I was taken aback – I think awestruck, honestly, though in a very minor way, as much as awe can strike you through a computer screen – by the scenery of this US Open Cup third round match between second division Birmingham Legion and third division South Georgia Tormenta on Tuesday night.
This game took place at Panther Stadium, the soccer field of Birmingham-Southern University, a small, Methodist, NCAA Division III school in the center of Birmingham, Alabama. This is not normally the home field of Birmingham Legion – they play at Protective Field on the campus of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, but for whatever reason (I’m assuming it has to do with the United States Football League’s use of that stadium), they played their US Open Cup game here on Tuesday. That building in the background there is a church, as a search on Google Maps showed me.
What really struck me was the greenery that surrounded the match. The field seems to open up to the woods, and there are hedges that separate the field from the modest bleachers behind it.
Juxtapose that with a game that kicked off at the same time between the Chicago Fire and Union Omaha at Chicago’s Soldier Field, in front a larger crowd, though the 60,000+ seats across which they’re spread out makes it seem far smaller.
It’s not like they were packing them in in Birmingham, to be fair, but it looks worse here. They were, however, packing them in in Hamtramck, Michigan, where Detroit City FC (USL Championship, Second Division) took on the Columbus Crew from Major League Soccer.
That each of these matches in each of these places happened simultaneously makes me happy. All three of these things are what American soccer is, and they are all what I love about American soccer, and specifically the US Open Cup. Even the mostly empty stadiums. Let me explain:
The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup itself is an overlooked competition. First awarded in 1914, it is one of the longest-running competitions in American sports, predating the NCAA Tournament, the Super Bowl, and the entire existences of the NBA and NFL. But it is an afterthought.to many, even to many soccer fans, even to entire soccer leagues – The first division of US Soccer in the seventies and eighties, the NASL, didn’t compete in the US Open Cup at all throughout its existence. Only a cataclysmic event like COVID-19 could bring this competition, which had played through wars and social upheavals and prior pandemics, to a halt in 2020 and 2021. But it’s back now.
If you have ESPN+, I recommend clicking through the “US Open Cup” tab and just looking at some of the sceneries from the cup’s early rounds. This is when amateur and semi-professional teams take part in the competition, with names like Las Vegas Legends and Denton Diablos and Dallas D’Feeters Soccer Club. They play in… well, I’ll just show you:
It’s high school football fields, soccer goals set up in front of barns, converted baseball parks. This is as much American Soccer as the scenes you’ll see on ABC and FOX when the likes of Atlanta and Seattle host big matches. These smaller, quirkier venues are overlooked, and it’s a luck of a draw whether they end up hosting at all in the US Open Cup (I would like for this to change, for the lower-division teams to have the first opportunities for hosting in these rounds, because I enjoy the chaos and even as a fan of teams in the top two divisions, I would pick the underdog atmospheres like we saw in Detroit over what we got in Chicago).
I know that many American fans (I’ve sat by them at games) dream of adopting European standards and sensibilities, sometimes poorly mimicking their accents in doing so, but I do not. I do not personally envy what they have in Europe. I like what we have here. There is a soccer culture here that I would prefer to appreciate. One where trucks are parked on the grass behind the goal and groups of like eleven guys heckle the players taking the corner kicks from behind a chainlink fence, where every now and then the camera will pan over an Italian food truck. It is imperfect, but it is ours.
This game reminded me of my days at Swope Park watching FC Kansas City of the NWSL back from 2015 to 2017.
They play in a much better situation nowadays at Children’s Mercy Park, but I will always remember the afternoons and evenings watching some of the best women’s soccer players in the world play to crowds of maybe two, three thousand at most, at twelve dollars per ticket.
I hope that the US Open Cup comes to town this year, or, even better, that the US Open Cup opens the opportunity for me to travel to one of these smaller stadiums to experience it there. Regardless, I am glad to have it back.
Detroit and Omaha both won, beating MLS teams for the first time in their clubs’ histories!