We are in an alternative universe. Stay with me here… It’s 1930. The first ever World Cup is about to start the semifinal round. The U.S. Men’s National Team has steamrolled through the group stage, beating Belgium and Paraguay by a combined score of 6-0. Up next: South American power Argentina. After scoring the first official hat trick in World Cup history against Paraguay, Bert Patenaude replicates the feat against the Albicelestes, leading the USMNT to the finals against host country Uruguay. And once again, the Yank striker Patenaude scores the lone goal in a 1-0 USA victory. The team is welcomed back to New York as the crowned champions of the soccer world.
Bert Patenaude goes on to become a legend that boys and girls of all ages look up to. Think “Babe Ruth of soccer.” Books are written. Movies are produced. Candy bars are consumed. All in his honor.
Fast forward 87 years to today. As we look back on our substantial soccer history in this alternate world, we marvel at the richness of the game in our country. It all started many years ago when the “Sultan of Strikers”, Bert Patenaude, and his blue collar Yank teammates went into Uruguay and slayed the beasts of the soccer world and brought home that first World Cup trophy. Undoubtedly, many World Cup trophies followed for the Red, White, and Blue as the popularity of the sport grew exponentially.
In this universe, it’s safe to imagine that the Birmingham Hammers organization was created not long after that 1930 World Cup. And let’s also imagine that in this alternative USA, many athletes that played baseball, football, or basketball actually grew up playing soccer. One can dream, right? So in this fantasy world, who would have been the best of the best athletes to have come up through the Hammers’ organization?
Here are the rules: I will pick the best athletes that grew up in the Birmingham metro area and put them in positions that I think their skills would translate to on the pitch. I define the metro area of Birmingham as about a 60-minute radius from downtown. My logic is that if you were a world-class soccer player and lived within 60 minutes of the Hammers’ facilities, the team would find a way to get you into their training/youth system. I cannot pick players from Huntsville, Montgomery, Mobile, etc…
I give you the Fantasy Starting XI from the Birmingham, AL metro that would have been Birmingham Hammers legends:
1. Jerricho Cotchery (Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers)
Good luck sneaking any balls past this sure-handed goalkeeper. The Phillips High School alumnus has had a noteworthy career in the NFL as a wide receiver. In 2014, Cotchery had the prestige of being the only receiver in the NFL that season with double digit targets and a perfect catch rate. His 6 ft. frame and 4.5 sec. 40-yard dash speed means that he can cover a lot of ground in the box. And if the ball somehow finds its way through the Hammers’ formidable defensive line, Cotchery’s soft hands would make playing goalkeeper look like a walk in the park.
1. Desmond Jennings (Right Back) (Outfielder, Tampa Bay Rays)
This speedy outfielder from Pinson High School would give teams fits on the soccer field. He can cover ground in the outfield, and he would cover ground all over the right flank of the pitch. He would keep opponents on their heels as he transitioned into an attacking role, creating many 2v1 situations. But don’t think that his opponents can counter too easily if he leaves his defensive position. Jennings has stolen more than 20 bases three times in his short MLB career. He will be able to track back quickly and fulfill his defensive duties.
2. Charles Barkley (Center Back) (Power Forward, Philadelphia 76ers)
Charles Barkley of Leeds High School would need to be disciplined in the role of center back. He loved to clean up the boards on the basketball court, making sure his team won possession of the ball. But the “Round Mound of Rebound” would be an irrelevant nickname in a world where Chuck grew up playing soccer. His body frame would be big, but he would be cut with his additional cardio stamina. His 6 ft. 6 in. frame and his nasty attitude means that no one would be safe around him. Opposing strikers may catch an elbow or two. Yes, Barkley would probably give up a few cards here and there, but for the most part he would have opponents perplexed at how to score a goal. He would still not be a role model. But Hammers fans would love him!
3. Karlos Dansby (Center Back) (Linebacker, Arizona Cardinals)
6 ft. 4 in. Karlos Dansby from Woodlawn, Alabama would clean up anything coming across the middle not already handled by Barkley. Tall, muscular, athletic. Oh, did I mention that he could jump like a gazelle? Check out this gem from the 2001 Peach Bowl. No striker will be winning balls in the air over these two center backs. NFL receivers don’t like running across the middle when Dansby is out there. I cannot imagine what forwards would think.
