BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – It was only an exhibition match, but for soccer supporters in Birmingham, Friday was much more. The Atlanta Silverbacks knocked off the UAB Blazers’ men’s soccer team 3-0 in a match organized by the Birmingham Hammers, a grassroots movement to bring professional soccer to the city.
“What a great crowd,” said UAB head coach Mike Getman. “Just an unbelievable night. Fantastic crowd. They’re not just sitting there watching the game, but they’re into the game. I thought it was a beautiful night for soccer.”
The Blazers dictated the pace for much of the first half before Belize national team member Deon McCaulay found the back of the net to give the Silverbacks the lead in the 36th minute. UAB had numerous shots on goal and opportunities to equalize but couldn’t find the breakthrough.
“I think (UAB) was very good. I thought that we started a little slow, and there’s some obvious plays there where there’s some real talent at this school,” said Silverbacks head coach and former U.S. Men’s National Team member Eric Wynalda. “The score wasn’t really reflective of the way the game went.”
Wynalda’s squad edged further ahead in the 76th minute on a strike outside the 18-yard box by midfielder Lucas Paulini. Just ten minutes later, Edgar Espinoza score the final goal of the match on a set piece in the 86th minute.
Despite the loss for the Blazers, the exhibition match provided a glimpse into the possibilities professional soccer has in the city. The Hammers sold over 600 tickets online and only allowed walk-up ticket sales on Friday.
The 2,057 fans in attendance were loud and active throughout the match. In addition to the Birmingham Hammers supporters, the Atlanta Ultras traveled to Birmingham to cheer on the Silverbacks and were vocal for all 90 minutes.
The success of the game is just another piece of encouragement for the Hammers, who have made large strides in support over the past year.
“We’re ecstatic. I mean, we never would have dreamed this in our wildest imagination,” said Hammers cofounder Morgan Copes. “We never would have thought we would have gotten to here so quickly.”
Getman believes Friday’s crowd is a perfect indication that Birmingham would be supportive of a professional soccer team.
“You see a few thousand people in the stands for an exhibition match between one pro team and a college team, and you got to wonder, what if this was a championship match with two pro teams,” Getman said. “How many people might there be? It certainly proves that people are willing to come out and pay good money to watch soccer, and I hope there are some people who are taking notice of it.”
Wynalda, who retired from the United States Men’s National Team in 2000 as the all-time leading goal scorer, shared Getman’s sentiments.
“Obviously, it’s baby steps, but this place has proven before that there’s a soccer community,” Wynalda said. “Not just in the Olympics, but some of the national team games that have been here. I know that there is a certain affinity for this place.”
Soccer fans showed up in droves in 1996 for Olympic soccer at Legion Field, which is something Getman believes only supports the idea that Birmingham is a perfect home for professional soccer.
“I’d love to see a team be here. Eighty-six thousand people here to watch Olympic soccer, we had 40-something thousand for a World Cup qualifier. We had 30,000 for an international friendly,” Getman said. “Year after year, Birmingham has proved that it supports soccer.
“There’s these little hotspots in America that exist, and Birmingham is definitely one of them,” said Wynalda.
Friday’s match was just another step in the Hammers’ movement to bring soccer to a community that gave every indication they are willing and ready to support a team in Birmingham.
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