Robert D. “Bob” Benson is a pioneer of Charlotte professional sports. However, Benson’s history-making success with the Carolina Lightnin’ was preceded by others planting the roots of soccer in Charlotte.
Nine years before the Lightnin’ played its first match in Charlotte American Legion Memorial Stadium on May 2, 1981, a Western Carolina University goalkeeper named Ed Young started a six-team summer soccer league in Charlotte, so he and other college soccer players could continue training between semesters. As the only amateur league in the city, the Charlotte Soccer League quickly grew to include adults of all ages and experience, offering league and tournament play in the spring and fall. When Young graduated, he rejoined the league as a coach and player for teams that would win six Carolina Soccer League Governor’s Cups and qualify for the national Open Cup competition.
In 1978, Young and two other soccer proponents, Gene Goldberg and Richards Roddey, formed an organization called Charlotte Soccer ’79 to promote professional soccer in Charlotte. Along with Goldberg’s son (Steve Goldberg, who worked with the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs), this trio worked with the NASL to stage two pro soccer exhibitions in Charlotte at Memorial Stadium. On March 24, 1979, the Atlanta Chiefs and Minnesota Kicks played before 3,742 fans in Memorial Stadium, the first professional soccer game in the Carolinas. Following the exhibition, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam indicated a franchise for Charlotte likely would require a team to relocate from another city rather than through expansion. Meanwhile, the American Soccer League (ASL) was looking to establish a southern division. However, ASL Director of Franchise Development, Rich Melvin, wanted a Charlotte franchise whether or not a Southern Division occurred. The ASL’s ready-now attitude and the relative cost of expansion franchise fees ($1.5 million for NASL; $500,000 for ASL) favored the ASL.
Based on the efforts of Charlotte Soccer ’79, Benson, owner of Pnucor, a Charlotte engineering sales firm, established Carolina Professional Soccer, Ltd (CPS) with four other investors to pursue a pro soccer franchise. With Benson serving as principal owner/president, CPS was awarded an ASL franchise on December 3, 1979. Subsequently, Melvin also invested in the team and came on board as the team’s General Manager. The next front office appointment was Ed Young as the Director of Operations, due to his extensive background, knowledge and connections with Charlotte’s local soccer scene.
With the franchise in hand, CPS began the task of promoting soccer in Charlotte and the surrounding region of North and South Carolina. This included holding several youth soccer camps and clinics, as well as two exhibition matches, with local soccer coach Larry Bosc coming on board to coordinate these activities. CPS also organized and held two professional exhibition matches in Charlotte. The first exhibition was held on April 3, 1980 featuring two ASL teams, the Pennsylvania Stoners and the Miami Americans. This was followed on June 21, 1980 when CPS hosted the ASL All-Star Match pitting the ASL All-Stars against Yehud-Hapoel of Israel’s first division. All three matches were played in Charlotte American Legion Memorial Stadium.
As summer turned to autumn in 1980, CPS experienced several milestones. English soccer legend and former NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies All-Star Rodney Marsh was named head coach of the Charlotte ASL franchise. Marsh spent the 1980 ASL season coaching the New York United team. Soon after Marsh was named head coach in Charlotte, Benson announced the team’s name. CPS had partnered with The Charlotte Observer, North Carolina’s largest daily newspaper, to hold a “Name the Team” contest. Out of nearly 7,000 entries, Benson selected Carolina Lightnin’, the name submitted by Mike Finegan, a 16-year-old soccer player from Hickory, NC.
Now with an official team name, Marsh began building a roster from scratch, while also serving as the marketing face of the Carolina Lightnin’. With no players or a game schedule to publicize, Marsh became the initial focal point for the team’s promotions. This marketing strategy received a strong boost when Marsh was featured as a Miller Lite All-Star in Miller Brewing Company’s national TV and print advertising campaign. The highly popular advertisements capitalized on Marsh’s soccer heritage by having him describe how as a child he did everything with his feet, including taking out the garbage. Marsh when on to say being in America taught him how do to things with his hands. Taking hold of Miller’s product in each hand, Marsh then flashed his famous grin and said, “Look mom, no feet!” Suddenly, Marsh’s fame expanded well beyond soccer fans.
Meanwhile, Marsh, Benson, Melvin, Young and other Lightnin’ front office personnel were busy selling season tickets, lining up corporate sponsorships and generating media coverage for the upcoming season. As for building his roster, Marsh figured it would be dominated by experienced professional players. Nevertheless, Marsh held open tryouts, which some assumed was merely part of promoting the Lightnin’ and soccer to the community. In fact, these tryouts would result in meaningful player discoveries that would influence the surprising fate and legacy of the Carolina Lightnin’. Four players (Bill Finneyfrock, David Pierce, Steve Scott and Tony Suarez) participating in these tryouts ultimately made the professional roster, with a few others being placed on the practice squad.
Robert D. "Bob" Benson