4. Carl Lewis (Left Back) (Sprinter, 100-m, 200-m, long-jumper)
You think having to plan for Desmond Jennings is difficult, think about having to scheme for Carl Lewis. Carl Lewis would leave the opposition’s heads spinning and tongues wagging as he pounded up and down the left flank. The strength of the two center backs would allow for both Jennings and Lewis to alternate playing an attacking role. And this world-class sprinter would have no equal when it comes to attacking from a defensive position. Born in Birmingham, Lewis’ tenacity, stamina, and work ethic would make him trouble for any opposing team.
1. Erk Russell (Holding Mid) (Defensive End/Tight End, Auburn University)
Russell made his name as a coach at the University of Georgia. But prior to that, he grew up a multi-sport athlete in the Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham. He was the last 4-sport letterman at Auburn University. His philosophy as a defensive coach at UGA was to keep it simple. This mentality would work perfectly for the holding mid position on the Hammers. Russell would make strategic, simple passes to maintain possession and spring the attack. He would be a bulldog in his defensive responsibilities, making timely tackles and winning possession. Oh, and did I mention how intimidating he would be when his forehead started gushing blood? Because, that definitely would happen.
2. Jay Barker (Right Mid) (Quarterback, University of Alabama)
There is no getting around that Jay Barker, a Trussville native, was a winner at the University of Alabama. During his time as the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide, his record was 35-2-1. Barker’s skills on the football field were not necessarily world-class, but he knew how to manage the game, maintain possession of the football, and win. Barker’s leadership abilities make him the natural choice for the captain’s armband. These innate skills would be essential to making the Hammers’ midfield gel as a unit.
3. Willie Mays (Left Mid) (Outfielder, New York/San Francisco Giants)
Willie Mays was from Westfield, Alabama, just outside of Bessemer. The “Say Hey Kid” was the original, and perhaps the finest of all-time, 5-tool player in Major League Baseball. He could hit for power. He could hit for average. He could run, catch, and throw. Mays’ flashy style on the baseball field made him a Hall-of-Famer and a legend. His athletic ability would be a change of pace in this Hammers’ midfield. He would also be working in tandem with a charging Carl Lewis on the left flank. Good luck to anyone trying to stop these two.
4. Pat Sullivan (Attacking Mid) (Quarterback, Auburn University)
Pat Sullivan grew up in Birmingham, having graduated from John Carroll Catholic High School. The Auburn quarterback would be the field general for the Hammers Fantasy XI. As a center-attacking mid, Sullivan’s job would be to link the midfield possession game with strategic attacking passes to the forwards. His prolific field-awareness at Auburn earned him many accolades, most prominently the Heisman Trophy. On the soccer pitch, his critical decision-making would make him the all-time Hammers leader in assists.
1. Terrell Owens (Striker) (Wide Receive, Dallas Cowboys)
Chattanooga may want to claim him from his time spent at UTC, but his hometown is just a short hour-ride from Birmingham, down Highway 280 in Alex City. My friends, T.O. would have been a Hammer. And talk about the perfect striker. He is tall at 6 ft. 3 in. He is fast. He can jump. And he is brash. Yeh – he would be the perfect cocky goal scorer. The media would love it, and so would the Hammers fans. Get your popcorn ready!
2. Bo Jackson (Striker) (Running Back, Oakland Raiders / Outfielder, Kansas City Royals)
Is there a better strike partner in the world for T.O. than Bo Jackson? Arguably the greatest athlete of all-time, Bo would have no problem matching up against the opponents best center backs. He would use his bat-splitting strength to hold up play and maintain possession. He would frequently find a slashing T.O. making a run in the box, or push the ball out wide to a streaking Carl Lewis. Jackson’s ability to leap would make him a frequent target of the wingers’ crosses. Bo knows headers indeed. His muscular frame would fool opponents into thinking that he was not very fast. Shame on them. Bo would eat opposing center backs for lunch on his way to becoming the most prolific striker in soccer history.
There is a wealth of athletic talent in Birmingham. It would be interesting to see our rivals in New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Atlanta identify their Fantasy Starting XI. I challenge them to come up with a Fantasy Starting XI that comes close to what Birmingham has to offer. I am not sure it can be done.
Let me know if you agree/disagree with my selections above. I am happy to argue with you! And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @bhambackline.