Birmingham Legion FC defender Phanuel Kavita takes on Atlanta United FC's Josef Martinez during the opening scrimmage on Sunday afternoon at BBVA Field. | Photo courtesy Atlanta United FC
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Birmingham Legion FC played to a scoreless draw in the opening game of two scrimmages against Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC before the visitors eked out a 1-0 win in the second matchup at BBVA Field on Sunday afternoon.
Atlanta made the trip to Birmingham for the second year in a row as part of its preparations for the upcoming season, which kicks off on April 6 for the Five Stripes in the Concacaf Champions League against Costa Rica’s Alajualense. Legion FC ran out a strong starting line up in the first game of the day, as newcomers Phanuel Kavita, Ryan James, and Junior Flemmings got a first glimpse at fans in-stadium at BBVA Field, and an attack led by Neco Brett, Bruno Lapa, JJ Williams, and Flemmings racked up more shots and clear chances than the visitors but could not find the back of the net.
Atlanta’s first group, led by Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, forced Legion FC captain and goalkeeper Matt VanOekel into a couple of big saves, and defender Jonny Dean blocked a shot off the line to preserve the home team’s shutout. The overall effort was pleasing for Legion FC Head Coach Tommy Soehn.
“We were solid in the way we pressed, and our shape was really good defensively,” said Soehn. “The only part we lacked was the quality at the end when we forced turnovers and putting it into the back of the net, of which we still have to work on. I was really pleased, though, with the majority of the other things this early in the year against a quality team.”
Birmingham kicks off its third season in the Championship this year and is aiming for bigger achievements after reaching the USL Championship Playoffs in its first two campaigns. The side kicks off its season on May 1 against Indy Eleven in a game that could set the tone for the race in the Central Division this campaign.
“We haven’t had a home playoff game, so that’s first and foremost,” said Soehn. “Playoffs isn’t even a thing anymore, we have to make the playoffs. Something else I’d like to touch on is that I think we’ve got a lot more depth this year. We don’t have everybody in yet, but once we have everybody in, I think we can weather some of the tough stretches of the season, and I don’t think it falls off much because of our depth. I’m excited for that part of it too. Today some of the guys were missing but once everybody is here, I think it’s all positives to come.”
The second match of the day saw full-scale changes from the opener as Legion FC got a good look for the 70-minute scrimmage at a number of players on trial with the club, as well as a handful of youth products from the Legion FC Academy team. Atlanta had the majority of the chances in the second contest, hitting the post twice, and that pressure eventually paid off with a goal from defender Anton Walkes in the 33rd minute.
James and Legion FC defender Alex Crognale were both proud of the defensive performance on the day and were excited to get the regular season rolling.
“It’s been the first time this preseason really where we’ve been tested as a back four, and I thought we showed really well,” said Crognale, who last year was Legion FC’s Defender of the Year and earned Championship All-League honors. “The positioning, the communication, we were really solid for our first time out. To play against a team like Atlanta United, with the attack they have, it just gives us confidence moving through preseason, and we’re excited to continue to build.”
A new arrival from Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, James was also pleased as he continued to settle into his new surroundings in the Magic City.
“It’s been great,” he said. “Guys on the team are great and everyone is starting to jell on the field and off the field. You’re starting to figure out personalities and I think everyone’s just excited for the season to start. The games are starting to come, fans are excited, players are excited. Everyone’s excited to give the fans and the people of Birmingham what they’re expecting in the season.”