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Friendly begins Birmingham Legion’s move to new home in Protective Stadium

A leopard can’t change its spots and a tiger can’t change its stripes, but Protective Stadium can now seamlessly change its lines to conform to soccer and other sports.

Fans will see the transformed field at 2:30 p.m. Sunday as the Birmingham Legion hosts Atlanta United of Major League Soccer in an exhibition “friendly.” Tickets start at $7.

The chameleon nature of the field was a key to the Legion making Protective – part of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex – its new home.

“The football lines are coming off,” President and General Manager Jay Heaps said. “There will be no football lines on the field. The BJCC has gone and taken up that surface that was there for the UAB football season and flipped that to the very same turf, but the football lines that were weaved in are no longer there.”

Lines that are needed for various sports will be painted on as needed.

“If it’s a soccer game, there’ll be just soccer lines,” Heaps said. “If it’s a football game, it will (have) football lines. If it’s a lacrosse game, it will be just lacrosse. That’s what a multipurpose venue is supposed to have.

“That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to go there, because they were making that conversion.”

Tad Snider, executive director and CEO of the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center Authority, said the BJCC is thrilled that Birmingham Legion FC will play at Protective Stadium.

“From the outset, one of the primary design goals for the stadium was to build a facility capable of hosting different types of events and users and serve a variety of needs in our community,” Snider said. “We met with numerous stakeholders to make sure the stadium design would be versatile enough to be truly multipurpose. We are committed to providing the very best experience for Legion’s team and fans, which includes converting the playing surface to meet the requirements of soccer for Legion matches.

“Logistically, the conversion from football to soccer and back to football requires planning and preparation, and it is a significant undertaking for the Protective Stadium team,” Snider continued. “But it’s a process that allows the stadium to host multiple sports and teams throughout the year. That very scenario was always the goal for the BJCC when planning for Protective Stadium.”

Coach Tommy Soehn said the move from UAB’s PNC Field – formerly BBVA Stadium – raises the profile of Birmingham’s USL Championship league squad.

“While BBVA was a great starting point, I also think we’ve outgrown that,” Soehn said. “It’s time to step up to the next level and the new stadium in town (and) the professionalism around it.”

The coach said a deterrent of UAB’s soccer stadium arose with rain and lightning, when people had to leave the stadium.

“That hurt us because it rained a lot here,” he said. “Now they’re staying and going into a clubhouse, a clubhouse that’s immaculate. They’re not having to leave the venue.

“The venue, from a visual perspective, is awesome,” Soehn said. “It’s a game-changing scenario for us. We’re quite pleased with it and I think it’s a natural progression that we always continue to strive to do, not only for the club but more for the fans.”

Heaps said Legion leaders always felt being on a college campus kept the club from “really connecting” with the 99 neighborhoods of Birmingham.

“We really are going to push hard to be a bigger part, presence in the neighborhoods and community,” the general manager said. “That’s gonna be really important for us, to get people who maybe haven’t been to a soccer game before to experience Protective Stadium. On top of that, we have lower (ticket) prices at Protective than we did even at our last venue. It’s a more professional environment with a really affordable ticket price.

“We want to be family friendly and we really want to be Birmingham’s team,” Heaps continued. “We want them to get here and see us play, get to that venue and see us play.”

Protective Stadium is a 45,000-capacity open-air stadium, but the lower bowl will be configured to make it cozy for soccer.

“We’re looking to bring it down to that 15,000-person capacity and make some demand (for tickets) but at the same time also make it more intimate,” Heaps said. “We’re going to drive people to sections that are better viewing for soccer.”

As the Legion begins its fourth season, its goal has been to host a playoff game. That nearly happened in the 2021 season.

“We had one scheduled and then COVID took its toll on the other team and we weren’t able to play that home game,” Soehn said. “We still haven’t played a home playoff game here in our city. That’s vitally important to us. But every year, we want to do better than the last. It’s always easy to say, but it’s hard to do because everybody has the same philosophy and everybody has similar resources to do that.

“We want to continue to improve and make sure that every year we get closer,” the coach said. “Obviously, we want to win a championship, but so does everybody else. We want to keep pushing ourselves. The way to really (get fans to) embrace this team is winning. We want to win something for the city.”

According to its website, USL Championship is one of the most successful professional soccer leagues in the world, reaching more than 84 million people and fueling the growth of the game across North America. Sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation as a Division II professional league, the Championship has a membership of more than 30 clubs across the United States and Canada.

The regular season opener for the Legion is 4 p.m. Sunday, March 13, hosting the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Birmingham fell 1-0 to the Rowdies in the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinal at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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