NASL Season Preview: Atlanta Silverbacks

A look at the team with fresh legs on and off the pitch
by Daniel Casey   |   Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

You would think that the Atlanta Silverbacks were an expansion team. Hoopla over a new crest ‘voted on by the fans’ (a recent trend in North American soccer as a fun if not superficial way to give supporters a ‘voice’ in team decisions), a whole new coaching staff and a slew of new faces.

Quite frankly, for several seasons the Silverbacks seemed to be floundering. The epitome of this was the 2012 season that got so bad a major shake-up occurred: Eric Wynalda was brought in to right the ship.

The success of Cal FC in the US Open Cup flipped the switch for the Atlanta front office, which looked to the man who had assembled the California team and inspired it to victory. The attention was a good thing for Atlanta because it jump-started its season and allowed it to finish the campaign in a mood that dispelled the defeatist atmosphere that had been descending.

The Silverbacks kept Wynalda on board as he surrendered the interim manager title and took on the mantle of technical director. Wynalda’s most obvious role has been to bring in the necessary players to change the attitudes in the locker room and the pitch.

For the most part it has worked. Defenders Beto Navarro and Mike Randolph (both formerly of Cal FC) helped to shore up one of the worst defenses in the league. Well, perhaps not ‘worst’ but definitely one of the unluckiest. Navarro and Randolph took some of the weight off the shoulders of veteran Englishman Martyn Lancaster and youngster Shane Moroney. The defense will also benefit this season from the addition of Mark Bloom (formerly with the USL’s Charlotte Eagles).

Perhaps the most significant change will be the battle to win the starting goalkeeping position now that last season’s keeper Daniel Illyes has returned to his native Hungary. Hopefully, either Joe Nasco or Eric Ati will assert himself, because Atlanta will not benefit from a platoon in goal.

The two biggest losses will be that of defender Chris Klute and forward Matt Horth, which actually reflects well on the organization as both have caught on with MLS clubs. Klute was loaned to Colorado Rapids last season, and the loan has been extended for the whole of 2013. After playing for the Atlanta Silverbacks Reserves in the 4th tier NPSL, Klute fought his way into the first team and became a valuable presence. To see the 22 year-old ascend the ranks of the US pyramid so quickly is a testament to the leagues and the organization.

Similarly, when Horth signed with the New England Revolution, Atlanta shed both tears of joy and sadness. In two seasons with the Silverbacks, Horth was the main weapon of attack, leading the team with 10 goals in 2012. Atlanta will always hold Horth in high regard as he scored the club's first ever goal as a member of the NASL.

The players brought in to buttress their losses have a drive, an eagerness or hunger stemming from the fact that although they might have been a bit overlooked elsewhere, if given the opportunity they will prove their mettle. The poster boy for this was forward/attacking midfielder Danny Barrera, who came to the team with Wynalda last season and immediately sparked a change in attitudes and fortunes in Atlanta. The new coaching staff is hoping that their newest signing, native Californian but declared for El Salvador national team, defensive midfielder Richie Menjivar, will impress in the same way. Thus far, Menjivar looks quite promising having made several senior national team appearances and causing headaches for US Men’s National Team supporters.

Even though Wynalda may be technical director and has brought in several of the Cal FC alums, the new look Silverbacks are going to be manager Brian Haynes’ team. What we’re seeing with Atlanta is a restructuring of the coaching and front office to create a team ethos and harmony that is seamless.

From General Manager Andy Smith to Assistant Coach Franklin McIntosh to Wynalda to Haynes to the Starting XI, the Atlanta Silverbacks don’t just have a fresh logo; they have a fresh set of legs leading the team. Haynes brings his stalwart MLS playing experience and a strong network of playing and coaching throughout the oft forgotten Plain States (an area of the country that loves soccer just as much if not more than the Mid-Atlantic, Southern California or Pacific Northwest). As the team continues to fill out it roster this month, we’ll definitely see this hands-on crew not just find the pieces they want but build up a unique style of play that will make Atlanta distinctive.

Atlanta will need to find goals now that Horth is gone and that Reinaldo Navia, the team’s second highest goal scorer in 2012, is also gone. Atlanta will certainly have a stronger, more dynamic midfield – even though Ciaran O’Brien has left for Carolina – with Menjivar as the anchor and Barrera as the playmaker. However, the Silverbacks can’t rely so much upon Barrera’s creativity and energy; they must find compliments to it if they are going to find success. Hopefully, Brazilian forward Pedro Mendes and Liberian Borfor Carr can both step up and produce. The biggest question for this team is: Will it be able to settle into a regular, consistent starting XI?

The Silverbacks were a bit desperate last season trying to find a winning formula and ended up with the largest roster in the NASL with 33 players. They need to make it clear who their starters are, who has what role to play on the team and who is expected to perform. There’s something to be said for a team that knows each other, that knows how each other play, and Atlanta aren’t to this point yet. Thus, this season is going to be another tough one for the team but it will be better because the team will become more cohesive.

Predicted Starting XI

Nasco; Shane Moroney, Martyn Lancaster, Beto Navarro, Mike Randolph; Borfor Carr, Richie Menjivar, Milton Blanco, Lucas Paulini, Danny Barrera; Pedro Mendes

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.