very first attempt. Cue the Lloyds agent hastily re-writing his quote and coming up with a (far higher) figure to insure the giveaway.

Another financial cloud on the horizon (not caused by Marsh this time), was that the Lightnin’ players may follow the lead of other squads in the ASL and vote to unionize. The Federation of Professional Athletes was a demanding a minimum salary requirement for its members, a move that might hurt the Lightnin’. Benson stated that the Lightnin’ might not be able to survive if this came to pass as his expected loss of $160,000 for the season would be increased by at least $100,000. This would force him to have to pull out of funding the team. The crisis was averted however, and the unionization never came to pass.

The Lightnin’ won ASL Freedom conference on last night of regular season  in September, when main rivals Detroit Express lost 4-1 to New York United.  They topped the Freedom Conference after 28 game regular season with 16 wins, 3 ties, and 9 losses scoring 46 goals and conceding 31 for 127 points. This gave them the 3rd best record in whole ASL, and meant that they would meet the team with the 6th best record in the first round of the playoffs.

The Lightnin’ brushed aside the Rochester Flash in the first round, beating them 2-0 in the winner- takes-all game, which would see them through to a two-leg semi-final game against the Pennsylvania Stoners

The semi-finals saw the Lightnin’ face the Pennsylvania Stoners home and away to decide who would reach the championship game. The first leg was at home in Charlotte, and the Stoners took charge early in the game, battering the Lightnin’ goal with shots. The Lightnin’ hung firm and managed to get a goal up after 31 minutes when Stoner goalkeeper Tom Reynolds could not hold on to a 30 yard shot from the Dave Power. The ball bounced off his chest and Tony Suarez nicked in to put the Lightnin’ one-up from 6 yards. The Stoners equalized after 52 minutes after a defensive lapse let Eric Smith in to score from 22 yards. An inspired substitution at 70 minutes saw Joey Fink replaced with Mal Roche. Just 2 minutes later Stoners defender Ken McDonald was called for handball in the Stoners’ box, and the penalty king stepped up to put Carolina 2-1 up. Poor goalkeeping by Reynolds on 88 minutes saw him spill another long shot and Philpotts sealed the first leg victory 3-1.

The Lightnin’ travelled to Allentown knowing a draw would suffice to send them through to the championship game. The Stoners would be formidable however, as they had not lost at home for 30 games,  a fact highlighted by Philpotts who said that the first leg “was a tough game to defend”. Carolina decided to play a more defensive game, but couldn’t prevent the Stoners scoring twice to send the game into overtime. With 4 minutes left in the second period of overtime, Lightnin’ forward Mal Roche scored the goal that would send them through 4-3 on aggregate.

The Lightnin’s opponents in the ASL Championship game would be Marsh & Power’s old team, New York United. Due to United having the best record over the 28 game season, they had the rights to hold the game at their own stadium. This created a problem for the ASL however, as New York United had struggled to attract fans to the games – only 375 people paid to see the United host the Lightnin’ earlier in the season. The same fixture in Charlotte had attracted 9,109 fans, and with the Lightnin’ leading the league in attendance it would be put to a vote of the ASL owners and the league about switching the game to the Carolinas. The vote came in at 9-1 in favour of moving the game to Charlotte, which was a great boost for the Lightnin’, their fans, and the city itself. With a crowd of around 10,000 expected, the Lightnin’ agreed to share the gate receipts with New York as part of the deal. The game would also be broadcast live on radio station WBT (1100AM).

The 18th September 1981 saw the Lightnin’ exceed all expectations. The 10,000 crowd that would have been considered a success was dwarfed as 20,163 fans turned out to see the championship game against New York United. The attendance was not just a record for the Lightnin’, but also for any match played ever in the American Soccer League.

