These guys are quietly providing a pretty impressive product on the field.
Many outside of North Carolina won’t have heard of the First Flight League (which is a dope name btw), but that shouldn’t stop you from getting to know it. It’s got a lot of quality soccer to offer and fills an important niche of low-cost local soccer in a soccer-rich state.
On attempt number two to go to a FFL match, I (Danny) made it out to Monroe, NC for a Union FC match in the Charlotte metro area.
Union took on Atletico Olanchano, a fellow mid-table side and my chosen club to support in the league, in the Saturday afternoon outing, and it was a treat to watch.
First off, the venue is brilliantly quaint. Being from Atlanta, it’s still hard for me to grasp how quickly you can get to a rural area from uptown Charlotte. From my living space in the city center, it’s less than an hour to Jesse Helms Park in Monroe, but that’s all it takes to feel like you’re hours from civilization.
I was genuinely driving past hay bales and herds of cows on my way in, and it prompted me to do a little research on the town I paid a visit to.
Named for our fifth president, Monroe has around 35,000 residents and serves as the county seat of rural Union County (for which the home side is named). As one might imagine, the soccer history here is sparse, but two minor league baseball teams graced the city in the 1970s.
After an elongated struggle with civil rights and racial tension, it’s now a town with an ever-growing Hispanic population, which has driven an interest in soccer and the creation of the town’s first (assumedly) amateur soccer club in Union FC.
Union is spoiled with a brand-new soccer complex in Jesse Helms Park, which features a big red barn-like building as its central edifice, just in case you forgot how far into the country you’d ventured to get there.
The setting was picturesque, and it set the backdrop for a fantastic afternoon of football.
On my way down from Charlotte, I stopped by a local Colombian place in Monroe for an arepa and some guanábana juice that did not disappoint. Shouts to La Arepa!
Once I got there, though, the match had already started, even though I was 10 minutes early for the 3 PM start time. I confirmed with another person watching the match (one of like 10 total) that I hadn’t missed any goals, and I sat back to take in the action.
One side was in their typical bright yellow with a dragon on their crest, which I already knew to be the home side. The natural assumption was that this left the team in white to be Olanchano, who didn’t have any subs, it seemed, or even a coach.
They were pretty far from their home of Rose Hill, so that wasn’t too shocking. The boys in white quickly found themselves controlling possession, and it was a matter of finishing chances in the first 30 minutes for them. Finally, the breakthrough came around the 32nd minute via a goal from #10, the left winger.
He quickly scored a second, and his brace led the away side into the halftime break up 2-0 on the yellows.
In the second half, Union started to fix some of their problems getting control in midfield. They pressed high from the second half’s opening whistle and earned a goal in the 46th minute.
Suddenly, Union was the better side of the two, kicking the ball around with intent and finding open space. For as strong as the boys in white were on the ball, they struggled with defensive errors off the ball.
In the 60th minute, Union took advantage of one such error and pulled themselves level at 2-2. At the time, it surprised me how little the benches and players were responding to the goals. There were hardly any celebrations, and the second goal especially for the yellows was a top-bins effort worthy of a We United celebration.
It never came, though, and as a result, the score was a rousing 2-2 with the energy of 0-0. Olanchano quickly found their footing again and started overwhelming the 18-yard box with crosses, pullbacks, and dribble moves.
For a good 20-minute period, they just couldn’t find the net, but #14 broke the deadlock in the 84th minute or so to make it 3-2 in dramatic fashion. A finishing blow with seconds remaining from #22 secured the result, and 4-2 was the final scoreline, in favor of…
Moments after the match ended, the two sides gathered at the same bench, around the same coach, and I caught a glimpse of the badge the white team was wearing. It was the same badge as their opposite numbers.
I hadn’t watched my beloved Olanchano boys dramatically win after all; I’d watched a makeshift friendly among the Union squad after Olanchano couldn’t travel from Rose Hill.
So they’re probably wondering why I tagged them like five times in smallworld’s Insta story. I’m laughing imagining them asking themselves if they should crush the weird white guy’s happiness by telling him it wasn’t actually them playing.
In any case, it was still a great road trip to Monroe, and one more team showed up than the last time I traveled to see a Union match!
Hopefully I can come out one more time and see a proper FFL game, and in the meantime, hopefully you enjoyed reading about my experience and the town I got to explore (and enjoy an arepa in!)
Thanks as always for reading and support local soccer!