Sports are happening again in Alabama (with fans), and tickets for the Birmingham Legion FC home game on Wednesday night sold out so fast they added more.
Then the second-year professional soccer club sold out of those.
It’s fair to question any large public gathering right now, but it appears like people are ready for live sports again even as coronavirus cases are surging in Jefferson County and Alabama. Not even going to try and hide it. As a sportswriter, I’m beyond ready again, too.
After Birmingham Legion FC’s season opener in March was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the time has finally come to #HammerDown. Birmingham Legion FC of the United Soccer League is playing rival Memphis 901 FC at BBVA Field at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and the game will also be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Let’s do this.
But definitely let’s do this with masks on our faces and with clean hands so people can see how it’s done right.
BBVA Field, an intimate venue with a capacity of about 5,500, will be less than half full due to a strict social-distancing policy. Everyone is required to wear a mask when out of their seats, per city ordinance, and hand sanitizer will be located throughout the stadium. The hope is that Birmingham Legion FC is about to teach us a lot over the next few weeks about how to safely have sports again.
I have but one suggestion: Play obnoxiously loud stadium jams whenever Memphis has possession because #SOTM.
Two days before Birmingham Legion FC’s home opener, SEC athletic directors met in Birmingham about the upcoming college football season. They left wondering how exactly that’s going to happen. With a solid plan, that’s how. Birmingham Legion FC has been working on their return to play for months.
Birmingham Legion FC, which includes among its sponsors Nick Saban’s Mercedes-Benz dealership, has a thorough safety plan in place for fans and players, and they’re now in position to play games (and maybe make a little money doing it) during the coronavirus pandemic.
The second-division club isn’t just the only show in town this summer. It’s also the only show in the entire state. With the Southern League of Minor League Baseball canceled, no other professional sports teams in Alabama are playing games.
Suddenly, and this is something, Birmingham is about to become one of the few cities in the country where fans currently can attend a live, professional sporting event.
Birmingham Legion FC’s supporters’ group, the Magic City Brigade, will be waving their flags high and wide this season. Those giant supporters’ group banners (tifos) aren’t allowed due to the pandemic, but if every single fan in the stadium had a flag that might create a little unity during our collective struggle. Just a thought.
TEAM TRADITIONS GROWING
The plan is for a shortened season of 16 games (eight at home) ending Sept. 26. The USL has teams all over the country, so to cut down on travel the league has created regional schedules in a round-robin mini-season. That works out for Birmingham. More chances to #SOTM.
What, exactly, is #SOTM? It’s a tale always worth retelling, of course, and a gift to Birmingham Legion FC’s fans from their creative Birmingham City FC brethren across the pond. Yes, believe it or not, there are new fans of Birmingham Legion FC in England, and they’ll be watching the season opener, too.
The organic cultivation of the team’s growing number of passionate supporters has been fun to document. Birmingham Legion FC’s unofficial nickname is Three Sparks, a handle given to the team last year on Twitter, and now adopted by the club. Fans nicknamed coach Tommy Soehn “Coach Beers” because he has been known to crack a cold one with the Magic City Brigade supporters’ group before games.
Donuts became a big game-day theme last summer after the Birmingham Legion FC’s defense went more than six games without allowing a goal. The team went nearly two months without scoring its first goal at home, and the club’s loyal fans went berserk when it finally happened late in a game.
Before the pandemic shutdown, Birmingham Legion FC upgraded its year-one roster with more scoring potential, and then gave Atlanta United of MLS everything it wanted in a February exhibition. Atlanta United won 3-2, but Five Stripes scored in stoppage time on a fluky play. The close game created more buzz for Birmingham Legion FC going into the season.
CHANDLER HOFFMAN OUT ON LOAN
The team is now so strong up top that it recently loaned out forward Chandler Hoffman to Orange County SC in USL’s Western Conference. Hoffman was Legion FC’s big first signing because he had a strong reputation as a scorer in the USL, and was originally a local kid from Oak Mountain High School.
With scoring threats Brian Wright, Neco Brett and Rudolf Mensah at forward, Hoffman was going to struggle to see the field this season. Wright was a solid presence last season while playing on loan from Columbus Crew of the MLS. He’s now signed to a multi-year deal with Birmingham. Brett scored four goals against Legion FC in the playoffs, so Legion FC went out and signed him.
Mensah is the new edition who Legion FC signed out of Ghana in the offseason. As an 18-year-old prospect, he scored his first goal on U.S. soil against Atlanta United after being in the country for only a week. Ghanian forward Prosper Kasim, who led Legion FC in scoring last season, is also back, and has one of the most devastating left-footed shots in USL.
The team is sound through the spine of its midfield with Nigerian Bolu Akinyode joining in the offseason after starting for Nashville SC last season. Behind Akinyode is veteran No.6Daigo Kobayashi in the quarterback role.
In addition to goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel, fan favorites on the team are captain Mikey Lopez and spark-plug midfielder Anderson Asiedu. Winger Jaden Servania is an 18-year-old from Birmingham, and Legion FC’s first academy player.
I’ve watched the club closely over the last few months, and the level of professionalism by the team’s leadership rivals the culture of the best-run major-level pro franchises in the country. For example, the team is wearing special jerseys on Wednesday honoring the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Legion FC will auction off the jerseys after the game with all the money going to the historic Birmingham institution and National Monument.
He’s operating on a smaller scale than Major League Soccer (for now), but we’ve come to learn over the last three years that everything club president and general manager Jay Heaps does is first class. I feel safe attending Legion FC games this season because I know every detail has been addressed. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski respected Heaps so much he pulled him off the soccer field in college to play point guard for the Blue Devils.
Heaps was a manager for the New England Revolution in MLS before moving to Birmingham to start a soccer franchise in the heart of college football country. He has created something special from scratch, and now the spotlight is here with an opportunity to make Birmingham and Alabama proud during a difficult time. A pro soccer team from Birmingham, Alabama, was selected by ESPN to be featured on national television during the pandemic, and I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that idea.
Wrapping a mask around that head will be no trouble at all.