When you talk about soccer in the state of Alabama – and specifically Birmingham – the conversation probably needs to start with Preston Goldfarb.
A driving force in the sport since the 1970s, Goldfarb retired as head coach of the Birmingham-Southern College Panthers in 2015 after compiling a 363-250-52 record over 33 seasons. During that time his teams claimed 10 regular season, seven conference and three regional championships, and 35 players earned All-American honors – with two (Greg Vinson and Thorsten Damm) receiving National Player of the Year accolades.
In addition, Goldfarb’s BSC squads produced five conference players of the year, 38 all-region picks, 35 All-Americans and 41 Academic All-Americans as the school competed at the NAIA, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III levels.
Oh, did I mention he started the program from scratch?
But while the story of his BSC days make for a great success story, they don’t tell the whole story. And that leads me back to the 1990s when Goldfarb – and the Birmingham Grasshoppers – introduced me to homegrown soccer for the first time.
Competing in the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL) long before it transitioned into the modern United Soccer League, the Grasshoppers gave Goldfarb another outlet to showcase his expertise in the “Beautiful Game.”
“I was hoping to start a team in the USISL in order to give our players a place to continue playing during the off season and summer,” Goldfarb said. “I first had to apply to the NCAA to ensure all our players and team were allowed to remain amateurs, while playing against professional teams. In actuality, our first season (1993) was a trial for us, to make sure this was something I wanted to pursue, as we played a very limited schedule. After the 1993 season, we decided to go full time.”
The structure of the USISL was such that teams had the option to use pro or amateur players, and the Grasshoppers chose the latter route. In fact, a quick look at the 1993 roster shows 17 players were also BSC student-athletes.
“We started to solicit sponsors and get the media behind us by doing a story about the league and our team,” Goldfarb remembers. “Once we accomplished those two things, we then put out word to college coaches in the state and area, asking for potential players to come for a tryout. You know, I wasn’t sure we would evolve into a great soccer area due to this being an American football kingdom. However, understanding that, we wanted just a small piece of the fan base that were true soccer fans. I always felt that having a strong soccer fan base to support our team was the most important aspect of our program.
“I also felt that if we could incorporate a youth team and ultimately start more youth teams under the Grasshopper umbrella, it would be the greatest move to our program in getting the grassroots of a real soccer club in motion. It was modeled after clubs in Germany and Europe, as that was my coaching background.”
The Grasshoppers provided quality soccer during hot afternoons on the BSC campus, and for those of us who wanted a “team of our own” they fit the bill nicely. Looking back, the club had plenty of young men who would go on to leave even bigger footprints in soccer.
Grasshoppers’ goalkeeper Daryl Shore, for example, is now the head coach and technical director of Forward Madison of USL League One.
Vinson – also a keeper on the club in its inaugural season – succeeded Goldfarb as coach of BSC and is heading into his fifth season guiding the Panthers.
Many of the players, in fact, extended their careers beyond the Hoppers, although Goldfarb said turning the club into a play-for-pay team was not part of his plan.
“I never had hopes that we would evolve into a professional team as I didn’t want that for my players,” he said. “But I did want the league to evolve. Once (Major League Soccer) became a reality, the USISL became the USL and a second division professional league. I actually was invited to Las Vegas to learn about the MLS starting and to see if Birmingham was a potential landing spot for a franchise. I didn’t think we were ready for that at that time. But, it was really interesting to go and learn about the new pro league.”
Still, the Grasshoppers made their mark – with their coach and with those of us who cheered them on years before the Birmingham Legion gave the Magic City bona fide pro soccer.
And the good memories from the good old days are plentiful.
“All our players that hung with us were very special,” Goldfarb said. “Probably the most important game I remember most was the division championship game at our field against the Lexington Bandits to see who would advance to the Sizzling Nine Championship tournament in Greensboro, N.C. We did win and qualify, but more importantly, we held a fundraiser at the game for the Children of Rwanda and were even covered by USA Today for doing that.
“That was my most special game for sure on both levels.”
After guiding the USISL squad to a 32-29-0 worksheet, Goldfarb decided to fold the club in 1996. The coach said it was becoming too expensive to keep afloat and the grind was wearing down his athletes.
“It became diminishing returns for my players,” he said. “What I mean is that they were getting extremely tired coming into our fall college season and injuries were happening. So, it was more important for my college team to be well-rested and injury-free coming into the college season in August for preseason training.”
In Goldfarb’s mind, however, the idea of such teams and leagues remains a good one.
“I do think there will always be a place for successful lower leagues in our country,” he said. “It will always afford players a place to play for those not wanting to stop playing after college and for those in college to have a place to play during the off season and summer months.”
Although the Grasshoppers are gone, Goldfarb has remained a major force in the game. He was one of the key movers and shakers in helping Birmingham earn a host site for Olympic soccer during the 1996 Atlanta Games and thus turn BSC into an Olympic Village.
He also led two different men’s teams to gold medals in the World Maccabiah Games, the last coming in 2017. That group is first team to win back-to-back men’s soccer championships in the event’s 80-year history.
All told, Goldfarb has an overall coaching mark of 414-284-53.
The soccer pitch at BSC now bears his name, and Goldfarb has been inducted into the NAIA, Birmingham-Southern College Sports and Jewish Sports Heritage halls of fame.
But while he built BSC into a national power and gave Birmingham its first taste of pro soccer, he hopes one day the game will reach its full potential in the United States.
Under its current closed system with MLS at the top of the pyramid, America’s soccer structure is one of no reward, no punishment for on-field results.
“In my opinion, in order for soccer to flourish and become an international success, we must begin a promotion and relegation soccer league,” Goldfarb said. “That is the only way to improve soccer in this country. Competition is relative to improvement and if we have no promotion or relegation from lower leagues, there is no incentives to improve as you know you will always be in the top leagues with no pressure of competition to improve.”