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How preparation met opportunity for Birmingham Legion FC’s Matthew Corcoran

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 10/27/23, 11:40AM EDT


Young midfielder’s breakout campaign has seen him join OCSC’s Jamison, Battery’s Barajas in turning club success to World Cup selection

Birmingham Legion FC's Matthew Corcoran will represent the United States at the U-17 World Cup in November as his club performances helped bring him onto the national team radar. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

When Birmingham Legion FC’s Matthew Corcoran was told he had been selected to the United States U-17 Men’s National Team’s final training camp before the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup in late September, he took it in stride.

“My first reaction was, I was ready,” said Corcoran this week. “I was just really excited because I felt that I’d been having a good year, a good season, so to hear that news come in and to have an opportunity to go make a name for myself for the World Cup was something I was very excited about.”

It was an opportunity Corcoran’s play for Legion FC in the USL Championship seemed to merit.

Part of one of the more experienced squads in the league in Birmingham – per Transfermarkt, Legion FC’s squad averages an age of 26.7 years old, fifth-highest in the league – the 17-year-old logged more than 30 appearances and 1,834 minutes in the Championship’s regular season.

He scored his first professional goal in May with a superb free kick against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, and also notched three assists and 29 chances created while helping hold down the center of the field as a distributor and ball-winner in Legion FC’s midfield.

As he joined up with the squad in Brazil in early October for a week of training and two exhibitions against its hosts, Corcoran embraced the opportunity.

“It's really cool to see where you always stack up against the best in the world,” he said. “Brazil is one of the biggest names in world football, so go there and play, it’s cool and fun, especially to see different styles, different players, different ways that people play.

“I think the [USYNT] team also helped me in a way of just being comfortable playing the system. I definitely felt like I made a good case [for the World Cup].”

United States U-17 Men’s National Team Head Coach Gonzalo Segares agreed.

On Wednesday, Corcoran was named in the squad for the tournament, which will see the United States kick off against Korea Republic on Sunday, November 12. It’s the next step in the pathway he set out to accomplish when he signed professionally with Legion FC two years ago, achieving individual growth while helping Legion FC earn on-field success.

“This year I had a very good run,” said Corcoran. “I got a lot of minutes under my belt, and so I was able to perform. Now our team's going to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. I mean, it’s going well.”

Corcoran isn’t the only U.S. U-17s World Cup call-up on a Championship title contender playing an active role in his side’s success. At Orange County SC, forward Bryce Jamison was also named to the squad after making 26 appearances this season, his first full year at the club.

Orange County SC's Bryce Jamison is the latest player from the club to be selected to represent the United States at the FIFA Men's U-17 World Cup after a strong 2023 USL Championship season. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

The exciting winger started in OCSC’s victory against El Paso Locomotive FC last Saturday night – getting robbed of his first postseason goal by a brilliant save by El Paso goalkeeper Benny Díaz – as the qualities he’s sharpened this year continued to shine while competing for club and country.

“A lot of the guys were very helpful,” said Jamison of his teammates. “Helpful with my development and getting me to understand the different levels of the game and different ways to just play.

“[I’ve gained] knowledge, definitely. Understanding different situations, I do that a lot better now thanks to my teammates, for sure.”

Jamison is the third player who will represent Orange County at the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup. Four years ago, when the tournament was last held, goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes and midfielder Bryang Kayo were both named in the squad. Both players headed to Europe through the club, and more recently OCSC has secured major transfers for defender Kobi Henry to Ligue 1 club Stade de Reims and forward Korede Osundina to the Eredivisie’s Feyenoord.

Matthew Corcoran's 31 appearances and 1,834 regular season minutes are the most at the professional level this season of any player selected to the United States squad for the FIFA Men's U-17 World Cup. | Photo courtesy Birmingham Legion FC

A close friend with Osundina, that’s the aim for Jamison, too, and looking around the Championship’s landscape he’s not alone. Alongside Corcoran and fellow U.S. U-17s call-up Duran Ferree of San Diego Loyal SC, the Charleston Battery’s Fidel Barajas – who will be part of Mexico’s squad at the U-17 World Cup – and others like Memphis 901 FC’s Nighte Pickering or FC Tulsa’s Nate Worth, more young players are taking advantage of the opportunities competing in the USL Championship and League One can offer.

