On Sunday morning, 500 fans of a third division club that has never played a competitive game will board a bus in High Point, North Carolina, to travel to see their team's debut.

It's a 90-minute journey down to the suburbs of Charlotte, the kind of trip which football fans in Europe and South America are well accustomed to making for games but until recently has been rare in most of the United States.

Carolina Core is the latest club to be formed in a further sign that the game is growing, not only in big markets such as Miami and Los Angeles, but in small town America, particularly in the South.

For Eddie Pope, who played in three World Cups for the USA and is now the Core's chief soccer officer, the cultural shift in the country has been noticeable.

"The game is on television all the time. There are stadiums where you can go to watch the game. Kids are now walking around in (team) jerseys, they understand the sport. There are more fans. It has just grown," he told AFP in an interview.

The Core hope to develop players from their locality and the recruits they have brought in from Europe and South America, but also aim to be part of the thriving soccer culture.

"It's also about giving this community more entertainment from a football standpoint, a team of their own to watch and support," said Pope who played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

The Core is a hometown team for Pope, who was born in High Point, a town of 114,000 located in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina -- a state very much at the heart of the 'soccer boom.'

Third-season Major League Soccer club Charlotte FC averages more than 30,000 for home games and drew a crowd of 62,291 fans for a home opener last month.

The Core will take a bow in MLS Next Pro, a third-tier league featuring affiliate and reserve teams of MLS clubs along with new independent teams like the Core.

Sunday's opponents, Crown Legacy, are the reserves of Charlotte FC but North and South Carolina are home to a number of other professional clubs.

Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, Greenville Triumph and Raleigh-based North Carolina FC play in the United Soccer Leagues lower division structure.

Attendances for such clubs are far from the levels enjoyed by MLS teams but nonetheless spend significant money on facilities, in contrast to the years when clubs had to play on high school American football fields.

The Core are in the process of finishing off a new $38 million stadium with 3,500 seats and investing an eight-figure sum in a new training center.

The latter is a project close to Pope's heart as a former player who in the past had to prepare in some less-than-ideal environments.

"It's understanding that you have to have a place for players to ply their trade as opposed to bouncing around in the early days from behind this school and at this field," he said.

Another former US national team player, Roy Lassiter, is the club's first coach and had the rare opportunity, together with Pope and other staff, of building a playing squad from scratch.

"It has been good to bring in players I want instead of inheriting a team that already had players on it, where some players may not fit my liking but I got to pick every last player," said Lassiter.

Going to be enjoyable

Just 16 months after the club was formed, the first 90 minutes awaits and for the two former players, the old butterflies are returning for the tough start against last year's Eastern Conference champion.

"It's going to be enjoyable. They are right down the road from us. It will be fun to watch the fans interact and we're excited," said Pope.

While many of their rivals mainly exist to develop players for MLS parent clubs, Pope knows the flip side of being an independent community club is  expectations from supporters.

"We have our own fans," he said. "We have to make sure we're winning some games."

Especially, perhaps, local derbies.