A-League: Charlotte Eagles Explore New Terrain

The Charlotte Eagles have traveled to Australia, Europe, Asia and now Africa to spread goodwill. They will now test their mettle at home in the A-League after winning the 2000 D3 title.

Preseason training in Rwanda and Ethiopia is unusual, but the Charlotte Eagles aren't your typical soccer team.

Owned by Missionary Athletes International, a non-profit Christian group, the Eagles have traveled the world to, as General Manager Tom Engstrom puts it, "spread goodwill."

"Traveling is a big part of what we do," Engstrom said, rattling off some past destinations: Australia, Czech Republic, England, France, Jordan, Israel, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

The Eagles are in Africa, touring Rwanda and Ethiopia for three weeks. Along with seven games against local pro clubs, the team's agenda includes delivering soccer equipment to youth clubs and orphanages and holding clinics.

"We really try to use the game of soccer to break gaps between cultures in different countries and different continents," Engstrom said, downplaying the missionary aspect of the trips. "It's a worldly game and a great way to do that. We'll learn more from them than they'll learn from us. I'm sure of that."

The Eagles will be exploring another form of new terrain this season, having been promoted to the A-League.

The Eagles won the 2000 D3 championship with inspired form at the end of the season, overcoming a midseason slump to roll into the playoffs. Striker Dustin Swinehart scored a hat trick to give the Eagles a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Stallions in the final.

NEW VISIBILITY. After eight years in the USL, Engstrom hopes the move up to the A-League will give the Eagles new visibility in their own backyard.

"I think the A-League has given us a spark," Engstrom said. "We're seeing a real improvement in sponsorships and things like that."

The Eagles have had a core group of fan support, but it has always been in the 1,000-2,500 range.

"Our challenge now is to really grow that exponentially and have some bigger crowds," Engstrom said. "We're a real grass-roots type of organization, where we haven't made very big splashes."

Crowds of 3,000 for the D3 semifinals and 5,300 for the final last season gave the Eagles optimism that the fans are there.

"Hopefully, [those numbers] will carry over to this season," Engstrom said.

One problem for Charlotte is that it doesn't have a soccer-specific stadium. The Eagles play at an old American football relic, Memorial Stadium, which has a capacity of 24,000.

"It's a pretty good setting for a game overall," Engstrom said. "But it's a typical old facility in that the field is not as wide as you'd like it."

The Eagles will also be playing at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.

BUDGET CONSTRAINTS. Coach Mark Steffens doesn't promise any miracles. Because of budget constraints, the team that takes the field this coming season won't have a lot of new faces.

Among those expected to lead the Eagles are Swinehart and Liberty University grad Jeff Johnson, who scored the other two goals in the D3 final.

by Soccer America associate editor Poul Swain

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