Silverbacks reload for another run

One more win. That was all the Atlanta Silverbacks needed last year to perfectly cap an unprecedented run to the United Soccer Leagues First Division championship game last year.

But instead, the Seattle Sounders got that win, claiming the league title after a 4-0 victory over Atlanta in Seattle.

Settling for the silver last season leaves little doubt as to what the Atlanta Silverbacks want to accomplish now as they kickoff a new season Saturday against Carolina at home.

"Basically, we're just looking to come back and finally finish a final instead of going down and losing," defender David Hayes said. "I think this year we've got a team that's better than last year, and I think we're going to make a run at it again."

Head coach Jason Smith concurred with Hayes, adding that finishing as one of the top four teams in the league is what the team needs to do again.

But if the Silverbacks are to repeat last year's success, they will have to replace a lot of offense. Gone are forwards Daniel Antoniuk, who led the league in scoring with seven goals and nine assists, and Machel Millwood, who scored four goals in 13 games.

Warren Ukah returns at forward after scoring five goals last season, and Hayes put seven in the net. But Atlanta will need for some extra firepower to come up front.

Macoumba Kandji emerged as a player to watch last season, scoring two goals in seven games and dazzling fans - and dizzying defenders - with his exceptional dribbling skills and speed.

Kandji wants to be the man whose boots put a dent in the scoreboard.

"My goal is to score at least 15 goals this season," the Senegal native said. "It's not easy, but I'm going to work as hard as I can to accomplish that goal."

Smith plans to use newcomer Ansu Toure, who played with Minnesota last year, as part of his offensive game plan.

"Ansu Toure looks very good so far," Smith said. "I'm looking at how to get him and (Rodrigo) Rios on the field at the same time in the midfield. Rios is a good playmaker. Ansu is able to dismantle people on the dribble like Mac (Kandji). They'd be great going forward."

Another key loss for Atlanta in the offseason was Omar Jarun, whose 6-foot-5 frame allowed him to reach balls in the air before most opposing players. But Hayes said there are many players capable of filling Jarun's shoes.

"(Josh) Bolton has played pretty well. (Zach) Kirby has come in and played well. I think either one could come into (the central defender role)," Hayes said. "Plus we've got Martyn (Lancaster) back, we've got (Matt) Bobo back. We've got myself back. I don't see (the loss of Jarun) being a problem."

Injuries last season tested Atlanta's bench, which is why Smith should be pleased with the added depth. Bobo and Hayes played almost every minute last season. If they can be such iron men again, Atlanta's defense should remain strong, with goalkeepers Ryan McIntosh and Felipe Quintero both returning.

"We've got depth all over the field," Smith said. "There are some new guys in the back. We've got some fellas that are a little more sophisticated as defenders than what we had last year. This year we have nine guys, and they're all solid. So we're in good shape."

The Silverbacks' midfield will be anchored again by the veteran captain Rios, whose leadership will be needed to help six new midfielders assimilate.

"This is my fourth season here. The team every year has been better and better and better," Rios said. "I think this year we have some very good players. Everybody knows we have to work very hard and support each other.

"I like (the newcomers) so much because they have come to work. I don't think we have a superstar or someone who thinks he is on a different level. Everybody feels the importance for the team. That's very important for me."

Hayes also stressed the importance of a cohesive unit that works together.

"I think one (team goal) is playing together as a unit, playing for each other, love being together," he said. "I think it's a family more now."