Photo by Michael Buckelew
It's been nearly two and a half years, but men's pro soccer is back in town.
Much about the Atlanta Silverbacks, who open their season Saturday, has changed since the franchise last played a game here in 2008. The team is still in the country's second-tier league, but it is now known as the North American Soccer League. Nineteen of the 20 men on the roster are new to the club, and Jose Manuel Abundis is new to the team and to coaching.
However, there are a few common bonds from before. Longtime fans will remember goalkeeper Felipe Quintero, who started most of the club's games in the net from 2006-08. Rodrigo Rios, who played as a midfielder for the team from 2005-08, is back with the club as the director of soccer operations. Assistant coaches Alex Pineda Chacon and Jose "Gaucho" Pinho also have returned.
The team still calls Atlanta Silverbacks Park home. Located at Spaghetti Junction off Northcrest Road in Atlanta, about two miles from the Gwinnett County line, the stadium lined with FieldTurf allows fast play and puts about 5,000 fans literally feet from the action.
Soccer is a culturally diverse sport, and the Silverbacks' roster reflects that. After holding training camps in the winter to scout talent, the team has signed 20 players to suit up for Saturday's opener. The players hail from six countries -- the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, Switzerland, Argentina and Japan. Fourteen of the players are U.S. natives, six of those from the Peach State, including Lawrenceville native and goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer.
"Being in my hometown is just great," said Maurer, who played in high school at St. Pius.
Maurer was selected fourth overall in this year's MLS Supplemental Draft by the New York Red Bulls but lost a camp battle with three other goalkeepers.
However, as one of two goalkeepers on the Silverbacks' roster, Maurer should be able to get more playing time in Atlanta than he would in New York.
"You're not going to see much experience as a third-string goalkeeper," he said.
Quintero returns to the club after starting most of its games in the net for three seasons. With the rebirth of the Silverbacks, Quintero is ready to bring soccer back to the metro area.
"I'm so happy for the team, I'm so happy for the club," Quintero said. "I'm so happy for the fans, for everything. It's a real opportunity to bring the soccer game to Atlanta."
Quintero is confident about the team's future under the direction of his fellow countryman, first-time head coach Abundis.
"The team is new, but we have a great coach," Quintero said. "He knows about the soccer. He knows about how to play."
Rios also expects some good results from Abundis, who played for the Mexican National Team from 1996-2001.
"Jose is a very talented player, but he has also demonstrated that he has the energy, the passion and the leadership to succeed in coaching," Rios said. "We're honored to have him here, and we know Atlanta will welcome him enthusiastically."
Midfielder Ciaran O'Brien came to the Silverbacks after a three-year stint with the Colorado Rapids, the 2010 MLS Cup champions. During his time with Colorado, he was loaned to multiple teams, including the NASL's Montreal Impact and now-defunct Austin Aztex.
"Playing on both ends, both in MLS and NASL, is a big key considering (the NASL) is a different league," O'Brien said. "It's a different type of way to win here than it is in MLS. I think knowing this league and having a little bit of experience playing at the higher level will help me out and everyone else."
Defender Tyler Ruthven, the son of former Atlanta Braves pitcher Dick Ruthven, signed after playing for the Harrisburg City Islanders last season. The tallest back line player at 6-foot-2, Ruthven could have a big effect on the team's defense.
"It's nice to have a fresh start," he said. "It's kind of neat to think I'll be part of turning this club into what it's going to become."
Ruthven expects the defense to play a big role as the team gels together in its first few games.
"Primarily our experience is in the back right now," he said. "Especially if you're going to be a new team in a league like this, I think to be organized from the back, having a little more experience back there helps."
Midfielder Lucas Paulini joins the team after playing 29 games for the Mississippi Brilla of the Premier Development League last year. He scored four goals and assisted on three more with Mississippi, and he hopes to add to the attack however he can in Atlanta.
"It's always good to score goals," he said. "But it doesn't matter who scores at the end of the day as long as you win."
The team has spent less than two months together -- the first four signings were announced Feb. 18 -- which will mean a lot of on-the-job training in the early part of the season.
"I think we have a great mix of talented players," Paulini said. "Each player is different in some aspect. We've just got to get it together and put everything together on the field to perform."
But when all is said and done, soccer is about results. There will probably be some growing pains in NASL, a second-division league full of talented players, but the way to emerge victorious is no secret.
"It's just consistency," O'Brien said. "It's winning your home games and getting results on the road. When you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. We proved that in Colorado for sure."