The game was expected to be tight as the teams had a 2-2 head-to-head record over the regular season. The first half started with some rough play, and English defender Dave Philpotts was forced to leave the field after only 15 minutes with cracked ribs and a punctured lung. His replacement Kevin Murphy came off the bench and performed brilliantly filling in. The game was tight with Scott Manning and United keeper George Taratsides saving shots. The deadlock was broken by New York United after 64 minutes when their Nigerian striker Solomon Hilton struck a fierce shot from around 20 yards passed Manning and into the top left corner. It didn’t take long for the Lightnin’ to hit back however. On 69 minutes Hugh O’Neill headed a throw-in on to Don Tobin who in turn headed it into the net from 3 yards out. After regulation play the game was still tied, forcing the two 20 minute extra time periods to be played. With just 3 minutes before the game would go to a penalty shoot-out, O’Neill scored the goal that would send the championship to the Carolinas. Tobin took a corner kick, Dave Pierce knocked the ball on and O’Neill headed the ball into the net. New York United responded by bombarding the Lightnin’ goal, but Scott Manning and the rest of the team managed to keep them out.

After the game Marsh said that there had been “nothing in my life like this, it’s been an incredible year”.  He followed it up by saying he thought it had been a “classic final”. Champagne flowed in the locker room

The Lightnin’ had won the ASL championship at the first time of asking, and had energized the Charlotte public, putting to bed the feeling that the city couldn’t support a pro-sports team. This was proved by the Lightnin’ having the highest average attendance in the ASL with over 4,300. 2 games attracted over 8,000 fans, more than some teams in the NASL.

Tony Suarez finished up as the team’s top goal scorer with 15 goals from his 22 games , as well as creating  4 goals. His total of 34 points ranked him 5th overall in the ASL that year. He also made the ASL All-Star team, as well as being voted the ASL’s “Rookie of the Year”.  Irish midfielder Don Tobin was also voted on to the ASL’s All-Star team on the basis of his excellent displays. Other stand outs were Mal Roche who scored 8 goals from his 21 games and began to be known as the Lightnin’s “penalty kick king”.

Public relations and competitions would provide an integral ay of attracting fans to the Memorial Stadium. Cars were frequently given away at half-time if you could chip the soccer ball into the sunroof from 20 yards away. One competition even saw the Lightnin’ give away an aeroplane at half-time! The Lightnin’ success saw them appear in adverts for the army, removal firms,

Before the 1982 ASL season, new league chairman Prenk Curanaj started scouting new southern teams to join the league after New York United, New York Eagles, and the New England Sharks all folded. To replace them the Nashville Diamonds, and the Oklahoma City Slickers were added to the league. The Cleveland Cobras upped sticks and moved to Atlanta to become the Georgia Generals. In a structural change, the 2 conference system the previous year was disbanded, and the 7 teams would play in a single league. Six teams would make the playoffs after the 28 game season.

The Lightnin’s roster would change a little for the 1982 season, which would see them attempt to defend their title. Spanish defender Santiago Formosa was released. He was starting fullback for the 81 season until his position was taken by English defender George Borg. Then, due to bad feelings between him and Rodney Marsh he was asked not to return for the 1982 season. Joey Fink opted to retire from outdoor soccer and focus on indoor soccer, signing for the Baltimore Blast of the MISL. He would go on to be successful indoors and be inducted into the Baltimore Blast hall of fame in 2006. Defender Dave Power became Marsh’s assistant coach, a role he would combine with playing. One big loss however was Tony Suarez. He had joined up with Cleveland for the indoor season and began well with 4 goals from 8 games, before injuring his knee badly. This injury would not only rule him out for the rest of the MISL season, but also the entire 1982 ASL season. It was a cruel blow for someone who had become Charlotte’s biggest sports star.

To replace Suarez, South African NASL legend Derek Smethurst was signed from the Memphis Americans of the MISL. Smethurst had scored 57 goals in just 65 games for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, before playing out his NASL career with the San Diego Sockers & the Seattle Sounders. He had also very nearly switched codes, as his success in Tampa led him to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL pre-season as a place-kicker. In a mirror of the Suarez situation, Miguel Avila damaged his knee in pre-season friendly and was also ruled out for the season after surgery. George Borg was also unable to return for the 1982 season after a contractual dispute with Wycombe Wanderers over the terms of his loan deal. Joining the team was Haiti-born ex-US international Pat Fidelia who had played for the Montreal Manic in the 1981 NASL season.

