Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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Minnesota United FC makes its first road trip of 2013 this weekend, traveling to Atlanta to take on the Silverbacks on Saturday night. Atlanta, the only team to miss the NASL playoffs in both 2011 and 2012, has won both of its games in 2013, and sits second to Carolina in the standings with a game in hand.
To preview Atlanta, I talked with Michael Buckelew, who covers the team for the Gwinnett Daily Post. My thanks to him for educating us about the Silverbacks.
1. Both of the past two seasons, it took Atlanta until June to win a game; now they've won two straight to begin 2013. What, if anything, has changed?
A lot of it is luck. Last year they were up late 3-1 on Minnesota before a couple of late goals resulted in a tie. After three ties already, and being up so late, I don't think the team ever really recovered until after the changes in coaches and players. In 2011, the team had just been put together a few weeks earlier. It was mostly a group of young guys who were still trying to learn to play with each other.
This year you have a nucleus of guys who played together in the second half last year, many of them from Cal FC. Forward Danny Barrera has good skill on the ball in the middle and has shown a good ability to score, and forward Pedro Mendes is a true attacker who has also shown he can score from distance. Borfor Carr gives them some speed and possession on the wing, and Ruben Luna is a guy with MLS experience. Defender Martyn Lancaster is a big guy in the back who is good at clearing balls when he needs to and, as a captain, is obviously a guy who is a leader on the team.
2. Former US National Team star and Fox Soccer commentator Eric Wynalda coming in last year as interim coach and technical director was obviously a big story. What's he brought to the franchise?
At first he brought instant attention to the franchise. People who may have never heard of the Silverbacks at least knew Wynalda. Soccer people knew of what he did with the Cal FC team in the US Open Cup [beating the Portland Timbers with an amateur side], so after a lot of losing since joining the NASL you could see a reason for optimism.
His first game was so soon after his hiring that he didn't have much of a chance to make many changes. But then in his second game the team gets a 2-0 win against Minnesota. In his third game, the team beats Puerto Rico for its first home win. So then everybody is believing the team can win games.
Wynalda also did a lot of roster overhauling. He brought in a lot of guys from Cal FC, who had the added benefit of some playing time together. People who didn't fit into the system were let go, and I think the talent level has just increased a lot from the beginning of 2012.
3. Like Minnesota, Atlanta has a handful of new attacking options. Who should Minnesota fans keep an eye on, for Saturday?
Mendes and Luna both showed last week they can score [they had two goals each]. Be on the lookout for Carr, who can fly down the field. In the opener, he ran about 70 yards and gave a nice pass on the breakaway. The shot was slightly wide, but this all happened in about 15 seconds after Carr was given a yellow at the other end and the Strikers had a dangerous free kick opportunity. Barrera will on occasion use his ball skills to get open and take shots from distance or find a teammate with a pass. Defender Shane Moroney can also get involved from the back, and he got an assist on the first goal of the season with a throw-in that came down at the six-yard area.
4. Atlanta's attendance was up 60% last year, second-highest in the league. What do you attribute that increase to?
Early on, I think the attendance boost was better marketing. The team advertised a bit more and got people interested. The park is at one of the busiest freeway intersections in the city, giving it easy access for anybody driving. I also think there is some good outreach to the Hispanic community nearby. There was a friendly in the post-2011 offseason with [former Mexico national team star] Cuauhtemoc Blanco's team, and Chilean Reinaldo Navia was a big part of the offense and a popular autograph guy early last year. Now you've got Ruben Luna, another Mexico native, on the team. I think all soccer fans love to see people from their native country play, and the Mexican community has that opportunity here.
Another key is how affordable the games are. For about $55, a family of two adults and two youths can watch a pro soccer game and sit right on the field. For that same price, you might be able to afford a single ticket to see the Braves, Falcons or Hawks. With 5,400 last week, the team is drawing pretty well compared to the nearby Gwinnett Braves (AAA baseball) and Gwinnett Gladiators (ECHL hockey) minor-league teams.