It’s 8 p.m. when the Birmingham Hammers take to the pitch to begin practice at the Sicard Hollow Athletic Complex in Vestavia Hills. The setting is unassuming; the team’s warm-up exercises are set against the background noise of a grade-school girls’ soccer team finishing up their own practice on the adjacent field. The practice space doesn’t have much seating room either, just a small set of bleachers to the side where the Hammers change into their practice gear. Nearby, the complex’s larger stadium is also occupied by grade-schoolers.
But when the Hammers begin their actual season on April 30, you can expect the stadium to fill up.
“I didn’t expect there to be as many people coming out and watching us,” says Alex Brown, a center-back who has been with the team since the start of last year’s inaugural season. “The first game, there were like, 1,000 people all over around here. You couldn’t really walk down that little walkway over there because there were so many children running around, wanting to touch you and stuff. It was a bit surreal at first.”
That sense of excitement is only expected to grow as the Hammers enter their second year as a team. It will be their first time playing competitively as part of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), an amateur league typically considered to be the fourth tier of American soccer (following Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League and United Soccer League); last year, the team only played friendly exhibition matches. They ended the season with a 4-5 record and a greater sense of cohesion.
“We tried to get into the league [last year], and they told us they didn’t think we were ready,” says Morgan Copes, the team’s president and general manager. “So we hosted the exhibition season, and we averaged 750 [attendees] a game. And [the league] was like, ‘Yeah, we think that’s pretty good.’”
“Last year, we threw the whole season together in 65 days,” Copes adds. “We found a corporate sponsor, we found a field, we found a schedule, we found a coaching staff, we found players, all in 65 days. It was a really crazy time for sure.”
This year, he says, things are a little different. “We’ve had a little bit more time to iron everything out and hopefully work out some of the kinks,” he says. “We’ve grown. More people have heard about us now… We’re expecting an uptick.”
“The Zeal Is There”
In keeping with the thrown-together nature of the Hammers’ first season, the idea to form an amateur soccer team in Birmingham came together over a few beers in 2013. Copes and Hammers co-founder John Killian, friends from their time at the University of Mobile, were “sitting at one of the local breweries, about two or three drinks in,” Copes says. “I looked John dead in the eye across the table and said, ‘Hey, do you think Birmingham could support a pro soccer team here?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah!’”
“After that, we started immediately,” he says. “With people walking by in the bar, we used it as a conversation starter. ‘Hey, do you think Birmingham could support this? Would you like to see this?’ And people were like, ‘Yeah, yeah!’ I don’t think anybody told us ‘no’ that night.”
What separates that idea from countless similar barroom epiphanies, though, is that Copes and Killian didn’t abandon it the next morning. They began to do research on the feasibility of such an undertaking. “We found that Birmingham’s actually the largest TV market in the United States that doesn’t have a top-tier professional sports team,” Copes says, “but Birmingham has such a rich tradition as a sports town. A lot of the semi-professional teams that have come through here, they’ve been relatively successful as far as attendance goes, but a lot of the leagues have failed, so they’ve had to fold as a result of that.”
Also heartening to Copes and Killian was the quantifiable interest in soccer in Birmingham; in the lead-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, for example, Birmingham was the top TV market for watching the United States Men’s Team’s qualifying match against Mexico, according to Variety. “We beat out cities like Austin, Texas, and Seattle, Washington,” Copes says. “And it wasn’t just a one-off. We’ve been in the top 10 consistently.”
“People like to say about Birmingham that we get things a few years after the rest of the country,” says Killian. “I don’t know if I buy into that, but I do think that we have benefitted from the growth of soccer’s popularity in the rest of the country. I think us starting a year before the World Cup and having our first season the year after the World Cup really helps us. The zeal is there. That sort of helped the fervor continue.”
“I was just so sure that it would really work,” Killian says. “A lot of people like soccer. I like soccer. All my friends like soccer. I was like, ‘Hell, let’s just get it started.’”
Copes and Killian’s decided on a name for the team that paid homage to the city’s history. “[Calling the team the Hammers] was an industrial nod to our past, but it also was about building our future,” Killian says. “We thought it was a great symbol of what we wanted to do in Birmingham, which was to build something that will stick around for a while and become a part of the city’s cultural fabric.”