In an ownership change, Rich Melvin left the franchise and sold his share of the ownership to Bob Benson.

The 1982 season opener was game away against the new Georgia Generals franchise. WAYS (610 AM) radio had struck a deal to feature all of the Lightnin’s games in 1982, meaning that even if fans couldn’t travel to the away fixtures they could still keep in touch with the action. Team preparations for the Generals game were disrupted by the late of midfielder Don Tobin, who faced a race against time to get back from Wichita where he had been playing with Wichita Wings in MISL playoffs. The game finished 2-2,  with central defender Dave Philpotts scoring both goals with headers from corners, making use of his physical presence and heading and jumping ability. Philpotts said that the team had got stronger as game went on and they could have won by the end. This positive statement was retracted after the next game, a 2-0 away loss against the Nashville Diamonds which Philpotts Stated performance was worst Lightnin’ he could remember.

Before the Lightnin’s home opener against Oklahoma City Slickers, they announced the signing of NASL legend Paul Child. Born in England, Child had came to the U.S. in 1972 to join the Atlanta Chiefs, and had never left. He became one of the most feared strikers in the NASL, and ranked 5th in the all-time top scorers list with 102 goals in 241 games. His partnership with Smethurst gave the Lightnin’ an attack that would have graced almost any NASL team.

Defender Curtis Leeper was enthusiastic about signing of Paul Child – “I’m really excited, I’ve seen him play before and played against him in the MISL. He’s going to do the team a tremendous amount of good, since we need some goals upfront”. Lightnin’ goals in the 1982 season were a valuable commodity as each goal scored was worth a $100 bonus for the scorer, with $500 handed over for a hat-trick.

The 4th game of the season was a home match against the Rochester Flash, but due to thunder and lightning and poor field conditions the game was called off 30 minutes after the supposed start time. The decision was made by the referees in conjunction with Charlotte’s parks and recreation department. The Lightnin’s contract with the parks department for the use of Memorial Stadium allowed them to cancel a game if they felt the grass was threatened. Rodney Marsh was disappointed, but recognized the need for the players and fans safety

June saw Derek Smethurst agreeing his release from the team after their 3-0 loss against the Pennsylvania Stoners, feeling that he could not adapt to the style of play in the ASL. In that game, and in the previous game against the Nashville Diamonds, Smethurst had been subjected to overly physical and rough play from opposing defenders. He felt that he and Paul Child were “marked men” in those games. The Diamonds players had been told to kick him, on or off the ball and to try and put him out of the game, whether by intimidating him or injuring him. Smethurst was left with a cut above his eye and numerous bruises. After the game he stated that he wasn’t that sort of player. The treatment continued in their game against the Pennsylvania Stoners, with 5 players handing out the pounding on him and Child which led to him asking to be released from his contract so he could return to his Memphis home.

Smethurst stated that he had no problem with physical play during the regular course of the game, but that he was being fouled and kicked when the ball was 60 yards away. He might have been able to retaliate a few years previous, but due to his age (34), and his converting to Christianity 3 years previously he no longer wanted to play soccer that way.  After his release he retired from pro outdoor soccer and said he would wait at home with his family in Memphis until the MISL season recommenced in the Autumn. He would concentrate on playing out his career indoor with the Memphis Americans.

Rodney Marsh stated that his release was by mutual agreement as it was not working out on either side. As they had been a potent forward partnership at the Tampa Bay Rowdies Marsh said that they remained friends, there were no hard feelings and the decision was for the best.

June also saw a 2-1 exhibition game victory at home against the Georgia Generals in front of 4,083 fans. Head Coach Marsh even took to the field for 20 minutes, which he stated was “a learning experience” and that he had learned more about the team in his 20 minute cameo than he had in the previous 2 years. He also learnt that a comeback for him was not on the cards. Marsh wore the number 13 shirt and showed that whilst his on the ball skills had not left him, his speed and fitness had. Marsh had said before that he had considered returning as a player in 1983, but the Generals game was proof that once you’ve retired, you’ve retired. Regarding the team, he learned that his offense wasn’t taking advantage of gaps in the middle of the field, and that the team was playing as 3 separate units rather than as a team. Midfielders weren’t making offensive runs, as other players weren’t dropping in and covering  for them when they went, so they had decided not to make runs at all.

