At stake in Saturday’s Soccer Bowl, the NASL’s championship match between the spring champion Silverbacks and fall champion Cosmos, is something with which Atlanta isn’t very familiar: a professional sports championship.
This would be a rare accomplishment no matter the sport. The Braves won Major League Baseball’s World Series in 1995, the city’s only title in the so-called big four leagues.
The Chiefs, who played in the original North American Soccer League, claimed the league title in 1968 — so long ago that it was just a few months later when men first orbited the moon, the next year when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot upon its surface.
The Falcons reached the Super Bowl in 1998. But after coming so close last year, fans this year watching a 2-6 team know how even a conference championship appearance doesn’t happen much for the franchise. The Hawks have never played in the NBA Finals since moving to Atlanta. The Thrashers never won a playoff game before moving to Canada.
Individuals such as Evander Holyfield and Bill Elliott have won championships in sports dominated by individuals — boxing and auto racing, respectively.
But team titles are just tough to come by in this city, even in soccer. The Atlanta Beat made the playoffs in their three years playing in the WUSA. They sported such international stars as Sun Wen and Brianna Scurry. But two trips to the championship game netted no titles.
The Atlanta Silverbacks reached the USL First Division final in 2007, only to be hammered by the Seattle Sounders. Known as the Ruckus in 1995, the team reached the finals that year and fell in a shootout, also to the Sounders.
Silverbacks coach Brian Haynes, who played for the Atlanta Attack indoor team from 1998-91, was a part of the 1995 champion Sounders squad. He’s now back in a title game hoping to bring a trophy to Atlanta.
“If we look at our success from the standpoint of winning the spring, that’s huge for us,” Haynes said. “But we don’t feel like there’s a job done yet. We know that we’re going to play against a good team in the Cosmos.”
Good is definitely what the Cosmos are. The club resurrected likely the best-known team name in American soccer this year, starting play in the fall season. As if never missing a beat from the old NASL days in which the Cosmos won the league five teams, the new Cosmos stormed to a 9-1-4 record, earning 31 points in 14 games and clearing the second-place RailHawks by eight points.
Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese just has his guys ready to play.
“We never thought about what was possible and what wasn’t,” Savarese said. “What we decided to do was to work and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to come down, we’re going to do a lot of work, we’re going to build a team one game at a time.’”
Savarese’s team was built with some great help. Former US national team members Alecko Eskandarian and Carlos Llamosa are part of his coaching staff, giving the team some top-notch experience.
But Eskandarian, who won the 2004 MLS Cup MVP in a two-goal performance for D.C. United and whose father played for the original Cosmos, said he likes to let the players learn their own way first instead of sharing his wisdom with them.
“I stay away because each guy is different,” Eskandarian said. “Obviously I’ll do my coaching duties and try to help prepare these guys as much as possible, for the game, their opponent and all that. But these guys have wonderful personalities, and the beauty of finals is that you can’t predict who’s going to be guy that’s going to step up and save the day, so to speak.”
Both teams sport good connections to their hometowns. In addition to Eskandarian’s father, Savarese played for the MetroStars in New York before the team was rebranded the Red Bulls, former US national teamer Daniel Szetela was born near New York City, and Carlos Mendes grew up in Mineola, N.Y., and has played all but one season of his pro career for teams in New York.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position and we’re glad we won the fall season,” Mendes said. “This is going to be a tough game for us, and we need to prepare and be ready.”
Among the Silverbacks’ local connections, three players graduated from Gwinnett high schools — Borfor Carr (Central Gwinnett), Eric Ati (Grayson) and Jahbari Willis (Brookwood). Shane Moroney grew up in Peachtree City, and Cody Mizell — who got his first start of the season in goal last week in a 1-0 loss to the Cosmos — is from Woodstock.
Carr knows the city’s history of lacking championships and would like to help bring one home Saturday.
“This is my first finals, first chance to win a championship,” Carr said. “I’m just happy it’s in Atlanta, where I grew up pretty much, went to high school. I have a lot of friends and family around here.”
Neither team has a singular goal-scorer up front like the RailHawks’ Brian Shriver, who led the league with 15 goals. The Cosmos were led on offense by Diomar Diaz’s five goals and two assists and Marcos Senna’s five goals and one assist in just the fall season.
But Atlanta has Pedro Mendes and Ruben Luna with eight goals each, good for seventh best in the league. Danny Barrera has scored four goals for Atlanta and assisted on seven, which is second only to Tampa Bay’s Luke Mulholland.
Pedro Mendes also has the added motivation of facing his twin brother Paulo, a former Silverbacks player who is now with New York and scored one goal in the fall campaign.
“It’s a great feeling,” Pedro Mendes said. “I’ve never played against him before. We’ve always been on the same team, so I’m excited.”
Paulo Mendes also had a smile on his face when asked about going up against his twin.
“It feels good to play the championship here, where I first started last year,” Paulo Mendes said. “(Pedro and I) are just staying humble. We’ve never played against each other. We’re not talking too much. We’ll play the match first, and then we’ll see what happens.”