Birmingham soccer fans have a reason – a real reason – to rejoice. Professional soccer has finally come to the Magic City.
By Loyd McIntosh | Photos by Brit Huckabay
On March 9, history was made as Birmingham Legion FC kicked off its inaugural season with a home game against Memphis 901 FC at BBVA Compass Stadium on the campus of UAB. The occasion is a dream come true for the area’s fans of the beautiful game but one few ever thought possible. Leading the team is Chandler Hoffman, a Birmingham native and the Legion’s first signee, and quite possibly the best male soccer player ever produced by the state of Alabama. Hoffman took the time to take some photos and answer a few questions for Portico shortly after finishing the team’s second day of training at Blackwatch Sports Performance in Chelsea. T
he facility, once known as Soccer Blast, is the spot where Hoffman spent much of his time practicing and playing games as a youth player for Birmingham United Soccer Association. He says being back on that field for the first time in almost 20 years is an exciting but strange experience. “Yesterday when I got here, it was kind of surreal just being on the same field I grew up training on now playing here as a professional,” he says. “To be back now with a different group of players but in my hometown is just amazing.”
Hoffman’s soccer journey, which started on the youth fields of Birmingham and the Southeast, earned him all manner of honors, championships, and scholarship offers. Possessing an admirable work ethic and an almost supernatural ability to score goals, Hoffman became the first Alabamian to land a soccer scholarship at UCLA. He began his freshman year just happy to make the travel roster, however, in the Bruins’ first home game of the season, Hoffman came off the bench to score two goals inside of 12 minutes, earning him a spot as a starter for the rest of the season.
After his freshman year, Hoffman earned the opportunity to train with the LA Galaxy, playing alongside David Beckham and Cobi Jones. During the first day of preseason training for his sophomore season in 2010, Hoffman fractured his fibula, putting his plans to go pro following the season on hold. Hoffman bounced back in 2011, scoring 18 goals while setting and/or tying records held by such greats as Jones and Joe Max Moore.
Hoffman turned pro after his junior year, signing with the Philadelphia Union, eventually being traded to the Galaxy. Since then, Hoffman has seen time with the Houston Dynamo, as well as several USL teams, including the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Louisville City, Real Salt Lake, and now Birmingham Legion FC, one of two USL teams debuting in 2019. Birmingham Legion FC will compete in the Eastern Conference of the United Soccer League Championship (USLC), a 38-team professional league with teams in every corner of the nation, from Tacoma, Washington, to Hartford, Connecticut; Tampa Bay, Florida, to Los Angeles.
Birmingham Legion FC is owned by Jeff Logan, co-owner of the Birmingham Barons; James Outland, founding and managing partner of New Capital Partners; and Lee Styslinger, III, chairman and chief executive officer of Altec, Inc. Prior to the official announcement introducing Birmingham Legion FC, while playing for Real Salt Lake, Hoffman said he heard through the soccer grapevine rumblings of Birmingham getting a USL team. He says he began thinking about returning to his hometown to play if it made sense for his career. After meeting the team owners and General Manager Jay Heaps—a former pro player and member of the U.S. Men’s National Team—Hoffman knew coming home was the right move. “Once I knew the direction they were going and that they wanted me to be the marquee player for the team, I thought ‘this is the next step I want to take in my career,’” Hoffman says. “It’s exciting to be able to set the culture and the standards from the first day,” he adds, “and hopefully continue pushing the needle for soccer in Birmingham.”
“Once I knew the direction they were going and that they wanted me to be the marquee player for the team, I thought ‘this is the next step I want to take in my career.’”
The USL is the official second division league of professional soccer in the United States, but that doesn’t mean it’s a minor league based in smaller cities. While some USL squads are affiliated with teams in Major League Soccer, the vast majority are independent teams competing with other professional leagues to sign players. In the last few years, USL teams have lured big-name players to the league such as Didier Drogba, a former English Premier League (EPL) champion with Chelsea FC, and Joe Cole, a former star winger with West Ham United of the EPL. Additionally, the league has found success in many major cities, including Nashville, Memphis, Portland, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, just to name a few, with attendance figures and rivaling those in MLS cities. For instance, Cincinnati FC averages more than 20,000 fans per game while the Sacramento Republic FC regularly draws more than 13,000 to home games.
Birmingham Legion FC will play home games at BBVA Compass Field, a soccer-specific stadium that also hosts the UAB men’s and women’s soccer teams. The stadium will have the capacity to hold 6,000 fans in an intimate setting that Hoffman says has the potential to be a great environment for the home team and, hopefully, a difficult place for visiting teams. “I’m hoping Birmingham will become one of those places where no team wants to come play because they know it’s going to be a tough game and the fans are going to be all over them,” says Hoffman. “I’m excited to see what the stadium looks like when the fans are there because I think it could be a really great atmosphere for our home games.”