For the game he had also tried Bill Finneyfrock in goal, who impressed making several key saves. Marsh stated that he was “excellent” and that he had needed a full game to boost his confidence. Finneyfrock himself described the game as “fantastic”, although it took him a little time to re-familiarize himself as he hadn’t played a game in a while. Finneyfrock’s brother Rich was a midfielder with the Nashville Diamonds.

Taking Smethurst’s place on the roster was Irish midfielder Redmond Lane who had been signed on loan from the MISL’s St. Louis Steamers for a year. Lane had spend the 1981 ASL season with the New York United where he had finished 4th on the ASL’s points scoring table with 14 goals and 10 assists for 38 points. Lane had also been voted MVP of the 1978 ASL championship game when he played with the New York Apollo. He would feature on the left side of midfield, where his speed and cultured left foot would energize the Lightnin’s attack. Also signing, although only on a one-month trial period was striker David Wright, a prospect from Portland State University. He was described as a speedy striker in the Tony Suarez style, and had been personally recommended by Lightnin’ goalkeeper Scott Manning. Midfielder and North Carolina University graduate Gerry McKeown also signed a one-year contract with club.

Unfortunately forward Hugh O’Neill would end up missing part of the 1982 season after returning to New Jersey to be with his dying father.

Promotions continued apace, and for the home game against the Detroit Express the first 3,000 youngsters admitted into the Memorial stadium would receive a fee Lightnin’ T-shirt courtesy of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Before the game would also see the second year of the Press Vs. Carolina Lightnin’ Media match. The press team were looking to avenge their 7-2 loss in the inaugural game in 1981.

After the Express game the Lightnin’ would travel to play the Rochester Flash in an unusually luxurious manner; the owners were chartering a plane to fly the team there in an experiment to see if it would see the team arrive in better shape. If proved successful and finances allowed, they may well travel in this manner for future road games. This showed how serious the Lightnin’ were in defending their championship.

A familiar face returned to the Lightnin’ midway through the season as Santiago Formosa was re-signed on a contract until the end of the season. Marsh was happy to give him a chance as the team was struggling, and Marsh felt that he was “one of the most talented players in America”.  It was hoped that he would strike up a partnership with Redmond Lane on the left side. To make room for him on the roster, striker Len Mercurio and defender Ricky Marvin were deactivated.

One of the drawbacks with having a successful and high profile Head Coach was the speculation linking him with the NASL, in particular his former stomping grounds in Tampa. The coaching position at the Rowdies was free again and Marsh was much in demand from the fans, if not the owner George Strawbridge. Marsh stated “I’d regard it as a personal honor to come back and make this team great again” indicating that perhaps he was inclined to take the position. Strawbridge instead quickly hired American Al Miller, and to quieten any further rumours Marsh signed a new one year contract for the 1983 season as head coach of the Lightnin. This completed Marsh’s original contract of 2 years plus a one year extension option pact with Carolina. Bob Benson said that this was “a vote of confidence in Marsh and the team”. Benson issued a challenge to Marsh however, saying that his overall 22-18-5 record was not acceptable to the winning tradition and values of the franchise.  Marsh stated that the contract was “the most original and unique in the United States” and that he would be completely free to negotiate with any team after the conclusion of the contract in September 1983. He himself offered a vote of confidence in the Lightnin by stating “Whether in the ASL or the NASL I have no doubt that this is one of the top 5 Soccer organizations in the country”. He also liked the challenge of turning around the Lightnin’s poor 1982 season, and had agreed with Benson that the team must win 6 of its 8 next games.

Later in the month, and quite appropriately given the team’s name, goalkeeper Scott Manning was struck by lightning prior to a home game against the Georgia Generals. During the storm his aluminium studs connected with a water sprinkler and caused the shock when the lightning struck, knocking him to the ground. He was helped off the field with no burns, just with his nerves severely rattled. Lightning does obviously strike twice however, as a few years before during a practice match in Rochester, Manning had been knocked to the floor when lightning struck the goalposts. The game with Georgia was postponed due to the weather.