“It’s definitely an honor being a part of that small group,” said Jamison. “Us young players, there’s a decent amount coming up into the USL which is lovely to see. That makes it feel like more of a tight group, family, that we have that connection between us knowing that we’re the younger kids in the USL, and we’re actually playing and performing well and developing.”

“I think young players are starting to realize there's a different pathway than MLS,” added Corcoran. “I think it all started with Jonathan [Gomez] who I know very well from FC Dallas. I think players are starting to realize that the USL offers a lot for kids to get minutes early and develop against grown men who are playing this game as a job, where it’s their life. I think it’s very valuable to come and get this experience early on.”

With five goals and 10 assists this season for the Battery, Barajas has broken new ground while becoming a star in the Championship’s youth movement. After the overseas moves by Gomez and Henry previously, Louisville City FC’s Joshua Wynder took up the mantle as he featured earlier this year for the United States U-20 Men’s National Team before a league-record transfer to Portuguese giant Benfica.

Barajas, meanwhile, was named to The Guardian’s Next Generation 2023 list earlier this month and voted the USL Players Association’s Young Player of the Year this week. The California native is the latest to attract the spotlight after his individual progression has helped the Battery to a chance at a league title.

“I mean, it's just really putting this league out there,” said Barajas of his World Cup call-up, and those of Corcoran, Ferree and Jamison for the United States. “Being able to go to a World Cup is something not many people get to do. I feel like even though they’re with the U.S. and I’m with Mexico, it just shows that the USL is the right way to go. It helps you improve your game, makes you a really good player.”

Fidel Barajas has achieved international recognition this year in part through his starring role in the Charleston Battery's resurgence in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Michael Wiser / Charleston Battery

In the case of Barajas and Jamison, their respective moves to Charleston and Orange County came after earning opportunities with youth national team programs as Academy players at the San Jose Earthquakes and the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona.

For Corcoran, however, joining Legion FC seemingly provided a pathway into the USYNT program. When he started for the U.S. U-17s against Brazil on October 6, it was the first official appearance he had made for the program overall.

For that, he credits his experience with Legion FC. He’s bonded closely with Juan Agudelo, who in 2009 was in the same place getting ready for a U-17 World Cup. He’s also well regarded by the other members of the squad and has received plenty of feedback from club President Jay Heaps and Head Coach Tom Soehn as this new opportunity arrives.

“Being in a professional locker and professional environment where you have to stick up for yourself, you have to know when you do badly, know when you do good, and just work very, very hard,” said Corcoran. “It’s very, very valuable discussions, learning just how other people view your performances and how you have done this year.

“[Heaps, Soehn and I have] talked a lot about how I’ve grown this year and just continue to grow each time I play, but talking with them has been good and obviously we’ll see what the next step is soon.”

Before that, Corcoran and Barajas could square off this Saturday night as Legion FC visits the Battery in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs. The two connected this week to congratulate each other on their respective call-ups with the knowledge this will be their final club game of the season before they depart for the U.S. and Mexico training camps, respectively.

Jamison, meanwhile, will try to help Orange County continue its pursuit of a second Championship title as they face Phoenix Rising FC in the Western Conference Semifinals. All three are hoping to come home to Championship Final Winner’s medals after taking aim at success in Indonesia.

“I feel like even though it’ll be my last playoff game, I feel like the team has got it,” said Barajas of his Battery teammate’s chances. “I feel like they have what it takes to win it all.”

“It’d be absolutely crazy,” added Jamison. “I’d be buzzing, for sure. I think we have a great shot at it right now with the team and all the work that every individual on the squad has put in. It’s leading up to, hopefully, a championship again.”

After their respective success in the USL Championship, the World Cup stage awaits.

From there, the soccer world may be their oyster.

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