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A Tale of Two Cities

Let’s take a trip back in soccer history, all the way to 2009. In its inaugural season in the NPSL, Chattanooga FC had a relatively slow start. However, heading into the late-season grind, CFC managed to put together nearly a month of undefeated league play. Not bad for the organization from the Scenic City.  In fact, this upstart team had dreams of the playoffs as they, along with about 50 dedicated supporters, drove the 150 miles southwest to play the team in Birmingham in a late-season matchup. But it was not to be for CFC. Pumas FC (Birmingham, AL) held the new kids on the block in check with a 3-0 victory. Any dreams that Chattanooga had of making a run at the NPSL Championship ended that night on the pitch in Birmingham. It was a rude welcoming to the world of organized amateur soccer.

But Chattanooga FC was just taking their first steps in what was to be an astronomic rise in 4th division soccer. The very next season in 2010, CFC along with nearly 100 dedicated fans made that same trip down to Birmingham. This time, Chattanooga brought along with them an undefeated record (4-0-2) and very real aspirations of winning the Southeast Conference of the NPSL and a NPSL Championship. Pumas FC was struggling on and off the field and was playing for pride by this late-season matchup. This time, it was not to be for Pumas FC. Chattanooga FC managed a hard-fought 3-2 victory on the way to wrapping up their NPSL schedule undefeated.

For those of you who don’t know how the story goes, let me summarize. Chattanooga FC went on to play for the NPSL Championship four of the next six seasons, culminating in a NPSL Championship match for the record books in 2015. CFC hosted New York Cosmos B in July of 2015 in front of over 18,000 fans, a US amateur soccer record. Although the club has yet to take home the championship, they have become the golden standard for success in the NPSL over their first seven years. Chattanooga FC’s 2015 average home attendance of 4,500 fans casts a shadow over its NPSL rivals’ numbers like Lookout Mountain over the Tennessee River valley below. There are even whispers that Chattanooga FC might one day forego its amateur status to join a higher level league.

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Meanwhile, after the 2010 NPSL season, Pumas FC withered away unnoticed. It was just another casualty in the tumultuous turnover of lower-division soccer in the US. You would be excused for not knowing much, if anything, about this now defunct soccer team. For whatever reason, Pumas FC never caught the public’s attention in the Magic City. In the early 2000’s, Birmingham was clearly not ready to embrace the beautiful game.

Growth of Soccer Popularity in Birmingham

Much has changed in Birmingham since Pumas FC’s last season in the NPSL. For starters, soccer’s national growth in popularity has been felt in cities all across the South. The strong showing of the US Men’s National Team in the South Africa World Cup in the summer of 2010 generated many new fans of the sport. The American Outlaws supporters group in Birmingham grew in numbers. By the 2014 Brazil World Cup, the American Outlaws were packing the house at Good People Brewing Company, despite the archaic projector display and lack of air-conditioning. (

Perhaps most telling that soccer is growing in popularity in the Magic City is the data from youth leagues across the city and state. Notably, youth soccer participation was up 43% in 2015 compared to the previous season, ranking the Alabama Soccer Association #1 in incremental growth out of 55 state associations around the United States. Even soccer elitists around the country will have a hard time turning their nose up at this statistic. If you create fans of the sport at an early age, the sport’s popularity will be set to grow for generations to come. Soccer is currently exploding on the scene in Birmingham. The numbers do not lie.

Enter the Birmingham Hammers

The Birmingham Hammers are the inevitable product of soccer’s growth in popularity in the Magic City. In three short years, the grassroots effort to create a soccer franchise in Birmingham has grown into an official team that will be kicking-off their inaugural season of NPSL league-play in April 2016. With teams in the aforementioned Chattanooga, along with Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, New Orleans, and Atlanta, Birmingham is no longer sitting on the sideline when it comes to soccer in the Southeast. But will the Hammers be able to learn from the shortcomings of Pumas FC? Why will the Hammers succeed when the previous franchise came up short? Will local soccer fans take the franchise for granted? All of these questions will be answered in due time.

Without a doubt, the Birmingham Hammers are coming into a much more welcoming environment than what was available to the Pumas FC franchise back in mid-to-late 2000’s. Soccer awareness in Birmingham is obviously much greater than it was merely 7 years ago. For example, the Hammers’ Facebook followers count of 5,434 is only second to Chattanooga FC (10,040) in the Southeast conference of the NPSL. For comparison’s sake, Memphis City FC will be joining the NPSL this season as well with only 20% of the social media presence of the Hammers. Nashville, New Orleans, and Knoxville all have established franchises in the Southeast Conference of the NPSL. But all have less social media presence than the Hammers. If there was a franchise that could replicate what Chattanooga FC has accomplished over the last 7 years, the Hammers are sitting in a strong position to do so. But it is yet to be seen if the Hammers’ social media presence will translate to ticket sales and support.

Rivalry Renewed

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Credit: Len Louis, birminghamhammers.com

Chattanooga FC is set to make the 150-mile trip to Birmingham on May 14th, 2016. This match will be CFC’s first trip to the Magic City since that fateful game in 2010 where they started their march to 4th division dominance and Pumas FC was left to a sparsely recorded history book. The franchise from the Scenic City has been to the summit of the NPSL mountain four times with no hardware to show for it. Standing in their way in 2016 is the emerging Hammers franchise that seeks to prove that soccer is on the rise in Birmingham. The last time CFC came to Birmingham, 100 dedicated fans from Chattanooga made the road trip. That was then. There will be many more CFC supporters in 2016. If the Hammers’ faithful want to show the region how important soccer is here, this match will be its chance to shine.