May 21, 2022
WakeMed Soccer Park (10,000)
North Carolina FC vs Greenville Triumph
Final Score: 1-0
A thunderstorm delayed kickoff by 45 minutes, but I was thankful that there was no cancellation as the round of heavy rain that came through quickly exited Cary. This very large town of 175,000 is a suburb of Raleigh in Central North Carolina and part of the Research Triangle with three other cities. Cary has become quite attractive to those relocating to the area. The team I saw began play in 2007 as the Carolina RailHawks before changing their name in 2016 to Generic Club FC like everybody else in this country. They’ve mostly been in the 2nd Division of the U.S. soccer pyramid until voluntarily dropping a level to USL League One last year. NCFC has never won a league title, but they’ve finished first in the regular season a couple times. Their deepest U.S. Open Cup run was a semifinal appearance. WakeMed Soccer Park is their home complex and this place built in 2002 is huge as there are six other fields in the park. The main field with 10,000 seats is officially known as Sahlen’s Stadium (though WakeMed is the most common reference) and it is one of the first examples of a U.S. soccer specific stadium. The North Carolina Courage of the NWSL also call this place home, however the experience for NCFC…not the best.
Prestige Ranking: 2 out of 5
While Cary is not a place that out-of-towners will be coming to check out, it is a fine and desirable place to live. There are many parks and though it lacks a thriving central section, there is a downtown area with several restaurants and even a small history center if you have the time to check it out. For the best place to eat, head a few minutes east to Ole Time Barbeque.
Location Ranking: 4.5 out of 10
Accessibility / Parking
There is plenty of interstate access around the Triangle and getting to Cary is easy as it is alongside I-40. The exit doesn’t bring you right to WakeMed, but it’s only a few minutes and a couple roads to the park. The stadium is on the eastern edge of town and it is carved out of many acres of wooded land. For such a huge soccer complex (and host of youth / other tournaments), parking quality really sucks as I was directed to a crappy grass field with dirt lanes. Paved parking was not for general ticket holders and that was limited as well. Getting out after the game wasn’t an issue, though attendance was low.
Accessibility / Parking Ranking: 6.5 out of 8
The corner entrance doesn’t lend to a look at the architecture as you enter into open space. You’ll have to walk past that to the players parking lot to see the railings and backside of the upper bleachers. It’s not really worth the walk. Other visible end features include the back of the scoreboard with a picture and text for the team.
Exterior Ranking: 2.5 out of 10
Walking straight ahead from the entrance, there is a corner building that provides concessions, bathrooms and team souvenirs. This open space continues on as an outdoor walkway between the first and second seating levels. You’d expect a traditional concourse between them, but that’s not the case here. Moving past the East stands, you have to go down to ground-level and this open space goes behind the South end and other sideline seats. There’s a lot of blank space here, but they do have a basketball game for kids and a picnic area for groups (way displaced from even remotely seeing the field). To reach the other side, you have climb onto the walkway at the top of the North bleachers.
Concourse Ranking: 2.5 out of 5
For food, the experience started poor because the first stand I saw had a cheap, temporary look and a menu on a table that was hard to see given it was right next to the cash register. Deeper in, the Corner Kick Café is a more traditional concession stand. Options were limited to Burgers, Chicken Tenders, Hot Dogs and Sausage/Peppers (plus snacks). But they did have Pulled Pork (not sure if the sauce was Eastern NC style) and Hush Puppies. Beer featured a mix of national brands and local favorites.
Food Ranking: 4 out of 8
The stadium consists of four separate seating sections and where most of the capacity comes from is the East stands. However, you’ll be staring straight into the sun (if applicable), so I recommend the other side. This is especially so because they don’t let you sit in the steeper upper deck, which would’ve provided a great vantage point to watch the game. Otherwise, this side features seating that goes from corner flag to corner flag and includes 16-18 rows. It’s very weird because one half is set in concrete, while the other is set on metal bleacher. All of the seats are of the green bucket variety and row spacing is wide. The pitch of the stands was gentle and not the best. Ends consist of traditional bleacher seats, while the other side of the stadium is on an aluminum base with sections of both bleacher and bucket. There are about 10-13 rows there. The middle on this side consists of the “Owner’s Box” and there is also luxury seating in the West Stands as two suites are located underneath the upper deck.
Interior Ranking: 7.5 out of 14
A pretty good board above the end with the trees in the background provides continuous video of the game broadcast. Other displays showed up nicely on here. There are a few small ads at the top and bottom, but the most prominent feature is the “Town of Cary” sign above the board. At the other end, is a simple High School like scoreboard with “Sahlen’s Stadium” a bigger display at the top.
Scoreboard Ranking: 3 out of 4
There’s some weird art with this abstract structure (seemingly meaningless) on the walk to the main entrance. The corner introduction has several NCFC flags and various stuff with logos on them to give some character before you walk in. Displays inside feature more Courage banners than anything, especially along the walkway behind the East stands. Tiny banners at the bottom of the South end include a couple for NCFC regular season titles. I did at least like how the façade’s had some team flavor to them. Another unique display is the wall of the press level boasting the number of matches held here.
Displays Ranking: 2 out of 6
What a joke. This is probably one key reason why they lose fans and can’t rebuild a supporting base. $15 to park!? I mean, yeah you can prepay for $10, but most will do cash and that’s absurd when you look at the league and the location. Concessions are high too: $8 for a cheeseburger, $5 for a Hot Dog and $5 for a bottled water. For tickets, they range from $15 – $36. Buy them at the box office to save the hefty fee that TicketMaster tacks on and definitely go for the cheapest seat. The place is mostly empty and you shouldn’t have a problem moving to a sideline seat and one that is not far from midfield.
Cost Ranking: 5.5 out of 8
Overall support is very disappointing given the large population to draw from within the Triangle and the vast number of families with soccer-playing kids and youth programs in the area. Attendance was paltry on this visit as the number looked to be in the 500 – 1,000 range. It did rain, which delayed the game, so no-shows are understandable. However, the next weekend had great weather and there weren’t that many more people. NCFC is near the bottom of League One for attendance this season and regional rivals do better in the stands. There does appear to be Covid drop-off as things looked a little better in the stands when watching replays from 2019. This is evident with the Oak City Supporters group, who had a nearly 50-person presence back then. I counted just 14 on this night. Though I give them credit as they had a constant drum, someone waiving a flag and frequent team songs and chants. Kudos to the couple of them wearing their orange Carolina RailHawks garb.
Fan Support Ranking: 2.5 out of 8
Despite the small crowd, I thought they were a decent bunch as they applauded good tackles and efforts, made a little noise on corners and echoed some “oooo’s” on quality chances. A goal got a nice “yeah”, then clapping as a train horn blasted from the South end and “Shout” was played on the speakers.
Atmosphere Ranking: 7 out of 14
I was turned off in multiple ways with NCFC and a big deterrent was all of their prohibited items. Trust me, I get it, but banning umbrellas after it just rained and the stadium is mostly empty…c’mon. Camera cases weren’t allowed either, so where am I supposed to put my camera on the wet ground? No backpacks is a touchy subject, but since you have multiple security lines, just have them check through it……WakeMed Soccer Park is a frequent host of the College Cup, which is NCAA’s championship in soccer….The club has a substantial youth program as their academy grows many players through various levels of the team.
Luis Arriaga got NCFC on the board early as he slotted one home in the 7th minute. The first half was entertaining as it features good runs and a few quality chances. Greenville controlled possession in the second half, however they could not get a shot past 16-year-old goalkeeper Nick Holliday as the home side won 1-0.