Photo: The Alabama Heat’s Ben Clements (15) congratulates teammates during the team’s match against Talladega College on March 31 at Murphree Stadium in Gadsden. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Slowly but surely, the Alabama Heat Futbol Club is spreading its roots through the fertile soccer soil of Gadsden and Etowah County.
Approximately halfway through the team’s inaugural season, general manager, head coach and part owner Bill Martin is cautiously optimistic about the viability of the area’s first-ever professional soccer club.
“There’s a lot of local kids playing in college that are at the top of the pyramid of our local club program. This is a developmental league that allows them to work on their game and possibly get to the next level. You never know when your opportunity is going to come in soccer, and hopefully we’re opening a few doors for our players.”
The Alabama Heat FC is an affiliate program of the National Premier Soccer League, which is sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body of soccer in the United States. In 2014, NPSL became the largest national soccer league in the US Soccer development pyramid with over 80 teams all over the country. Over 30 expansion teams joined the NPSL for the 2014 season, and the league is nearing the entrance of its 100th team.
Alabama Heat – 2B
Martin, the director of coaching for the Etowah Youth Soccer Association/Alabama Rush and owner of the Sports Zone and Fun Center in the Rainbow Industrial Park, pointed out that the Heat roster consists of both professional and amateur players and will be structured to keep all collegiate and amateur players eligible under all league and NCAA rules. He also noted that the tram’s 25-man roster is subject to change from week to week in order to maintain depth and a competitive atmosphere.
“As we’re building momentum with this thing, more college players are hearing about us, and we’re getting call daily from guys that want to be a part of this. There’s no restrictions on the roster, so we can bring players on and off. We have tryouts pretty often to strengthen the roster. I tell the guys that with the exception of one or two players, there are no safe spots. You’re always trying to get to the point when your backups are as good as your starters.”
The Heat currently has a 3-3 record that includes a 5-1 win over the Georgia Revolution and a victory over an adult all-star team.
“I told the guys at our practice last Sunday that we’re really headed in the right direction,” said Martin. “We’ve added a few more young, athletic guys and our level of play has gone up a lot over the past few weeks.”
Martin noted that although the Heat is viewed as a professional team, its players are not paid. However, the club provides assistance in areas such as lodging, meals and equipment.
“We have to make sure these guys maintain their amateur status, so we have to be careful in what ways we can help them financially. It’s a little bit of a tightrope that we have to walk, but the league has someone who is helping us with that.”
Martin was pleased with the gate of the Heat’s first two home matches at Murphree Stadium. The March 31 match drew just under 1,000 people, while the May 18 match had 1,200 fans. He said the latter number was in the mid-range of the average NPSL attendance.
“It’s not going to explode overnight; it’s going to be more of a methodical process of becoming more and more a part of the community year after year,” said Martin. “The business model of this league helps you sustain [the franchise] without an overwhelming financial commitment. There’s a learning curve with something like this, and every market is different.’
Martin’s vision includes an extensive refurbishment of Murphree Stadium, which is located behind the old Gadsden High School on South 12th Street. The field has not been used on a regular basis since Gadsden, Emma Sansom and Litchfield high school were consolidated to form Gadsden City High School in 2006.
The facility is near and dear to Martin’s heart, however. The 1995 Gadsden High graduate was a member of the Tigers’ 1992, 1993 and 1995 Class 5A state championship teams. He went on to play soccer at the University of Montevallo. Martin’ dad, Billy, was the Gadsden High boys and girls coach for 15 years.
“It’s a really cool feeling to be out there as a coach, said Martin. “Not much has changed, and we’ve had some laughs about what went on in there when we played high school soccer. A lot of people have a lot of good memories about that field, and I’d love to see it revitalized.”
As part of being a first-year NPSL franchise, the Heat received $100,000 toward the renovation of Murphree Stadium, which, according to Martin, must include new bathrooms facilities.
“That [money] will get the ball rolling, but we’ll have to do some serious fundraising if we’re going to do what we have in mind. But we’ve already sold 100 season tickets, which is way over expectations, and we actually had some sponsors reach out to us instead of the other way around, so we’re doing very well in terms of local support.”
Toward that end, the team recently purchased a bus to transport the players to away games.
Martin considers Jorge Guti, the club’s Director of Player Development, as a vital part of the operation. A native of Equatorial Guinea and a Gadsden State graduate, Guti coaches with the Alabama Rush teams.
“Jorge speaks five different languages, so he’s really helped us connect with the Hispanic community and getting those kids into our clubs. In the three years he’s been with us, he’s helped us make huge strides on every level in our soccer community.”
The majority of the Heat players have local ties, including Gabriel Alvarez, Antonio Andres, MarDayus Bothwell, Diego Chavero, Ben Clements, Anthony Cornejo, Jace Fleetwood, Jorge Guti, Jesus Linarez, Cruz Miranda, Jose Mondragon, Cesar Ndong, Nathaniel Osorio, Juan Gallegos, Juan Salgado, Jakorius Watkins, Jorge Za-mora, Kevin Johnson, Robert Ball, Alejandro Sanchez, Tyler Huffstutler, Erik Rodriguez and Alan Vazquez. The club’s corporate sponsors are Jacket Medical, Universal Tool and the Johnson family and Sparks Orthopedics.
The Heat’s next home game are Sunday, June 23 at 4 p.m. against the Georgia Revolution and Friday, June 28 at 6 p.m. against Peachtree Futbol Club. In regard to community outreach, team members served meals at the Fourth Street Chick-fil-A restaurant and worked as volunteer referees at several EYSL games. “That’s a good start, but we’ve really got to get involved, because in order to be successful, we have to be embedded in the community,” said Martin. “We’re selling to these guys that they’re being a part of something big from the start. “There’s something to be said for being a part of a grassroots movement like this.”