MLS

Alabama soccer star signs with MLS giant Atlanta United

The world-class free kick was impossible to ignore.

In just his second day back with hometown team Birmingham Legion FC, forward J.J. Williams scored a stunning goal in an exhibition match in Guatemala against first-division side Antigua GFC. The monster strike from distance last week did two things.

One, it tied the game in the 81st minute for Birmingham Legion FC against a team that won its league last year in Guatemala. It was another pleasantly surprising preseason result for Birmingham’s second-year USL club. Their season begins on March 15 at home against Charleston Battery.

Most importantly for Williams, his goal commanded the attention of Atlanta United, the MLS giant who played Legion FC earlier this preseason in Birmingham. On Wednesday, Atlanta United acquired Williams’ contract rights, and now a player who grew up playing soccer in Montgomery and Birmingham is joining one of the most powerful clubs in North America.

This counts as major news for Alabama soccer, which has elevated its profile recently with a series of impressive moves by young pro players, and the positive reputation of Birmingham Legion FC as an upstart club on the rise. Losing Williams is an unfortunate bit of business for Legion FC, but it’s a major victory for Alabama soccer that one of its homegrown players will now be at Atlanta United.

On Tuesday night, Williams was signing autographs at Good People Brewing Company during an event for Legion FC season-ticket holders. Now the 22-year-old is moving two hours east to help Atlanta United out in a pinch. The team lost star forward Josef Martinez to a knee injury during the preseason.

Williams was looking forward to playing for Birmingham Legion FC this season after being waived by MLS club Columbus Crew two weeks ago. He played for Legion FC last season while on loan from Columbus. A local club sensation in Birmingham growing up, Williams played collegiately for the University of Kentucky before turning pro.

“The talent that we have this year compared to last year, I don’t know too many teams that can handle what we have,” Williams said of Legion FC. “We have a lot of weapons going forward, and we have some big pick ups. We’ve got a lot, lotta guys.”

Legion FC created some buzz in the offseason with the signing of forward Neco Brett, who was rated by some as the best free-agent signing for any club in the nation-wide USL. Former Columbus Crew defender Alex Crognale is also with the team for the season and 18-year-old forward Rudolf Mensah of Ghana scored that late equalizing goal against Atlanta United after being in The States less than a week.

Williams was going to be the icing on the cake, and a major steal for Legion FC. Birmingham was shocked that Columbus Crew released him, and was happy to add him to the roster for a loan fee after other MLS teams had a chance to pick him up off waivers but passed.

“We can score twice as many, three times as many goals as we scored last year,” Williams said on Tuesday night about Legion’s improved roster.

Williams will have to root on his hometown club from afar now. Atlanta United saw enough with that one amazing goal to pull the trigger on Williams’ Generation Adidas contract, which is a two-year deal owned by MLS.

Williams is the second Alabama-born player to make headlines in MLS in the last week. Tanner Tessmann, 18, made his professional debut with FC Dallas over the weekend after turning down football and soccer scholarships to play at Clemson. Tessmann, who grew up playing in the Birmingham-area, started for FC Dallas in its season opener, and received high marks for his aggressive play.

Another Birmingham-area native, Brandon Servania, also features heavily for FC Dallas and recently became the first Alabama-raised soccer player to play in a game for the full U.S. Men’s National Team (Servania’s 17-year-old brother, Jaden, will feature for Birmingham Legion FC this season as an academy player).

Last year, Servania and Chris Richards, another Birmingham-native, played for the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup. Richards signed with international powerhouse Bayern Munich rather than play in college for North Carolina.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.

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