The southern gulf coast of the United States has a distinct sporting culture. An area which is warm enough for outdoor sports for the majority of the year is a producer of some of the countries finest athletes. Unfortunately for soccer players, football and baseball still dominate the athletic spectrum in states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The sport has grown substantially in the past 20 years from what it once was, with premier youth soccer clubs sprouting in areas like Birmingham, Jackson, and Baton Rouge, and successful collegiate soccer programs like the University of Alabama - Birmingham supplying a pathway to the higher levels of the game for many local players. I discussed the growing soccer culture in Alabama with Alex Clay, one of the few players I have ever met from Alabama and one of the only active professional players from the state. Alex gave some excellent insight into the south's soccer scene, what’s holding the sport back, what’s pushing it forward and how these states can continue to develop more and more elite level players in the future.
Alex is a 2014 graduate of the UAB, where he excelled after a breakout junior season for the blazers under coach Mike Getmen. UAB is one of the few outlets for southern soccer players who are looking to continue their playing careers collegiality in the southern gulf states. With football, baseball, and basketball consuming a majority of the athletics budget and focus from many schools. UAB is unable to compete with schools like the University of Alabama and Auburn in football, so the university took its focus to the budget friendly sport of men’s soccer, and has recently hosted the College Cup in 2011. UAB is also home to one of the best soccer pitches in the country, BBVA Compass Field is a recently constructed soccer specific facility completed in December 2015, and features a beautifully groomed surface and elite facilities. Getman, who Clay praises for motivating the young attacking midfielder to play at the next level, has been at UAB for over 24 years and has played a pivotal part in the growth of soccer in the Birmingham area.
Alex attributes numerous youth coaches who introduced him to the game as a youngster. Henry Mpagi and Marty Clark introduced the game to the future pro at Huntsville Soccer Club, later renamed Huntsville Futbol Club , before Alex took off for larger Birmingham United SC during his teenage years. Traveling two hours to practice twice a week was a bit of an obstacle, but was necessary to expose the youngster to the best talent in the region. Another great example of commitment from parents that is unfortunately sometimes necessary in US soccer due to the vast amount of area in this country. He worked extremely hard at the sport and credits his exposure to high school varsity soccer as a middle schooler, and the relationship he built with older players as one of the motivations to become a student of the game.
Alex is one of two professional soccer players from Alabama who played in either USL Pro, NASL, or MLS last season. The other, Chandler Hoffman, is currently with Louisville City of the USL Pro. Both are under the age of 25, showing the progress the sport has seen in the state as of late. Alex mentioned concussions and safety issues regarding youth american football as to why youth soccer has become an attractive alternative in the football crazy region. As it has become hard to ignore the films and studies that have made concussions a concern for parents and participants of the sport. It will be very hard to change the way a mass majority of the residents in Alabama view the sport, but it is becoming very common in the state to be a youth soccer player, and with the UAB roster featuring numerous Alabama natives, I hope to see the number of professionals from the state grow in the near future.
Alex’s story is a rarity these days in US youth soccer. His high school soccer and community background was refreshing to learn about, in an age where individual aspirations sometime limit any real community feel to youth soccer, it was great to someone who valued so many of the relationships he built when he was a young player. Clay is an example of a natural drive, a student mindset, and a hard work ethic, that if found by a young player, can drive them to the highest levels, no matter how small of a town they may hail from. Clay possesses loads of ability on the ball, and is seen as a creative number 10 or false 9. Both roles given to players who have spent countless hours on the ball finding new ways to unlock opposing defenses and opponents. Clay is currently in the hunt for a new club, as his contract with Red Bull was not renewed, but Alex has already done his part in inspiring numerous young players in his home state to strive for a similar excellence when playing the beautiful game.
As the NCAA looks to implement new year around schedule adjustments to Division I possibly this upcoming fall, the addition of more men’s programs in the southern states would also be a welcomed addition. It may never happen, as progressive change does not usually occur very quickly in the south or in the NCAA, but the thought of a men’s soccer Iron Bowl is mouth watering. A fixture Clay spoke about as a necessity if the sport is to grow in popularity in the state. Could we someday see every SEC college have a men’s soccer team? With Title IX still limiting the funding for many men’s soccer programs, we may not see it in our lifetime. However with the new year around schedule adjustments, and the potential for schools to use their soccer teams as real money makers, we may see the southern football powerhouses bite at the opportunity to add to their athletic arsenal in the near future with men’s soccer teams.
Soccer in Alabama and the rest of the deep south is slowly but surely growing and is starting to insert players into the professional realm. I wrote about the effect of the lower leagues in US soccer have on the amount of imported quality coaching in smaller markets last week. The deep south would be a market desperate for a USL Pro, NPSL, or NASL team to bring new life and coaching imports to take charge in the region. It is great to see local Alabama players on the roster at UAB, and I hope to see more players follow in the footsteps of Alex Clay and Chandler Hoffman, and enter into the professional scene as former residents of the southern gulf states.