Regarding their recent poor form, Manning was optimistic that it could be turned around, and that a run to the playoffs was not out of the question. He felt that although the squad had lacked a little belief, he thought that there wasn’t a team in the ASL the Lightnin couldn’t beat. He also said though that due to the teams poor defensive displays that it was “the most frustrating season of his career”.

Formosa’s second debut for the team was a home game against the Oklahoma City Slickers, and he inspired them to a 2-0 victory in front of 4,141 fans at the Memorial Stadium. Formosa was key in the victory, setting up the first goal for Lane and shoring up the defence. He also helped reduce the Slickers to ten men when, after a hard tackle, opposing  midfielder Jim Millinder came up with a hard swing to punch Formosa on the back of the neck.

Marsh was pleased with his performance too, feeling he played better than expected.  He said that Formosa “was a very, very, very good player.  He’s a good passer and seldom gives the ball away, that’s why we need him”. With the first of his 6 victories that Bob Benson required, Marsh stated that “we have to take it game by game, and keep chipping away at it”.

Their next home game drew a midweek record crowd of 5,194 to the Memorial Stadium to see the Lightnin’ in the re-scheduled clash against the Georgia Generals. Unfortunately the Lightnin’ would go down 2-1 amidst controversial refereeing  decisions and comments from Marsh. A booming free-kick from Formosa had tied the game following Robbie Olson’s opener for the Generals, when a controversial penalty kick was awarded to Georgia. Lightnin’ defender Steve Scott collided with an opposition player in the box, both players went down along with 2 others but a penalty was called. ASL scoring legend Jose Neto converted from the spot to win the game. After the game Marsh labelled the referees in the ASL as “worse than pathetic” and that they “seemed to enjoy seeing the Lightnin’ lose”. Marsh also said that the referee was laughing whilst booking Mal Roche towards the end of the game. During the game he felt that the referees were favouring the Generals, awarding them more fouls, and giving them the penalty kick..

The loss snapped the Lightnin’s 2 game winning streak and left them at 5-9-2 for the season, stalling the teams “must win” trip to the ASL playoffs. Their next 2 games would be on the road at the Generals and in Nashville before a home exhibition game against the NASL’s Rowdies. The exhibition was meant to be against a team from Holland, but they cancelled in advance.

The Lightnin’ won both the road games, leaving them 5th in the ASL, before beating the Rowdies 4-3 on a penalty shoot out in the exhibition game. The Rowdies line-up was mainly reserve players, although a few had NASL experience. It was successful at the box office with 7,690 fans in attendance. Defender Curtis Leeper scored 2 goals in the shoot out, an oddity for ASL teams as they didn’t feature penalty shootout deciders in their league.

By mid-August the Lightnin’ were in 4th place in the ASL with a 9-12-4 record, and were preparing for a home exhibition game which might lead to the Lightnin’ joining the NASL. The Jacksonville Tea Men were considering relocating to Charlotte and merging with the Lightnin’ as they were drawing poorly in the NASL, and not experiencing success on the field.  Other potential cities were also being considered, with Milwaukee the key challenger. The exhibition game was Jacksonville testing the Carolina market for the franchise and also testing the players.  Charlotte seemed to have the upper hand, having had a successful team and having successfully drew 20,000 plus fans for their championship game, instead of an untried soccer market in Milwaukee.

Lightnin’ President Bob Benson stated that requirements for the merger would be the Lightnin’ getting good crowds for their remaining ASL game and the playoff games, as well as selling 8,000 season tickets for the following season. The deadline for the sales would be November, as the NASL league meetings were held in that month and the fixtures announced in December. If both criteria were fulfilled the merger would go ahead. Benson explained that he wouldn’t go ahead without the guaranteed season ticket sales as he “wasn’t prepared to risk the team’s off-field success on the weather and the teams winning record (in the NASL)”. Benson was also not sure on whether the fans would still come in numbers to a team finding its feet and growing in the NASL over a number of years, rather than the instant success the team had in the ASL.

