Footballing in the land of football: Alabama

There is seemingly a soccer black-hole over the Southeastern United States. Over the next few month, I will be looking at football culture in the Southeastern United States.  There will be a strong focus on Alabama, but I hope to pull in more writers to look at their states as well.

I live in Alabama.  A land of pigskin and field goals.  A place where every child plays soccer until he is eight or nine, before his father or grandfather tells him he has to quit because it is “gay.” A place where people scream war cries of “War Eagle” and “Roll Tide” while expecting a BCS “championship” every year. A part of the country where, despite the crackdown on illegal immigration, the best soccer is played in trailer parks by the children of illegal immigrants.

I’m among the few who football in the land of football.

About three years ago, when I moved back to Alabama –partially against my own will– from Massachusetts, I heard tell of a soccer player by the name of Chandler Hoffman.  He was supposedly some stud player out of Birmingham’s Oak Mountain High School.  Out of sheer boredom, and a lack of an MLS, USL, or NASL team close by (this was during one of the years that the Atlanta Silverbacks were on hiatus), I decided to watch some of the state tournament.

After watching him play, I was amazed that he wasn’t headed off to play at a top tier school.  Apparently, at that time, he had only a few offers from second and third tier programs.  As modern Alabamian folklore now has it, he put together a some youtube videos (#1, #2, #3) and ended up with a scholarship to UCLA.  It was an exciting time to be footballing in the land of football, but it was not the take off I was expecting.

The thing is Alabama loves its throwball.  There is nothing even close to the amount of love and respect that throwball players, coaches, boosters, and even mascots get.  Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn are probably more powerful than Robert Bentley, the state’s governor.  Bear Bryant is the biggest figure in all of Alabama, perhaps, only outdone by Robert E. Lee, and Martin Luther King Jr.  The two biggest universities in Alabama -University of Alabama and Auburn– have won the last three BCS Championships.  Both schools also put decent resources into basketball and baseball, but neither school has a D1 men’s soccer program.

In fact of Alabama’s biggest universities –Alabama, Troy, Auburn, UAB– only UAB has a D1 men’s soccer program.  And no child, no matter who they are, dreams of playing soccer in a place where no one shows up to see you.  This is why I find it odd that Birmingham, AL is actively seeking an MLS team. But maybe, just maybe, Chandler Hoffman has slightly altered the landscape of soccer in Alabama.

Of all the emptiness in my footballing life in the land of football, I was able to go to the College Cup. It was in Birmingham, well actually just outside of Birmingham –but closer to Birmingham than Foxboro is to Boston or Frisco is to Dallas.  There were very good crowds.  And (luckily for the organizers of the event) amongst the  players on the pitch was Chandler Hoffman.

The local media went nuts –or as nuts as I had ever seen them going for soccer.  “Why are there no D1 programs in Alabama?” they screamed.  “Why is our hometown soccer hero not up for a Herman Award?” they demanded about an award they probably didn’t even know about a few weeks earlier. They wanted to know everything about the kid who they probably thought should have been punting for Alabama, Auburn, or at the very least Troy.  Suddenly they cared about Super Drafts, and National Team call ups, and MLS Combines.

Okay, I’m sure the readers are saying, calm down before you annoint young Mr. Hoffman as the soccer Jesus of Alabama.  And you’d be right.  It will take more than Chandler Hoffman to get soccer on the front page of an Alabama newspaper. And even then would they care about MLS just because of the kid from Shelby County?

But let me have my moment –even if it is actually his.  For once my football was not relegated to a small, black-and-white photo, mixed in with box scores, hidden in the bottom corner, inside of sports section’s second page.  Of course now that Alabama has won yet another BCS title, order is beginning to be restored.  The whole soccer thing is beginning to relax.  And people are out roaming the streets, screaming “Roll Tide” and going back to ignoring soccer.

When the MLS Super Draft comes on Thursday, I know that I will be watching it –despite my feelings on it.  I have also heard that they will be streaming it live in PE classes at Oak Mountain High School (okay, I just made that up for this blog, but it wouldn’t surprise me).  If Hoffman is taken in the top 3, which he should be, I’ll be curious as to Alabama’s reaction.  If he ends up one day on the National Team, I’ll watch to see if the state explodes into soccer mania.

I’ve been footballing in the land of football for some time. Perhaps Chandler Hoffman will help to make the sport relevant in the soccer wasteland of the Southeastern United States.


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3 responses to “Footballing in the land of football: Alabama”

  1. Doug McLaulin says :

    Living in Birmingham, I completely understand your comments and the frustration. After spending my college years in Jackson MS, I wondered why it seems that less top tier players are produced from the state of AL compared to MS even with twice as many youth players registered (IMO).

    The biggest issue that I believe hinders growth of soccer is the decrease of players moving up the youth ranks. Before we chalk it up to the same problem as the rest of the US, it is key to look at what happens with the transition of players from U14 to U15.

    As players move from middle school to high school, they lose the ability to keep playing club due to the 6 man rule and the fact that they play high school soccer in the spring. MS and FL both play high school in the winter allowing players to fill the “winter break” gap for club with high school and still allows them to keep solid numbers in the Spring with club.

    All I can say is that we battle this every day with trying to promote a street soccer mentality across the region with SPERO. I hope that players like Chandler help promote the game similar to the impact that Justin Mapp had on the Jackson MS area over the past few years.

    Good post.

  2. Bobo says :

    I grew up in Alabama. I played soccer during almost every recess in elementary school. It was the preferred game of entire classes up until middle school, when we were all told that it was just a game for kids… and started getting told what sports to play and how to play. Interestingly this is when a lot of kids quit participating in physical activity in general.

    I’ve always thought kids see the game for what it is… pure fun. I recall early on, most of us did not know the rules and just learned to play from one another, no adults or teachers involved. It’s a shame there’s such resistance to the sport among adults in some places.

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