Special Photo: FC Edmonton Atlanta Silverbacks goalkeeper Eric Ati, a Grayson grad, collects a ball against FC Edmonton on Sept. 2 in Edmonton, Alberta.
ATLANTA -- Don't expect the same results this year that you saw coming out of the gate with last year's Silverbacks.
Their spring season kicks off at 7:30 p.m. today against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. It's a season that begins with much more optimism than before.
The 2012 campaign started out poorly. Atlanta started out with a tie and couldn't hold on for a win in the second game, giving up an equalizer in second-half stoppage time to Carolina. Atlanta tied in its third game, and in the fourth matchup of the season allowed two goals after the 85th minute, resulting in an opening month with four draws.
The losses started piling on in May and June, and after an 1-8-4 start, the club dismissed coach Alex Pineda Chacon and director of soccer Rodrigo Rios -- both longtime members of the franchise -- and brought in U.S. legend Eric Wynalda, who had led an amateur Cal FC team past the Portland Timbers of MLS in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup earlier in the year. Wynalda served as interim head coach in the summer, guiding the team to a 3-3-1 record, and handed the Silverbacks over to Brian Haynes in August.
Haynes went 3-1-3 to finish the season, earning a contract extension in the process. Now, Haynes has a preseason under his belt and a full season in charge ahead of him.
"It's exciting because I never got the team at this stage last year. I got them when they were basically limping trying to get into the playoffs in last place," Haynes said. "From then to now, it's night and day for me because we've had some key additions to the team. With the introduction of the new guys that we've had come in -- the forward Luna, with Menjivar -- it's a huge impetus for us."
Wynalda chose Haynes to lead the team and still serves as the club's technical director. His influence is also still felt with the roster of former Cal FC players, including Danny Barrera, Pablo Cruz and Richie Menjivar.
With a preseason together, the mix of holdovers from the previous coaching staff and the newer guys under Haynes should only get better as a team.
"I think everybody has a similar style of soccer and has some of the same ideas," Barrera said. "We read each other pretty well, and we're all thinking on the same page. It definitely came in a little bit last year, and through practice this year it's becoming easier and easier to play with each other."
Throw in former MLS players such as Kellen Gulley (Chicago Fire), Ruben Luna (FC Dallas) and Brandon Manzonelli (New England Revolution) and you have a team so deep that it might be fighting for a spot in the top tier league if they played under European-style promotion and relegation rules.
"If I'm playing against a team like us and then I see a guy like (Jahbari Willis) coming off the bench, I'm not going to be a happy person," Haynes said.
The Silverbacks have a stock of talent from Gwinnett County. Borfor Carr, a Central grad, was a key starter on the right wing for last year's team, scoring two goals and assisting on another in 1,629 minutes on the field.
"Last year was my first year, so I had a lot to prove," Carr said. "This year I'm more comfortable. I'm just worried about getting myself ready. There's not as much going on as far as making the team and impressing the coaches. My coach already knows what I can do. He trusts me."
Willis, a Brookwood grad, at 6-foot-3 is the tallest field player on the team. He is part of the unit of forwards looking to replace the scoring of departed players Matt Horth (10 goals) and Reinaldo Navia (6 goals).
"This whole preseason, my whole mantra has just been, 'Work hard, create your own luck, good things will come,'" Willis said. "It starts with hard work. So even in practice, I work hard for like 15 minutes, and I think I'm dying. That was the first day. Then it becomes 20, then it becomes 30, then it becomes 40. Then after that you're putting in a full game of hard work. Once you do that, the rest will come."
Eric Ati, a Grayson grad, had a tough time getting on the field last year behind goalkeepers Daniel Illyes and Joe Nasco. But with Illyes going back to his native Hungary, Ati has been working in camp to get some more minutes in the net.
"It's been fun," he said. "I feel like the guys are ready and raring to go. Hopefully I'll get a little more playing time this year. I've been working hard for it. If it doesn't come early in the season, hopefully it'll come later in the season."
With the new postseason format and split schedule the NASL has adopted, the spring season champion will take on the fall season champion -- or the team with the second-best record overall if one team wins both -- in November for the league title. With the spring season champion hosting the Soccer Bowl in November, the Silverbacks will be pushing hard to sit atop the standings on June 29.
"The first thing we want to do is win the first half of the season," Haynes said. "We don't care how we do it. That's our intention. ... Hit the ground running from the first game and see what happens after that."