If the merger went ahead, Marsh would coach the new team and the roster would be a combination of the two squads, giving the exhibition game the feel of a trial match for all the players. The team would also not feature in the NASL’s indoor league. Marsh liked the prospect of Charlotte being in the NASL, feeling that the team would do well.

In early September the Lipton Tea Co. (owners of the Tea Men) announced that Charlotte was out of the running, and that Milwaukee was the preferred option for relocation. Rodney Marsh expressed surprise at the announcement, stating with surprise that “Milwaukee must have sold 8,000 season tickets”. It seemed that Milwaukee had rich backers, but the word was that the Lightnin’ might try for its own NASL franchise in 1984. In the end the Tea Men acquired new owners, remained in Jacksonville, and would face the Lightnin’ in 1983 having left the NASL for the ASL.

The Lightnin’ had a difficult second season and  finished 4th in the league playing 28 games, winning 11, tying 4, and losing 13. They scored 37 goals, conceded 45 for 99 points. They still qualified for the playoffs, where they would defeat the Rochester Flash 3-1 at home. This qualified them for the ASL semi-finals where they would face the ASL new boys, the Oklahoma City Slickers. Their success of 1981 would not be replicated however as they lost the best of 3 series , losing 2-1 and 3-0 in the first 2 games.

The top scorers for the Lightnin’ was Pat Fidelia, with 8 goals and 3 assists for 19 points. This was 8th best in the ASL, which adds weight to the feeling that the Lightnin’s offense wasn’t firing as well without Suarez and Avila.

The close season leading up to the 1983 season saw the Lightnin’ attempting to fight off the NASL. In an attempt to help ‘Americanize’ the NASL and provide better preparation for the U.S.  National team, a new team was set up in Washington DC called Team America. All NASL teams had to make their American and green card holding players available for trade to the team to fill its roster. In addition, at least 2 of the teams 20 man roster would be drawn from teams in the ASL. The commissioner of the  NASL, Howard Samuels, had contacted the Lightnin’ and asked them to participate in potentially providing players for the franchise.  Marsh was concerned about how competitive the team would be if it lost a key player to Team America, and was considering protecting the player’s contracts from the expansion draft. In the end Team America didn’t feature any players from ASL teams, and the Lightnin’ roster remained intact.

Although the Lightnin’ were a strong franchise,  the same could not be said of the other teams in the ASL, or the league. The ASL barely made it to the start of the 1983 season and now comprised only 6 teams, split equally into an Eastern and Western Division. The Lightnin’ were placed in the Eastern Division alongside the Pennsylvania Stoners and the Jacksonville Tea Men (the team who had nearly merged with the Carolina). In the Western Division would be the Oklahoma City Slickers, the Detroit Express, and the Dallas Americans.  The Season would be shortened to 25 games, with ties eliminated in favour of the NASL style penalty shoot out.

Joining the Lightnin’ front office was Robin Hyatt-Corn, who would be the voice of the team when people called the office. Her main role was  in public relations department  for the team, having previously worked for the Rock Hill Times newspaper in Charlotte.

New players on the roster would be ASL veteran midfielder Danny Payne, who had played under Marsh in the 1982 ASL all-star game. Payne was expected to bring vision to the Lightnin’ midfield alongside Lane and Tobin. 1981 Championship winning defender George Borg returned to Charlotte having settled his contract dispute with Wycombe.

By far the Lightnin’s biggest signing (and perhaps the ASL’s biggest coup)  however was  the signing Bobby Moore as assistant coach. One of the best soccer players of all time, he had had a distinguished career, making over 500 appearances in defence for West Ham United in the English First Division. He also captained the England national team, and made played a then-record 108 games  for his country. His career was capped however when he was the captain of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in the final. Moore had played in the NASL with the San Antonio Thunder and the Seattle Sounders before retiring from playing in 1978 aged 37. Immediately prior to joining the Lightnin’ he had been player/head coach of Eastern AA in the Hong Kong league, and joined the Lightnin’ as assistant coach to Rodney Marsh. Once the season had started though it seemed a waste to not use his talent, and he donned the uniform to play for the team.

