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Preseason Preview: meet the Birmingham Legion

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Senatus Populusque Alabamiensis

Prosper Kasim

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Saturday’s preseason game:

So who are the Birmingham Legion?

The Legion is entering its second season as a professional team in the USL Championship. The team was formed after a number of years of campaigning spearheaded by Morgan Copes, the founder and operator of the Birmingham Hammers, an amateur team that played in USL League 2 through 2018. He is currently the Legion’s VP of Business Operations.

The team’s name is a nod to Birmingham’s iconic Legion Field, although the team plays at BBVA Field on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which has a successful soccer program of its own.

The Legion performed moderately well in its freshman season, finishing 10th in the 18-team Eastern Conference (by comparison Atlanta United 2 finished 14th). They were the only Eastern Conference expansion team to make the playoffs and got to the second round. They played both games on the road but were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in a rain-drenched and embarrassing 7-0 loss (which may have turned out to be good news for 2020).

Over the season, the Legion struggled to score, but was defensively very stout, and in mid-season posted a league-high shutout streak of 555 minutes.

Who heads up the Legion?

The team’s President and GM is Jay Heaps, who is best known to Atlanta United fans as the head coach of the New England Revolution who lost 7-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium back in 2017. He was released not long after that, but was picked up by the Legion in January 2018.

The head coach is Tom Soehn, who held various coaching positions in MLS from 2001-2017, most recently serving as interim head coach of the Revs after Heaps’ dismissal. He rejoined Heaps in Birmingham in August 2018.

Players to watch for

  • Chandler Hoffman. The striker was the first player signing in Legion history, in part because he is a Birmingham native. He has played for the Philadelphia Union, LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo in MLS, as well as several teams in the USL. He is currently 4th all-time in scoring in the USL. He is making a comeback this season, having incurred a season-ending PCL rupture after 17 games and 4 goals last year.
  • Neco Brett. The Jamaican forward switched Pittsburgh for Pittsburgh of the South in December 2019. He came to the Legion's attention by scoring 4 of the 7 goals in the game that ended their playoff run. He stands 9th in scoring in the USL over the past three seasons, and his 17 goals tied him for 5th best in 2019 with new Atlanta signing Adam Jahn and 3 others (as a team Birmingham managed just 35 goals). Picking him up was considered the top trade move of the USL off-season.
  • Brian Wright. A Canadian striker and winger, Wright spent the 2019 season with the Legion on loan from the Revs, but was signed permanently by them prior to the 2020 season.
  • Matt Van Oekel. The Legion’s #1 goalkeeper is a 6’4” giant and quickly became a fan favorite. A former backup to Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando, he also serves as the goalkeeping coach.
  • Anderson Asiedu. The Ghanaian midfielder (the Legion have several players from Ghana on the roster) is well-known to Atlanta fans after the splash he made at the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. After being released by Atlanta in mid-season, he played 14 games for the Legion last year.
  • Prosper Kasim. Another member of the team’s Ghana contingent, the winger scored 7 goals last season and was the top scorer on the team. He was also the 2019 team MVP.
  • Jaden Servania. The 18-year-old Birmingham-born midfielder only signed with the team on Wednesday, so probably won’t see much, if any, playing time. He is however significant, locally at least, in that he is the younger brother of FC DallasBrandon Servania, who earned his first USMNT cap earlier this week against Costa Rica.

One player you won’t see, unfortunately, is the Duluth, Georgia native Daniel Johnson. Johnson had a solid season with the Legion in 2019, but recently decided to retire after just 3 years as a pro.

The Stadium

BBVA Field seats 5,000, meaning that the team’s average 2019 attendance of 4,551 was pretty good (14th overall in USL). Most of the seating is in the main grandstand, with relatively limited bleacher seating (including the supporters’ group section) on the opposite side.

The permanent concession stand is small (expect long lines), but the stadium plaza is large that various tented concessions and food trucks are available. My recommendation: Wasabi Juan’s.

This is a definite need to know: in order to order alcohol you will have to check in at the ID desk (right behind the gate) and get a paper bracelet.

Traditions

The team’s motto is “Hammer Down”, and is used as a call and response cheer at the 20th and 75th minutes of each game.

The Legion’s traditions, like Atlanta United’s, involve a sledgehammer (as does their logo). Birmingham was built on the iron and steel industry and this refers back to that. After Legion goals, a molten hot brick of iron is placed on an anvil set up under the main scoreboard and struck with a hammer, sending sparks flying. It’s rather more dramatic than it sounds, trust me, but it doesn’t put players at risk of frying themselves.

Supporters’ Group

The Legion has just one – the Magic City Brigade. Their section in the stands is fairly small, but is easily identified by the flags of the home nations of all the team’s players set up behind it.

Parking

I mentioned this in a previous post, but if you are going to the game and have not already booked parking, do so quickly. Parking around the stadium is very convenient but limited. To get a parking spot, download the Clutch! app asap.

Gameday Details

For early arrivals, a Fan Experience (which I think will include tailgating space) will be available at Bessie Estell Park starting at 10am Central. The park is immediately behind the stadium. Stadium gates open at 2pm Central.