US Soccer Legend Eric Wynalda Co-Authoring a “Worst to First” Story in Atlanta
The Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League (NASL) are close to completing an incredible feat. They currently sit atop the NASL Spring Season standings with just three matches remaining. A year ago at this time they sat anchored to the bottom of the NASL table, a year after setting a record for the least amount of wins by a second division American side in a twenty-eight game season. Eric Wynalda, the legendary US international and popular FOX Soccer Commentator working with former MLS player and Trinidad and Tobago International Brian Haynes has orchestrated an enthralling comeback on the field. Simultaneously, General Manager Andy Smith has turned around the fortunes of the sagging organization at the gate and created a buzz locally about the team.
When Smith took over as a General Manager of the Atlanta Silverbacks in early 2012, the club was struggling on the field and at the gate. The revived Silverbacks who had suspended operations after the 2008 season returned for the 2011 NASL Season putting a team on the pitch whose quality was questionable and whose management was severely lacking in proper seasoning or understanding of the American soccer scene.
Smith and his company Playbook Management International (PMI) immediately set out to hire motivated and skilled sales people while creating deeper roots in the community working with various elements that support soccer in one of America’s largest Metropolitan Areas. But despite growing crowds and increased media buzz locally, the team sat mired at the bottom of the table, continuing the previous season’s losing ways while beset by a culture that was less than professional.
Enter Eric Wynalda, the US Soccer legend and frequent critic of the development system in this country. Wynalda had just taken Cal FC, an amateur team with less than a month together to the 4th round of the US Open Cup shocking the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field in Round 3. Cal FC’s exploits became such a national story, that the 4th Round match versus Seattle was picked up on national television, the first non-final Open Cup match ever broadcast on national television.
Wynalda, whose frequent yet valid critiques of the US Soccer structure and hierarchy have made him a polarizing figure in some establishment circles, was sought out to join the Silverbacks by Smith and PMI Founder Michael Hitchcock. Wynalda originally was not interested but Smith’s persistence and articulation of the goals the organization were attempting meet led to the US Soccer legend joining the side as the Interim Head Coach and Team Advisor in late June 2012.
The culture of the Silverbacks immediately changed and while Wynalda returned to FOX Soccer in mid-August 2012 for the beginning of the Premier League season, his handpicked Head Coach Brian Haynes took Atlanta out of the basement and finished the 2012 NASL Regular Season as the in-form team. Atlanta missed the playoffs but gave a statement of intent for 2013, by compiling the best record in the NASL after August 15th.
Attendance for the club had risen from an average of 2,800 fans per game in 2011 to over 4,500 in 2012 under Smith’s leadership. The near capacity crowds in 2012 saw the start of something unique and extraordinary, a remarkable turnaround of a franchise that had appeared to be dying on the vine in 2011.
This year, the NASL adopted a split-season format, which rewards the winner of Spring Season with hosting the Soccer Bowl final which will be contested against the winner of the Fall Season. Given this new format, Haynes wisely kept the core of his team together. Leading scorer Matt Horth departed for Major League Soccer, but in his place came Ruben Luna who is currently tied for second in the league in goals scored.
The Silverbacks have been fantastic this season, looking sharp both home and away. Not only has the club gotten results but have been doing it in style. Haynes approach has valued possession and movement off the ball, giving Atlanta regularly more of the ball and more chances to score than the opposition, even away from home.
Silverbacks Captain Martyn Lancaster a 2011 Soccer Bowl finalist with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers led his Silverbacks team out on Saturday night against his former club. Despite being reduced to ten men early in the second half, Atlanta recorded a late winner from the penalty spot and moved back atop the NASL table. Lancaster reflected on the changes made under Haynes and Wynalda. “They (Haynes and Wynalda) have instilled belief while making us play simple football. They also created a more professional environment. Everything was run on time and was short and sharp. The change was noticeable within days of the coaching change. “
Following Atlanta’s victory in Fort Lauderdale, Eric Wynalda reflected on the accomplishments of the team and made some general observations about player development in the United States.:
“We are simply shooting ourselves in the face and foot every time we try and develop talent, we need to let talent develop and if we don’t let it develop we don’t have a shot. I am lucky I had a good owner in Boris Jerkinuca who was sick of the power point presentations and simply asked me, can you fix this and I said I could.”
“I don’t want to sit here and glorify our performance tonight, but when you build an organization and a team you do not build it off videotape or some agent’s word you build it off people.”
Recently the Silverbacks hosted a watch party for a US Men’s National Team qualifier. All of Smith’s hard work in the community was on display. “I think when talking to the fans…it’s a pretty cool seeing people go through the door of the watch party for a US game with a National Team jersey and a Atlanta (Silverbacks) hat,” Wyanlda said.
The Silverbacks are three games away from completing an incredible feel good story. They host the defending Soccer Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Rowdies this Saturday at 7:30pm EDT at Silverbacks Stadium.
Photo credit: Elaine Carroll