Grassroots soccer: The Birmingham Hammers

The state of Alabama is known for having some of the greatest teams, coaches, and players in the history of college football. But what if I was to tell you that this famous college football state is also known for its soccer? The state of Alabama has produced some of the best soccer players the world has ever seen. One of, if not the greatest women’s soccer player, Mia Hamm, is from Selma Alabama and Cat Reddick Whitehill grew up in Birmingham. Both Hamm and Whitehill went on to play for the University of North Carolina and the United States Women’s National Team. In men’s soccer, Aron Jóhannsson is from Mobile and currently plays for Werder Bremen in Germany’s Bundesliga and has earned 17 caps with the United States Men’s National Team. Besides developing some of the best soccer players in the world, Alabama has hosted some major international friendlies. In 1996, the US played Argentina in front of 83,810 at Legion Field in Birmingham. In addition, Alabama was the largest television market for the United States- Mexico FIFA World Cup qualifying match in 2013. Later this year the US Women’s National team, coming off of their World Cup triumph, will host Australia in a friendly at Legion Field. With all of this success and history Alabama has had in the game of soccer, the state is still without a professional soccer team

Two friends, Morgan Copes and John Killian, had an idea of bringing a professional soccer team to the city of Birmingham and established, the Birmingham Hammers. Co-founder Morgan Copes who played soccer collegiately at the University of Mobile and has received his USSF B license stated, “I’ve made countless friends through the beautiful game and the thought of being a part of an organization that brings a professional team to Birmingham, my adopted home, that will enable people to make lasting friendships as well as spend time with loved ones drives my desire to make this dream a reality.” This reality is a difficult task because the two previous soccer teams in Alabama folded within a few years. The Grasshoppers played from 1992 to 1996 and Pumas FC played in the National Premier Soccer League for a short time. “As far as professional teams go,” Copes said, “Birmingham has not had a team that has really made a lasting impact on the city. The Pumas were once in the NPSL but folded after a few short years.”

Over the last few years there has become a major shift and movement to start a professional or semiprofessional soccer team from the grassroots level in the United States. A few examples include; Chattanooga FC, Nashville FC, and Indy Eleven. While First City Supporters group in Savannah, Georgia and the Sting Trust in Chicago are examples where fans are looking to start and generate support for a professional team in their city. “It definitely gives me more motivation. I am very proud of the efforts of Chattanooga FC and Nashville FC who have done an impeccable job with their organizations,” Copes said. “The grassroots movements are just incredible. It’s amazing to see how much this sport has grown over the last 5-10 years and according a study done by ESPN last year soccer and baseball are chosen by kids aged 12-17 as their favorite sport. Twenty-five million people tuned in to watch the USWNT in the WWC Final. Birmingham, AL is consistently near the top of the ratings charts for USMNT matches and were even number 1 in ratings for the USA v Mexico qualifier a couple of years ago.” There is roughly 212,000 people living in Birmingham and according to Copes, the city would benefit from a professional soccer team. “Birmingham is one of the, if not the, largest city in the nation that does not have a top tier professional sports team. I heard a stat the other day that there are over 20 million people within a 3 hour drive of Birmingham.” Therefore, it seems Birmingham is ready for a major sports franchise.

Hammers team picture before kick off.

Hammers team picture before kick off.

Of course it is crucial to have a name and logo the people of the city can resonate with. Traditional names in soccer may include; united, athletic club, football club, or soccer club. However, Copes and Killian wanted a name that symbolized Birmingham to the fullest extent and came up with the name, Birmingham Hammers. “Birmingham is a city with industrial roots. We got our nickname, “The Magic City”, because the growth of the city between the 1880s and 1920s was astounding. The railroads played a huge role in the construction of so many steel and iron factories and the Hammer is something that identifies with our industrial heritage as well as our city’s efforts to build a better Birmingham for generations to come. The Rev Birmingham movement has been instrumental in helping our city gain some of the recognition it so rightfully deserves.” In addition to the name, the colors are tied to the city as well. “The colors, cog in the middle, and rays on the bottom all are inspired by our city’s flag. Yes, I know, you’re wondering “Birmingham, AL has a city flag?” The answer is yes, yes we do. If you were to remove several elements of the crest you will notice the two hammers crossing each other on a white background which is symbolic of our state’s flag.”

