Twenty minutes after Atlanta had finished off its 3-0 win over Minnesota United in Blaine last night, a roar went up from inside of the National Sports Center tunnel. It came from the Silverbacks, who entered the night needing both a win and a Carolina loss to claim the NASL first-half championship. The San Antonio-Carolina game started twenty minutes after Minnesota's game, but the roar was confirmation that the Scorpions had finished off a 2-0 home win, giving the first-half title to Atlanta. The Silverbacks charged out of the tunnel to celebrate on the field, wearing commemorative T-shirts and chanting in the goalmouth at the Airport End.
It wouldn't have been the first time a visiting team celebrated in an empty opposing stadium - except that the stadium was by no means empty. With a Fourth of July fireworks show beginning at 10pm, most of the crowd had stuck around, and most of the Minnesota players were still behind the goal, signing autographs. Atlanta's dash out for an on-field celebration rankled, to say the least.
United vice-captain Brian Kallman made no bones about his displeasure. "It's ticking me off, hearing Atlanta sitting right in our stadium, saying 'Championes'," he said. "You haven't won [anything] yet. You won the first season. We're going to win the second season, we're going to play you in the finals at your place, and we’re going to beat you. And then I’m going to be cheering that in front of all your fans, right in front of your whole team, being even more disrespectful than you were to us."
Suddenly, the opening game of the fall season - between Atlanta and Minnesota, right back in Blaine, on August 3 - looks like a serious grudge match.
Reaction from the Atlanta sideline
Not surprisingly, Silverbacks coach Brian Haynes was over the moon about his team grabbing the first-half title on the season's final day. "That was unbelievable, this is incredible," he said. "To know that we did our best and the guys gave everything they had to get the results that we got in that game, I’m just thankful."
It's a huge turnaround for Atlanta, accomplished in a short period of time. The Silverbacks were far and away the league's worst team in 2011, and were headed the same way in 2012, leading to the entire coaching staff being fired in early July. Former US Men's National Team standout Eric Wynalda took over as technical director, and hired Haynes this season as coach - a move that already appears to have paid off.
Said Haynes, "He [Wynalda] came up with a plan for what we were going to try to do, and he brought me in, he gave me some players, and I brought in a couple here and there. Basically, I call it – what’s that yellow brick road story, the Dorothy story. Some of the guys didn’t have hearts. Some of the guys didn’t have the courage and everything, and that’s what we tried to put in them. The one thing we did is we brought in some guys with character. We weeded out the ones that we didn’t think were going to make it. We had a specific way we were going to do things."
"It’s a bunch of guys that believe in each other and fight for each other. I’m proud of them. We’ve done the business on the road, I think we’ve only lost one game on the road, and that speaks character."
The structure of the NASL this year, with the first-half champion winning the right to host November's championship game, made me wonder all along whether the first-half champion would rest on its laurels for the second half. Haynes, however, didn't think that would be a problem. "Now they’ve got something to prove," he said, referring to his team. "Before they didn’t. They were in last place last year. Now they got something to prove. People are going to be coming after us, we’ve got to be ready."
I guess Blaine's not that far, after all
Maybe United should have fireworks after every game. Faced with a Thursday night game, in Blaine, on a holiday on which families traditionally go out of town or celebrate otherwise, Minnesota drew 6,507 people - one of the largest crowds they've had at the National Sports Center in a very long time.
It was Minnesota's second-largest crowd of the year, behind only the season opener at the Metrodome. It was also nearly 2,000 more people than the team drew for last year's championship match in Blaine.
I talked to one old-timer, who could remember 10,000 fans packing into the NSC for the Minnesota Thunder's 1999 A-League championship match. At least going by Thursday's numbers, United is on the way back to rebuilding that kind of crowd.