Birmingham Legion’s Tom Soehn: “First Time as the Underdog”

Birmingham Legion boss Tom Soehn has won five U.S. Open Cups as a player and coach – and now he’s enjoying his first time taking aim at the big boys from Cinderella’s vantage.
By: Jonah Fontela

Name someone who’s been involved in more modern-era Open Cup Finals than Tom Soehn.

We’ll wait.

The former Dallas Burn and Chicago Fire defender raised the trophy three times as a player and twice more as a coach – and he was involved in two more Finals on the losing side at D.C. United and the New England Revolution.

“I have a lot of experience in my career with the Open Cup,” said Tom Soehn, who, this year as head coach of the second-division Birmingham Legion, is making his first deep run at his favorite prize as a Cinderella outsider. “It’s been a big part of my career but this is the first time I’m on the underdog side.”

You might not remember Soehn from the star-studded Chicago Fire teams in the late 90s, when Hristo Stoichkov and captain Peter Nowak caught most of the headlines. He was, by his own description “more soldier than general” during his days as a hard-nosed defender.

“I knew my role and I did it well,” he said

His connection to our tournament is so profound that he literally ended his career with the old trophy in his hands. “I just found a photo from the 2002 Final,” said Soehn of that year’s decider at Soldier Field in his hometown of Chicago. “We beat the Miami Fusion and it was so memorable to retire right after.”

Calling Time with the Trophy

“I wanted the next chapter,” said Soehn, about the days when he was eager to begin his coaching career. “But it couldn’t have ended any better than retiring at home with the trophy in your hands.”

Soehn admits to “rubbing that photo in Jay [Heap’s] face.” The former USMNT player and New England Revolution lifer is now the President of Birmingham Legion. And he considered Soehn a perfect fit to lead the squad when the Alabama club began operations in the USL Championship five years ago (2017).

Juan Agudelo – the striker who Soehn coached at NE Revolution and now in Birmingham

This year is the first time the Legion have made a deep dent in the Open Cup.

“When you’re trying to build up a fanbase and get noticed, there’s no better way to do it than to get an MLS team to come to town,” said Soehn, who guided the Legion past two third-division teams from Chattanooga (Red Wolves of USL League one and FC of NISA) before beating USL Championship rivals Memphis 901 in the Round of 32. 

The Legion will host an MLS team for the first time when Charlotte FC come to Protective Stadium on May 24. The club’s been on an active PR campaign, with Soehn himself putting in overtime doing press conferences in between video-viewing sessions to make sure he’s as prepared as possible ahead of the visit from the top-tier pros from North Carolina.

The Legion (in black) during the Round of 32 win over USL league mates Memphis 901

“We’re getting the word out there and hoping this game can become a big event,” Soehn said. “This club always amazes me – every year it seems we hit some big firsts. Now we’ve got the chance to play in front of the club’s biggest crowd ever and that’s exactly what we’re hoping for.”

Forged in the ‘Dark Days’

Soehn is every inch the right man to lead a second-tier pro team with big ambitions.

He came out of Western Illinois University in the dark days of American pro soccer after the folding of the original North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1984. He was a 30-year-old veteran by the time he joined MLS and the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) in the league’s inaugural year of 1996, and he’d learned the lessons of a journeyman grinding out a living in the old semi-pro indoor and outdoor leagues.

“I can’t remember how many leagues I folded,” laughed Soehn, who’s played in the Canadian Soccer League, the MISL, the NSPL, APSL, CISL and the USISL A-League. “It was like alphabet soup, all the leagues in those days.  

And with the USL Championship of today a long way off Major League Soccer’s large operating budgets and deep squads, he’s of a kind with the players he’s coaching in Birmingham.

Soehn during his years as head coach of MLS’ D.C. United

The packed travel and game schedules take a toll on USL players, who, for the most part, are on one-year contracts. “We’re just starting to see glimpses of what we can be as a team,” said Soehn, who, in recent weeks, has had to field teams with only one or two substitutes available because of injuries.

With a supply of hungry workers in the squad, Soehn also has a handful of seasoned veterans. Guys he can turn to when the chips are down. One is Juan Agudelo, who’s had a huge impact on getting the Legion to the cusp of the Open Cup Quarterfinals.

“He [Agudelo] still has something to prove,” Soehn said of the former New England Revolution player who burst onto the pro scene, and the U.S. National Team, as a teen before his career stalled out.

“He shows up for these big games,” Soehn said of the striker, now 30, who scored two goals on the losing side when the Revs lost to FC Dallas in the 2016 Open Cup Final. “He leads by example. And I’ve got a few of those kinds of guys who, when it comes to a big game, they’re showing up.”
Enzo Martinez has five goals in four 2023 Open Cup games

Attacking Midfielder Enzo Martinez fits this description perfectly. The coach, who knows winners and losers deep down in his bones, heaps deserved praise on his team MVP from last season.

Martinez on a Tear

“No one will ever outwork him [Martinez],” Soehn said of the Uruguay-born veteran. “He’s a coach's dream. I tell the young guys to watch how hard he [Martinez] works and to try to do that. He brings it to everything he does.”

And the 32-year-old midfielder, who has five goals in four Open Cup games so far this year, often finds himself on the same wavelength as his boss. “He doesn’t let anything slide by,” said Martinez about Soehn. “He’s really concerned with the details.”

Neither coach nor player need to be reminded about the possibilities alive in the Open Cup.

Soehn was head coach of eventual champions D.C. United in 2008 when the second-division Charleston Battery stormed to the Final. And Martinez, who still has a jersey he swapped with Landon Donovan in a huge Cupset from his days with the Carolina RailHawks, was watching closely last year when the Legion’s league mates Sacramento Republic made history by finishing runners-up.

“I could always tell the teams that were successful [through my career] by how the locker room felt and how the guys supported each other,” said Soehn, who sees similarities between his current Legion side and the champion teams he’s been a part of. “This team has a lot of that. It’s a fun place to go to work every day and good things come from that.”

It’s clear that Soehn is enjoying the new view – and his role among the underdogs. “We’re looking to show what we can do,” said Soehn, who’s won more than most in the Open Cup. “Maybe Charlotte [FC] will look down at us and say ‘sh*t we have to play these guys?’”

“The underdog always has the hunger.” 

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.