In 1995 the Astroturf covering the grounds of Legion Field was replaced with Bermuda Grass in order to accommodate the 1996 Summer Olympics, hosted in neighboring Atlanta, Georgia. Per FIFA guidelines, official FIFA-sanctioned matches cannot take place on artificial turf. The opening match between Argentina and the United States drew a record-holding 83,810 spectators.
The stadium later played host to several other international matches including a friendly between the United States and Ecuador in which present United States Men’s National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard reflected upon in an interview before the last World Cup as his most memorable match. It was the now-superstar’s debut start and first recorded shutout. Legion Field also played host to a World Cup Qualifier in 2005 against Guatemala. Alas, these days are over because soon after this match the decision was made to replace the Bermuda Grass with artificial turf once again and consequently prevented Birmingham from hosting any further international or professional soccer matches; furthermore this decision made way for Nashville and Atlanta to become the de-facto soccer capitals of the South.
When I began playing soccer at age four, I honestly had never even heard of the game. None of my friends played and I had never seen it on TV either. My parents were probably only marginally less-ignorant of the game than I was at the time, but it was something to do three times a week in between baseball seasons, and a way to make friends. In 18 years the game of soccer has risen to the forefront of American hearts and minds several times, including our 2002 quarter-final run in the World Cup. The game has grown tremendously in terms of professionalism as well. In less than eight years, Major League Soccer has gone from ten teams to eighteen (including two Canada-based teams) with plans to expand in the near future. Countless minor-league teams have also cropped up as homes for old-MLS players to find competition as well as collegiate veterans wanting to stay with the game as they build careers– Nashville and Atlanta both have such teams and Atlanta even has a professional women’s team.
I am not necessarily advocating for a professional soccer team to take up residence in Birmingham, but there is no reason we should not have adequate facilities for one. A dedicated soccer facility would not have to rival the size of Bryant-Denny or Jordan-Hare. The largest professional stadium in England, Old Trafford, only seats 75,797 and the average stadium seats closer to 42,000.
This stadium could be used to host international matches, collegiate games, semi-professional games, and even high school state finals. Huntsville has built a soccer facility dedicated to the finals for boys and girls high school soccer, there is no reason why the state finals are held anywhere but its largest and most central city: Birmingham. This city must exploit its valuable potential in order to stay current with this sport, which would surely provide extra revenue and rejuvenation, attract international attention, and spawn a new generation of home-grown soccer stars. Birmingham should take steps to providing a FIFA-compliant soccer stadium before Hoover does.