The 1983 season also saw the Lightnin’ welcome back star players Tony Suarez and Miguel Avila back to the team after they missed the entire 1982 season due to injury.  Newcomers to the roster were English striker Stuart Lee, a player who had played in England for Bolton Wanderers, Wrexham, Stockport County, and Manchester City, before he moved to the U.S. He signed for the Lightnin’ after 2 seasons with the Portland Timbers.

Leaving the Lightnin’ was goalkeeper Scott Manning, who had opted to concentrate on the indoor game. Englishman Stuart Metcalfe opted to return to the UK to finish his career, signing for Crewe Alexandra.

 

The Lightnin’s home opener for the 1983 season would be played away from the Memorial Stadium. The Charlotte Motor Speedway organization would stage the opener as part of its World 600 festival.

After the first few games of the season Marsh was promoted to become the team’s General Manager and Vice-President of Marketing, as well as continuing as Head Coach. To relieve him of some of his workload, Bobby Moore would handle more of the coaching responsibilities, having been in charge of all training sessions. This move gave Marsh control on the team’s management and operation, a duty he had previously shared with the owner and President Bob Benson. Ed Young would also assist him in this new role.

The promotional activities of the Lightnin’ hit a high note in June, with the Beach Boys playing a concert at the Memorial Stadium. The gig was scheduled to start after the Lightnin’ game with the Dallas Americans had finished. Advance ticket prices for the match/concert were raised to $10, with tickets on the night costing $12.50. Marsh had no ill-feelings about being the warm-up act for the Beach Boys, feeling that Soccer was in a transitional period in America, with attendances dropping off in both the NASL and the ASL, and that all marketing avenues to put bums on seats had to be looked at. Marsh also suggested that the game of soccer in itself was not enough on its own to draw people in, and was not accepted in the U.S. sports world. The Lightnin’s average attendance had itself dropped from its high in 1981.

On the evening 16,081 fans (5 times the normal gate) attended to see the Lightnin’ beat the Dallas Americans after a 1-1 draw in regulation play and the 20 minute extra time period. The game was settled by a penalty shoot out with goalkeeper Matt Kennedy the hero, saving from Wolfgang Rausch. Dallas had got off to a quick start with Charlie Kadupski scoring after 2 minutes. Tony Suarez equalized after 23 minutes and no further goals were scored, despite the Lightnin’ playing the last 15 minutes of the game and overtime with only 10 men after defender  Dave Pierce was sent off. The team also coped with fellow defender Tommy Groark having to play whilst injured. Marsh was full of praise for the character of his team, and striker Tony Suarez was also happy with how the team played.

The Lightnin’ finished bottom of the eastern Division with a 12-13 record, scoring 43 goals and conceding 37 for a total of 103 points. Despite this they still had the 4th best record in the ASL and made the playoffs.

After winning the first leg of the semi-finals against the Jacksonville Tea Men 1-0, they lost the return fixture 2-0, pushing the tie into a decisive mini game. The Tea Men triumphed 2-0 and dumped the Lightnin’ out of the playoffs.

The team’s leading points scorer was Englishman Stuart Lee, who scored 11 goals and made 2 assists for 24 points, leaving him joint 5th in the scoring charts.

After the season had finished the ASL folded. Initially it had considered setting up an indoor league for the winter with the Nashville Diamonds being revived and a new team based in Houston joining the league for 1984, but the league administration didn’t have the fight to go on.

Professional soccer in Charlotte was not dead however, as along with the Jacksonville Tea Men, Dallas Americans, and the Oklahoma City Slickers they opted to join up with a group of investors based in Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. The investor’s new venture was  the  United Soccer League which was part-founded by ex- Lightnin’ co-owner Rich Melvin along with some other team owners.