Playing off the city’s nickname, the team’s official supporters group is the, Magic City Brigade, was formed well before the team started playing games. While the Magic City Brigade have been busy spreading the word of the Hammers, the supporters group have also been active in the community with food drives and a donation to a local shelter. “Forrest [Collins] has done a great job helping us spread the word. I had never met Forrest until he decided one day to start a supporters group for an organization that had not even played a match yet. It’s been really neat to see how much support has been generated through the Brigade and the soccer community as a whole.”

Copes could not comment on the ownership situation but did share that three of the four top professional soccer leagues in the United States have expressed interests in having a team from Birmingham in their league. He knows if the Hammers join a league it would be three to five years away. But Copes and Killian could not wait that long to start playing. This year the team put together a coaching staff, a respectable roster, and started playing exhibition games against teams across the country. Lead by Head Coach Joel Person, the coaching staff was able to recruit players with professional and international experience. Soham Katuria represents India’s U-17 National Team, Sandy Gbandi played for FC Dallas of the MLS, and William White has showcased his talents for the Bermuda National Team. “Our coaching staff did an excellent job putting together a competitive team in only a matter of 2.5 months. We honestly could not have asked for a better exhibition season and we are incredibly excited about 2016!” Copes said.

Karl Chester poses with young Hammers fans. Chester scored the Hammers first goal in franchise history.

Karl Chester poses with young Hammers fans. Chester scored the team’s first goal in Hammer history.

The team played their first season at Vestavia Hills Soccer Club and Copes indicated finding a place the Hammers could call home was their most difficult task. “I would say the biggest challenge has been finding a facility to play our first season. Until now, we have been an unproven group and most everyone said they were not interested in the Hammers playing at their facilities. Fortunately, Vestavia Hills Soccer Club saw potential in us and allowed to use their facilities this summer.” The Hammer’s attendance for their first home game at Vestavia Hills Soccer Club was 1,300 and averaged 750 fans per game, which is remarkable given the fact it was only an exhibition season and promotion for the team was done all through social media. A potential future home for the Hammers could be on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “BBVA Stadium, which will be home to the UAB Blazers, is currently under construction and is going to seat 4,500 initially. The renderings that have been released are truly amazing and I cannot wait to see it completed. I do not know that it will be ready by the time 2016 roles around, but we would love to play there if it works out that way,” said Copes. “We currently call Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex home which is the facility for Vestavia Hills Soccer Club. Our partnership with them this past summer was great and instrumental to our success.”

Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex. Home to the Birmingham Hammers and Vestavia Hills Soccer Club.

Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex. Home to the Birmingham Hammers and Vestavia Hills Soccer Club.

The Birmingham Hammers is already a true success story of a professional sports team being generated from a grassroots level. Even though Copes and Killian had to overcome obstacles they have gathered support from fans and the community. This story will only become bigger and better as the Hammers establish themselves in one of the top tier leagues in the United States and inspire the next generation of Hammers fans to carry on the traditions the team has started. Stated Copes, “I know we wouldn’t be here today having this conversation if it were not for all of my partners (John Killian our other Co-Founder, Evon Noyes, Wade Honeycutt and Eric Lopez), fans, the State Association, local support from St. Vincent’s Health Systems, Vestavia Hills Soccer Club for allowing us to call Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex home, as well as all the other local clubs who provided ball boys/girls this past summer. It’s been really great to see how far we have come in only just 2.5 years.”



Credit: Pictures courteous of the Birmingham Hammers