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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NOTE: For a good look ahead at the fall season from a United perspective, read David La Vaque's preview from today's paper.
For two seasons, the Atlanta Silverbacks propped up the rest of the league in the NASL standings, finishing last and second-to-last and winning just 11 times in 56 matches. Come 2013, though, the team came together. Technical director and former US National Team star Eric Wynalda found some talent; new coach Brian Haynes got things to jell on the field. It all led to six wins and three draws in 12 games for the Silverbacks, including a 3-0 win at Minnesota in the spring's final game - and that was enough to give Atlanta the spring title.
Silverbacks marketing and public relations manager Neal Malone gives much of the credit to Haynes, a former Trinidad and Tobago international who has coached for more than ten years in MLS and lower leagues. "I think it starts with the guy who leads the team," he said. "He’s a player’s coach. I’ve been here the previous two regimes; you sort of had a divided locker room, not everybody bought into it. But everything Brian is giving to the team, they’re soaking it in. He’s a players coach that likes to goof around with the guys and keep things lighthearted. But I think also they respect him and his knowledge of the game."
Atlanta's made strides in the stands, as well; according to Malone, the team sold out five of its seven spring home games. And it's not just people looking for a day out, but people who are there to see the team. "We still had really good attendance even when we were losing a lot of games," said Malone. "I think the winning has certainly helped; a lot of people are coming to the games to see the team now, as opposed to coming to the games for a fun family experience. You see the crowds that are a lot more into the game and tied into what’s going on on the field."
If they are to repeat in the fall, the Silverbacks will have to do so without a pair of stalwarts in their lineup. Forward Ruben Luna, third in the league with five spring goals, had planned all along to play only the spring season; he's left Atlanta for some opportunities for tryouts in France. Defender Mark Bloom, who played every minute of every game at right back, was loaned out to Toronto FC for an MLS opportunity.
Malone is sorry that the team lost Luna, who he called a "lethal" finisher, but it's Bloom's departure that worried him a little more. Calling him a "fantastic player," Malone noted a couple of options to replace him, including Willie Hunt, who played some center back this season for Atlanta, and Shane Moroney, who has played for the Silverbacks, including some at right back, since 2011.
Atlanta will play a 4-5-1 formation, occasionally more of a 4-4-2 look, depending on whether the second striker is playing more up front or more as an attacking midfielder. In their July 4th game against Minnesota, though, the team played a 3-5-2, with two midfielders in front of the center backs to try to blunt the force of Pablo Campos. Haynes may decide that a 3-0 win was enough to convince him to try the same thing again tonight.
Ultimately, the Silverbacks have the luxury of knowing that they could lose all 14 games this fall, and still play at home in the November 9 Soccer Bowl. Even immediately following Atlanta's July 4th win, though, Haynes knew that his team's season was just getting started. "Now they’ve [referring to his team] got something to prove", he said. "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."