Across the front of the press box at the new BBVA Compass Field is a slogan that is familiar, but just a little different: “Fútbol Capital of the South.”
Those who have lived in the Birmingham area for a while should remember a similar legend, “Football Capital of the South,” that was displayed across the front of Legion Field’s old upper deck. The main tenants of the new field are hoping they can achieve legendary status in a different kind of football, as the game is known in almost all of the rest of the world.
Birmingham Legion FC, the Magic City’s new professional soccer team, pays homage to the Old Gray Lady on Graymont Avenue with its name. Ironically, Legion Field’s largest crowd ever was not for an Iron Bowl or Magic City Classic, but instead a soccer match during the 1996 Olympic Games between Argentina and the United States. The new team’s home is much smaller; about 5,300 seats are available. The stadium, which is on the western edge of the UAB campus, also is home to the UAB Blazers men’s soccer team.
Legion FC is Birmingham’s first ever fully professional soccer club. It began play March 10 in the Championship division of the United Soccer League, a second-division league just below Major League Soccer at the top of the recently reorganized American-Canadian “soccer pyramid.” The three divisions below MLS are under the USL banner, patterned after the same system long used in England and Wales.
While USL Championship is equated by many with the “minor league” moniker applied to baseball’s farm system, the league itself eschews the term. Legion FC Communications Director Clayton Humphries uses this approach: “We’ve had success explaining that Legion FC is like an NCAA Division 1 (Football Bowl Subdivision) football team that is just outside of the Power Five conferences — similar, kind of, to UAB. We are a fully professional team that is not bringing in players to develop and send on to our affiliate in the ‘big leagues.’ Our players are here in Birmingham because they want to be here and want to play for this club, and we all have no goals other than winning.”
Unlike minor-league teams in other American sports, which almost never play big league opponents, USL Championship teams get a chance to do that each year with a separate competition called the U. S. Open Cup, which involves clubs across all four divisions. Depending on the luck of the draw, Legion FC could face an MLS side team such as Atlanta United, the expansion team that shocked the soccer world by winning the league championship in only its second year of existence.
The Rise of Soccer
The new club is part of a wave of expansion by the USL Championship in particular and professional soccer in general across America and Canada, with 36 clubs in two conferences so far and at least two more coming in the next two seasons. A spokesman for Legion FC said that the league hopes to eventually expand to as many as 80 teams in four conferences. Likewise, MLS has 24 clubs, with plans to grow to 28 by the year 2022; this includes teams that were promoted from USL ranks, including FC Cincinnati this season and Nashville next year.
The sport is now enjoying a boom across the country, in large part due to the explosion at the youth level. It’s a far cry from soccer’s past in the States, where it struggled to gain attention for decades despite being hugely popular in the rest of the world. Television producer Michael Davies, co-host of the “Men in Blazers” soccer-focused show on NBC Sports Network, jokingly refers to soccerhis tag line, “The Sport of the Future since 1972.”
MLS was formed in 1993 as part of the effort to bring the FIFA World Cup to the U.S., giving professional soccer its best foundation since the old North American Soccer League attracted worldwide stars such as Péle and Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s.
Legion FC has its local roots, both in game play and fan support, in a previous team called the Birmingham Hammers. That team played in the National Premier Soccer League, a fourth division league now renamed USL League 2 that called an athletic complex in Vestavia Hills its home. Though never terribly successful in terms of wins and losses, the team established a beachhead for the sport on the professional level. And when the USL was looking for places to expand, Birmingham seemed promising.
Unlike the other sports teams that have sprung up recently in Birmingham, Legion FC comes with a supporters’ group already in place. The Magic City Brigade was formed to support the Hammers, and when that team was replaced by Legion FC, the Brigade followed along. They occupy a full section in BBVA Compass Field’s general-admission stands, with boisterous support enhanced by team flags and banging drums — a smaller version of the groups that have supported European and South American teams for many years.
The team’s crest features a hammer and anvil, alluding to both the Hammers club and Birmingham’s steelmaking past. At home matches, a crew from Sloss Furnaces even fires up a small furnace used to make metal bars with the team name embossed. They also blow a steam whistle, much like those used to beckon steelworkers to their jobs, to start each match.
Though Legion FC plays in the second division, it’s loaded with players, coaches and front office leadership from MLS. Head coach Tom Soehn spent three seasons as the on-field boss of D.C. United, winning one U.S. Open Cup, and was interim manager of two other MLS squads. President and General Manager Jay Heaps was a standout defender for the New England Revolution for nine seasons and later was the club’s head coach for seven years. His connections to the Revs are still apparent, as New England has loaned Birmingham two players to get some extra playing time.
Legion FC has an ownership group headed by Jeff Logan, who is a co-owner of the Birmingham Barons along with his father, Don, the former Time Warner executive who is a co-owner of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. Two members of the Harbert family, best known for their construction business, are part owners as well.
But perhaps the biggest name in the Legion FC organization, at least for fans from the Birmingham area, is a forward by the name of Chandler Hoffman — often referred to on social media by the club and its fans with the hashtag #NativeSon.
Hoffman’s exploits on the soccer pitch are legendary among local fans. He was a standout at Oak Mountain High School in Shelby County, leading the Eagles to two state championships. He then went on to play three years at UCLA and was named an All-American. In the MLS SuperDraft in 2012, Hoffman became the first player from Alabama to be chosen in the first round. He then went on to play for the Philadelphia Union, Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo in MLS. In 2017 he was released by Houston and moved to the USL Championship, playing for Louisville City and Real Monarchs. He was Legion FC’s first player signed.
Hoffman has been the face of Legion FC ever since, with his likeness emblazoned on a large banner overlooking the plaza behind BBVA Compass Field. He’s made countless appearances on the team’s behalf in the run-up to the inaugural season. In the team’s first match, a murmur went up from the crowd when Hoffman controlled the ball on attack, growing to cheers when he came close to scoring. Hoffman’s jersey was worn by numerous fans all across the stadium.
Being the star of the club can have its drawbacks, but Hoffman is just happy to be playing professional soccer in his hometown in front of friends and family.
“I couldn’t have even imagined or dreamed it,” he said after Legion FC’s first match. “Walking out there today was a special moment. … I’ve always loved pressure and I love being in the spotlight, so for me, it’s an added incentive to show Birmingham can play and on a national scale, not just locally.”
While the new club has had early success at the box office — an over-capacity sellout of more than 5,800 in the opener and 4,234 in the second match — Legion FC has yet to achieve two objectives: scoring goals and winning matches. Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) Steel FC shut out Birmingham by a 2-0 score in the opening match, and Ottawa (Ontario) Fury blanked the home club 1-0 in the second. Legion FC had its opportunities to score thanks to excellent passing and numerous shots in the loss to Bethlehem, but it couldn’t put the ball into the net. Tentative first half play, as Soehn described it, led to the loss to Ottawa.
After a week off, Legion FC travels to Louisville on March 30 for a stern test against the defending league champs. The club returns home April 6 to host New York Red Bulls II, one of 15 MLS teams to own a reserve team playing in the USL Championship. Atlanta United also fields a reserve team.
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