After finishing last season three points out of the postseason, the Atlanta Silverbacks have a clear goal for their upcoming campaign.
"Our number one goal this year is to make the playoffs," head coach Jason Smith said. "Ideally we'd like to be in the top four so we can choose when we host in the first round."
Defender David Hayes has even greater ambitions for the team, which begins its season on Saturday at home vs. the Montreal Impact.
"I think we can win the USL Championship with the guys we have here now," he said. "Knowing that we didn't make the playoffs last year, that's our first goal. We'd also like to win the U.S. Open Cup."
With the United Soccer Leagues' First Division increasing the playoff teams to eight and the net addition of no teams in the offseason, Atlanta's chances have never been better. The league added two expansion teams - the California Victory and Carolina RailHawks - for the upcoming season.
However, the Toronto Lynx dropped down to the Premier Development League level and the Virginia Beach Mariners franchise folded last month. Therefore 2⁄3 of the USL-1 teams will now advance to the postseason.
"Anything can happen once you're in the playoffs," midfielder Tony McManus said. "Vancouver won the league title last year after finishing in fourth place at the end of the regular season. As with other sports leagues with deep playoffs, you can throw out the records once the postseason begins."
For the Silverbacks to accomplish their goal, they will need to boost their defense and allow fewer than the 42 goals given up last year.
"We have many players on the same level now," midfielder and captain Rodrigo Rios said. "Last year, about half the guys were on a really good level and the other half wasn't quite as good. This year, we are much more balanced."
One of the pieces brought in to help the defense is Parkview grad and former FC Dallas defender Justin Moore.
"I'm here to push for a starting spot right away," Moore said. "The team brought in a lot of new guys this year. As a defender, I'm going to try to keep as many goals out of the net as I can."
Moore was drafted by FC Dallas in the second round of the 2006 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. He played in just two games for the Hoops last season with only 159 minutes of action.
"Last year, I was on the 18-man roster," he said. "But this year they wanted to sign me to a developmental contract. That's why I came back home. I think I can develop my game a lot better here."
Moore expects to see a lot of friendly faces at the opening match Saturday. "I'm expecting a good crowd," he said. "They only give us two tickets for family, but I'm seeing what I can do about getting more."
This is the Silverbacks' second season at RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium, a soccer-specific stadium that seats over 3,000 fans and features state-of-the-art artificial turf.
Nestled in the shadows of Spaghetti Junction off of Northcrest Road, the stadium is a major upgrade from the team's previous home, Hallford Stadium - formerly DeKalb Memorial Stadium - on the campus of Georgia Perimeter College's Central Campus in Clarkston.
Hallford was built in 1968 for high school football and track use.
"This field is much better," Rios said. "I try to forget my games there. I thank DeKalb for the help they gave us by letting us play there, but a professional team needs a better facility."
The intimacy of the new stadium provides fans with in-your-face soccer action and makes the atmosphere more dynamic.
"Everybody's right on top of the field," McManus said. "If you had the same amount of people, (RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium) would sound much louder."
The front rows of seats are about five yards from the touch line - giving fans the opportunity to experience professional soccer like Spike Lee at a New York Knicks game.
The crown that most high school fields, including Hallford Stadium, have for drainage causes game-play problems in soccer where the ball is almost always rolling on the ground.
There is no crown at RMGA, giving the ball a truer bounce, according to Hayes. "It's great that the owners were willing to put the money out to provide us with this nice facility."
The stadium's capacity has been slightly increased to 3,500 seats this season. The improvements being made in the ongoing second phase of construction include the elevated concourse around the stands, permanent restrooms, locker rooms, storage facilities and the bar/restaurant, which will be constructed later in the season.