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Why hundreds of soccer fans converged on downtown Raleigh to support an MLS bid

Lured by their passion for soccer and the promise of free beer, hundreds of North Carolina F.C. supporters gathered Wednesday evening for the club’s rally in downtown Raleigh.

The event capped a visit to Raleigh from Major League Soccer president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott to evaluate the city’s potential to house an MLS franchise. The crowd of fans marched three blocks from the London Bridge Pub to City Market on Martin Street, filling the indoor venue and leaving many people to listen from outdoors.

“Huge crowd, super hot — people don’t care. They’re still out here supporting us, cheering us on. I don’t think it’s all about the beer,” North Carolina F.C. owner Steve Malik said. “I think it really made an impression on them. It clearly did. Mark (Abbott) was very animated and supportive.”

Oak City Supporters, the team’s primary fan group, handed out free T-shirts and scarves to people on the march sporting the MLS bid’s slogan #919toMLS, and the crowd at City Market chanted, sang the team’s songs and raised their scarves proudly in front of the group of MLS officials.

Abbott’s group met with local business leaders and government officials, toured the proposed stadium site and took a helicopter tour of the city, but when Abbott took the stage at the rally, he called meeting the fans “the highlight of the day.”

Malik took the microphone before Abbott spoke and showed the video presenting the stadium that he first unveiled at a press conference Wednesday morning, which elicited a loud roar when it appeared on the screen. The 22,000-seat stadium, which Malik said would be expandable to 28,000, will potentially be on Peace Street next to Halifax Mall if the bid for an MLS team is successful.

“I think the only people that have been on Halifax Mall in the last 20 years have been protesting something,” Malik said on stage. “We want to provide a crown jewel to this community.”

Most of North Carolina F.C.’s players and some members of the National Women’s Soccer League’s North Carolina Courage were at the rally, standing side by side with their biggest fans.

“It’s so cool to get to know the fans on a personal level and connect with them that way so to have them come out, we’re really doing this together,” midfielder Austin Da Luz said. “This is a special community. It’s a community that loves soccer, so I wasn’t nervous. I knew it was going to be a big turnout.”