The USL was intended to be much more than just a simple continuation of the ASL. It adopted a 5 point plan to ensure its survival. This included fiscal responsibility, regionalization of the league, orderly expansion, Americanization, and a strong and lean league office. The USL’s commissioner Dr. William Burfeind also announced that it was to be a year-round league, with each franchise also operating an indoor team. This would maintain interest in the teams, rather than a league stopping 6 months. Each team was limited to a roster of 18 players, 14 of which had to be American, and a strict salary cap of $175,000 per season  in effect. If a team opted to also take part indoors this would be extended to $350,000 for the whole year. Exceptions to the cap could be made, but only with the approval of the other owners. Each team’s total operating budget was expected to be around $900,000 per year.

This led to a new start for soccer in Carolina, as the Lightnin’ effectively folded. In its place came a new ownership group headed by Felix Sabates, would go on to found the SABCO Racing team that competed in the NASCAR championship. Bob Benson was not part of the new team, although most of the Lightnin’s front office employees and the playing roster moved over to the new team. The Lightnin’ name also disappeared, as the new team would be named the Charlotte Gold.

The league featured 9 teams, the Gold, Americans, Tea Men and Slickers (renamed the Oklahoma City Stampede), were joined by 5 other teams. The Houston Dynamos, Fort Lauderdale Sun (filling the void left by the Strikers relocation to Minnesota),  Buffalo Storm,  New York Nationals, and the revived Rochester Flash. The teams were split across 3 divisions with the Gold placed in the Southern Division alongside Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

Rodney Marsh’ s contract as Head Coach had expired and he had finally rejoined the NASL as Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies for the ill-fated 1984 season. The new Head Coach was Dave D’Errico, who would also join the playing roster in defence. He had played in the NASL for the Seattle Sounders, Minnesota Kicks, New England Tea Men, and the Rochester Lancers, as well as one season in the ASL with New York United. An accomplished defender, he was also a US international, having featured 17 times with the national team. He had also played indoor soccer with the Cincinnati Kids and the New York Arrows. At 32 years of age this would be D’Errico’s first coaching assignment. Taking over Marsh’s General Manager role would be Ed Young.

Most of the Lightnin’ roster continued to play for the new team. Pat Fidelia. Stuart Lee left to rejoin the NASL, signing with Marsh at the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Defender Curtis Leeper joined the Gold’s Southern Division rivals the Fort Lauderdale Sun.

Star player Tony Suarez continued with the Gold, but after injuring his right knee was forced to retire from professional soccer. It was a sad end for a player who had shown so much promise in his first season and become a huge star in the Carolinas.

After the 24 game regular season the Gold finished second in the 3 team Southern Division with a 11-13 record. They scored 48 goals and conceded 59 for 105 points (5th best in the league). This record was not enough for them to reach the playoffs and they duly folded after the season along with the New York, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Rochester, Houston, and Oklahoma franchises. Some of the Gold ownership group began negotiations with Clive Toye regarding joining the NASL for the 1985 season, but the talks would come to nothing, mainly because the New York Cosmos would not post the bond to Toye to confirm their place in the NASL. This led to them being excluded from the league and Italian owner Giorgio Chinaglia threatening to throw the lawyer out of the window. The folding of 2 soccer franchises in quick succession in Charlotte had left little interest in public about soccer, and no new team would take the Gold’s place until the Charlotte Eagles began play in 1993.

 

After the Gold folded numerous players continued to live, work, and promote soccer in the Carolina’s

Tony Suarez  unfortunately passed away on April 18th 2007 at the age of 51.

Pat Fidelia retired from professional soccer, although he would continue to play amateur soccer in Charlotte. He also coached high school soccer at Charlotte Christian School.

Bill Finneyfrock is currently the Executive Director of the Charlotte United Futbol Club.

Ed Young was inducted into the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007 due to his contribution to soccer in the state from the early 1970’s onwards. He continues to promote soccer and has a national profile as vice-chair of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Soccer Ambassadors program.

Danny Payne, who played in midfield for the Lightnin’ in the 1983 season  retired and set up his own accounting firm in Pleasanton, California. He sadly passed away from cancer in 2005, aged only 48.

Don Tobin is currently assistant coach at the University of Tampa’s soccer team, the Spartans.

Bobby Moore succumbed to cancer in 1993 at the age of 52. His widow Stephanie set up the Bobby Moore fund in his memory to raise funds for the fight against cancer.

 

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