BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — “Ever since day one: our goal was to bring a professional soccer team to the Magic City.”
That was Morgan Copes’ reaction when asked about his endeavor that began at a bar in January 2013.
“First thing was beer,” Copes said taking a sip of a well-earned brew after a Tuesday announcement that an United Soccer League team will begin playing in the Magic City in 2019. “This whole thing got started with a couple beers and couple college buddies. And it’s just a neat story. You don’t hear a lot of people who get the opportunity to come up with this crazy idea and turn it in to something that’s going to affect families and friends for decades on decades to come.”
But that’s exactly what Copes has done. He, along with seven others who put in volunteer hours to the Birmingham Hammers for the last four years, can now say they aided in bringing professional soccer to Birmingham.
“We did it because we believed in this city, we believed in this sport, and the positive impact that it can have on everybody who decides to embrace it and take it in,” Copes said. “That I got to work with and learn from them and do this with them and be a part of a group of guys who had a common goal and who achieved it. You know, it’s truly special.”
Copes and the Hammers began talking with the rest of the USL Birmingham ownership group seriously about being a part of this plan roughly six months ago. However, the idea for an USL team in Birmingham started in 2014 with Jeff Logan, James Outland, and Lee Styslinger.
“It really kind of came together and it was very real, because we’ve had mumbling or rumblings of this coming in the past, and it never came,” Copes said. “For us, it was keep a level head, continue to put the best thing out for this community, and now that this is here, it’s amazing. It’s awesome.”
For many, though, the question has been “What will become of the Hammers?” Copes wants all of their fans to rest easy, for now.
“The Hammers are part of USL Birmingham family,” Copes said. “We’re going to be working hand in hand with them to make sure this is the best thing we could possibly produce for this city.
“Next year, we’ll play in the PDL. Very similar to the Nashville model. So we’ll play in PDL next year and the year after that we’ll determine what we want to do and where we’re going to put it.”
Now, the focus moves to preparing for March 2019, when USL Birmingham, which still needs a name, branding, and a place to play, will take the field as a professional team for the first time.
“We really want to be a part of the vibrant downtown community. That’s something that’s very important to us,” Copes said. “There’s just so much synergy down here, and we want to be a part of that. We think it’s, not only the best location for us to play, but we think it’s the piece, or the area that will have the most impact for the individuals for this community who have been here for years.”
Places in play are Regions Field, UAB’s soccer field, BBVA Compass Field, and the idea of a soccer specific stadium isn’t entirely out of the question.
“We’re discussing it,” Copes said when pressured about a SSS. “We’ll see what happens.”
The USL Birmingham team will play in the league’s Eastern Conference, which currently has 15 teams in a league of 30. The USL is the second division in the U.S. Soccer pyramind, along with the NASL. Later this month, U.S. Soccer will discuss whether one of those leagues will take over Division II status all on their own.
The league is full of teams with different backgrounds and ownerships. Some teams have ties to MLS squads, like Tornoto FC II, Orlando City B, and Portland Timbers 2. Other teams have rich soccer traditions being continued in the modern day, such as the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Charleston Battery, and Bethlehem Steel FC. And even more, like USL Birmingham, are serving cities with an appetite for the beautiful game.
“We’ve got players like Didier Drogba, Joe Cole, who have come into this league and who are playing for teams,” Copes said. “you look at the success of FC Cincinnati who are now in the semifinal of the US Open Cup. Just imagine Birmingham getting to host the city of Atlanta in a professional sporting event and then going out and kicking their ass. Now that’s going to be pretty cool, huh?”
And it’s completely plausible. USL Birmingham will have automatic entry into the U.S. Open Cup, a nationwide competition put on by U.S. Soccer that allows any team in the country a chance to win a trophy. USL teams enter in the second round of the competition in it’s current format, and if they win two games, they will get the chance to face a MLS team, potentially at home.
For Copes, not only is it exciting for him, but he’s excited for the chance for the fans of Birmingham soccer to be able to experience that.
“We’ve already got phenomenal fans. Second to none,” he said. “That’s the exciting part, right? You know you have a group of people who really care and will be behind you regardless of result and will show up day in and day out in the rain, in the sunshine, in the heat.”
Those fans have been anxiously waiting for Tuesday’s announcement, scouring the internet for rumors and any confirmation before things became official. Now, many are ready to see what the USL Birmingham ownership group puts together for them.
“There’s no better way to bring a family together than sport,” he said. “to give the citizens of the city of Birmingham something to really call it’s own, you can’t put that in to words. You really can’t, but it’s amazing.”
For any more information about the USL Birmingham group, such as laying down a deposit for tickets or future announcements about the team, you can visit their website at http://www.uslbirmingham.com/. They are on Twitter, at @usl2bhm, and Facebook.