Birmingham’s United Soccer League team now has a name, crest and colors.
But if you want to get really technical, Birmingham Legion Football Club is not the Magic City’s first franchise in this organization.
Remember Birmingham Grasshoppers FC?
Led by Birmingham-Southern boss Preston Goldfarb – one of the greatest college coaches to ever grace the game – the Grasshoppers competed in the United States Interregional Soccer League from 1992-96.
The USISL did have a Pro League, but Birmingham was part of the Premier League, which was the circuit’s elite amateur division. Still, it was an early iteration of the USL and for a Birmingham-bred soccer fan like myself, it was well worth watching and following.
Now, however, the stakes are much higher.
“This is a new chapter in Birmingham’s sports history,” James Outland, member of Legion FC’s ownership team, told Ashley Foster of bigcom.com on Tuesday. “The name ‘Legion’ is synonymous with Birmingham and sports. It has a cultural significance that runs deep and is truly unique to our community.”
The USL is growing like kudzu, and stands as the largest (and, if the North American Soccer League fails to get relief from the courts, only) second division league in North America.
This year 33 teams will take the field, while in 2019 Austin, East Bay (Oakland) and Memphis will join Legion FC as expansion franchises.
“Birmingham, for us, is a tremendous addition,” USL president Jake Edwards said last summer when the city was granted a franchise. “From a regional point of view, there are some great natural rivalries, and Birmingham has long been a hotbed for the fans of the sport. It’s a market we’ve kept our eye on for a long time, but I think they won’t know what has hit them when this soccer juggernaut comes to town. They’re going to be a great addition to the USL.”
Birmingham has, indeed, shown its potential as a soccer hotbed before, albeit in a “big event” capacity.
There was a time when the United States Men’s National Team as well as the World Cup-winning U.S. women made Birmingham a regular stop. Fans showed up by the tens of thousands to watch their matches played at Legion Field – the inspiration for the USL club’s nickname.
And one of the most unforgettable memories I have as a sportswriter is Claudio Reyna’s goal just seconds into the United States’ match against Argentina in the 1996 Olympic Games.
I have spent more days that I can count covering American football games at the “Gray Lady,” but it was never louder or more electric than hearing 83,183 people erupt when the midfielder’s kick found the back of the nylon.
But Birmingham has mostly been overlooked when soccer leagues have been eying franchise spots, although the Birmingham Hammers of the National Premier Soccer League have given my hometown a quality club team to call its own for the last few years. This summer, the Hammers will compete in the Premier Development League before transitioning to the USL and new brand.
(The Hammers are a “gateway team” for the United Soccer League; they were co-founded by Legion FC vice president Morgan Copes and will live on as fans urge their team to “Hammer Down”).
The USL is a major step forward in the city’s soccer evolution, and now it’s up to the fans to prove they can and will support pro soccer on a regular basis.
With natural rivalries against the likes of Atlanta United 2, Charlotte Independence, North Carolina FC and Memphis, I have high hopes.
Legion FC will likely play its home games at UAB’s soccer facility, BBVA Compass Field. Plans are in the works to expand seating there to 5,000.
Ultimately the team hopes to be part of a new 45,000-seat stadium in downtown Birmingham, a project that is still in the wish list stage at the moment.
If that venue is ever built, though, it could lead to more major soccer events coming to town – and give the Magic City more chances to further prove its bona fides in the Beautiful Game.
For more information on Birmingham Legion FC, go to www.bhmlegion.com.