But first they needed literal fabric. A limited run of 100 Hammers-themed scarves, intended to raise funds and gauge interest in a possible team, sold out in two months. Several variations of T-shirts were subsequently created and sold. A fundraiser was held at Pale Eddie’s Pour House in July 2013. “I don’t know if some of the people who showed up to the fundraiser actually [cared] about soccer,” Killian says. “But I think people got excited about it in the beginning because this is Birmingham now. It’s not just the dead downtown area you drive through on your way to work. That spirit was just contagious.”
By December, three more people — Evon Noyes, Eric Lopez and Wade Honeycutt — joined Copes and Killian as co-founders. (“Myself and all of my partners, we have full-time day jobs as well,” Copes notes. “This is just something we do because we’re passionate about it.”)
The Hammers recruited Joel Person — another University of Mobile alumnus who had previously coached soccer for the college, as well as at Francis Marion University and UMS-Wright Preparatory School — as head coach, with a coaching staff rounded out by Zac Crawford, Chazz Romeo and Luke Whittle. The coaching staff was responsible for recruiting all the players for the team, mostly from area colleges like UAB (though Copes notes that the recruiting pool for this season is “a little bit more spread out,” including players from colleges as far away as New York).
“There was this idea that there’s a talent pool here that could be accessed,” Killian says. “By tapping into this city’s vast resources, we felt we could put something pretty incredible together.”
“Each Game Means Something”
There are 85 teams presently in the National Premier Soccer League; 19 of those, including the Hammers, were added to the league this year alone. A variety of criteria are required for a team to enter the NPSL; they must have a 500-seat stadium that includes a scoreboard and locker room facilities with showers; teams must also pay a one-time $10,000 franchise fee and an annual $3,500 membership fee.
The Hammers’ regular season will consist of 13 games, all with teams from the NPSL’s Southeast and South Atlantic Conferences (including teams from Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana). “Our regular season, if it goes terribly — and we hope it doesn’t — will end on July 2,” Copes says. “It’s a shotgun season.”
Now that they are members of the league, though, Copes is confident that the team will continue on into the postseason. “We have high aspirations,” he says. “We think we’re going to make the playoffs and at least get one or two games there.”
For many players, entering the league has heralded in a new sense of competitiveness. “It’s changed our approach because now it’s all about winning, more than last year, which was just about getting the team ready to compete,” says William White, a junior at UAB who has played center-back for the Hammers since last season. “The competition and practice might be a little more intense. Obviously, the games are going to be a little more intense because we’re playing for something, and each game means something. I think that’s going to be a big difference.”
“The exhibition season was a test for all of us, and it put us in a very strong position to move forward this season,” Killian says. “I’m very confident about this season and what we’ll be able to give the fans, not only on the field but off as well. I think the environment of the game is going to be a lot more lively this year.”
Brown feels that the team is up to the challenge. “It’s been a really good [improvement] from where we started last year to where we are now,” he says. “The progression in a year is pretty crazy.”
“Some Sort of Game Plan”
Looking past the upcoming season, Killian is guardedly optimistic. Though the Hammers’ website states a desire to “bring professional soccer to the best city in Alabama,” he says expanding beyond the amateur NPSL isn’t an immediate priority.
“I think the idea now is that we take what we have and we make it more sustainable,” he says. “If we grow, we don’t grow errantly and we don’t grow taller than we can support. Nobody wants one more franchise that comes to town and has these huge aspirations and then falls on its face and leaves Birmingham with nothing.”
Killian says he’s reluctant to give fans “the impression that we have some sort of game plan laid out.”
“People sometimes send us messages that say things like, ‘How long until you guys are in the MLS?’ And we’re like, ‘Never.’ We are never going to be in the MLS unless one of us wins the lottery or we bring in a billion-dollar investor. MLS is not made for cities like Birmingham. It’s made for massive cities that want to throw money at something just to own it, and that’s not what we are.”
Instead, Copes and Killian maintain that the team’s focus is on building the soccer community in Birmingham and providing a place for the team’s collegiate players to flourish. “It’s a great springboard for these kids to get some experience, stay fresh during the summer and not go home and sit in front of an Xbox and their TV and eat Twinkies and get fat before their [collegiate] season starts,” Copes says.
“I hope that every single one of them are able to make a living off of playing soccer, because the of passion that they’ve given,” Killian adds. “For almost all of them, that’s not the path. They know it, but they’re not ready to quit the sport yet. If we can be a stepping stone for a guy to go to the lower leagues which are professional, then we want to do that.
“What I hope they get out of this experience is that the guys who are from Birmingham feel more connected to the city,” he added. “I hope they feel like they’ve given their time to something that’s bigger than them.”