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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Chelsea, Wrexham coaches impressed by sold-out crowd and playing surface in Chapel Hill

Wrexham AFC played against Chelsea FC in the first-ever international soccer match at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium on July 19, 2023.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
Wrexham AFC played against Chelsea FC in the first-ever international soccer match at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium on July 19, 2023.

Chelsea FC topped Wrexham AFC by a score of 5-0 on Wednesday night at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill.

But it wasn’t the scoreline that turned heads. It was the atmosphere, which included an announced sold-out crowd of 50,596 fans.

Even Chelsea coach Mauricio Pochettino was impressed. His team is a giant in the English Premier League and regularly plays in front of about 40,000 fans at the club’s home venue — Stamford Bridge in London.

“Really nice. I think it was amazing. It was full, the stadium. Thank you to all the fans in, of course, North Carolina,” Pochettino said after the match. “So happy to be here. We really enjoyed it, the game.”

The fans came to Chapel Hill from near and far. It was the first time ever that Kenan Stadium — which originally opened in 1927 — had hosted an international soccer match. For a Wednesday night in July, the buzz outside Kenan was unusually palpable. The home of UNC-Chapel Hill’s football team is typically quiet this time of year. But fans wearing Wrexham red and Chelsea blue snaked around the stadium, waiting in long lines for beer and merchandise.

Fans cheer after Chelsea scores a goal against Wrexham on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
Fans cheer after Chelsea scores a goal against Wrexham on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium.
Two Wrexham defenders try to stop an attacking Chelsea player on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
Two Wrexham defenders try to stop an attacking Chelsea player on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium.

Tickets for the match sold out within just a few days of going on sale. And a lot of folks that bought them came to see Wrexham.

A small club in Wales which recently earned promotion to the fourth tier of English soccer, Wrexham gained a following in the United States from the Emmy-nominated FX docuseries “Welcome To Wrexham.” It provides an inside look into the team since it was bought by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

“We watched the documentary obviously, and we’re just huge Rob and Ryan fans,” said Durham resident Dan Bentley. “We were stoked. We’re there. We love watching live soccer.”

Some fans traveled a bit further to come to the game, like Leo Longoria and his family who made the drive down from Chesapeake, Virginia. When they heard Wrexham was going to play within a drive of just a few hours, “we took off work, no question.”

The FX show is where Stacey Hackworth first heard of Wrexham, too. She and her husband have been fans ever since. They came to Chapel Hill from Yorktown, Virginia, with their son and his friend, both of whom play college soccer at Christopher Newport University.

“We watched the series and my husband’s been following them this season and obviously they did well, we’re proud of them, and looking forward to cheering them on,” Hackworth said. “We’ve always loved football. We bought tickets months ago. Happy to be here. Can’t believe how crowded it is — to be expected.”

The game in Chapel Hill was the first of a four-game tour of the U.S. that Wrexham is taking. It is expected to generate more than $1.1 million in revenue for Orange County.

It’s possible that the success of this match could mean more international soccer games in the future for Kenan, which proved to be a suitable venue for the sport. English Premier League teams like Chelsea have often visited East Coast cities like Charlotte, Baltimore, and Orlando for summer tours, but have largely ignored the Triangle, mostly because of the lack of an appropriate venue. Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park provides a fine playing surface for soccer, but the stadium only seats about 10,000 fans. And Raleigh’s Carter-Finley Stadium — the home of N.C. State’s football team — is too narrow for soccer.

Kenan proved to be just right for a summer friendly. The only adjustment organizers had to make was bringing in a natural grass surface to lay on top of the artificial turf that the Tar Heels’ football team typically plays on.

Soccer players widely prefer to play on grass than turf. And when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026, all playing surfaces will have to be on natural grass.

When Wrexham coach Phil Parkinson heard that a grass surface was being laid down on the field at Kenan last week, he was a bit worried. But once the game started, those concerns quickly vanished.

“It played incredibly well,” Parkinson said. “You’ve got to give the grounds staff and the technology so much credit for that, because for it to knot together so quickly, it was amazing. We all thought, you know, ‘is it going to cut up?’ But it wasn’t. It was a fantastic playing surface. So, credit to everybody involved.”

The game also aired live on ESPN. For one night, it seemed like the summer soccer spotlight was on the Triangle.

Considering how well it all went — from tickets sold to the transformation of the facility — it might not be the last time big-time soccer pays a visit to Chapel Hill.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.