While Real Madrid and Schalke legend Raul’s signing with the New York Cosmos has grabbed the headlines early in the NASL season, the league boasts another undefeated team down in Atlanta. The league-owned Silverbacks managed by former Stevenage and Colorado Rapids Head Coach Gary Smith have assembled an excellent squad on a tight-budget.
On Saturday night in Atlanta, the Silverbacks will play host to the New York Cosmos (live on ESPN3.com at 7:30pm) in a match that will determine who leads the NASL’s spring standings after four weeks. The game is a rematch of the Soccer Bowl in 2013 that was won in the same venue by the Cosmos. Smith’s teams are known for organization and strong defensive play, and this season Atlanta’s back four have played all 270 minutes thus far. Center back Simon Mensing partners with MLS veteran Rauwshan McKenzie in the middle between right back Kyle Miller and left back Paul Black. This back four will be asked to stifle the goal-scoring prowess of Mads Stokkelien, Raul and the creativity of Walter Restrepo and Leo Fernandes who cut in from the wide areas.
On paper, Atlanta’s attack is outstanding. Matt Horth, Kyle Porter, Shaka Bangura, Hans Dennison and Jamie Chavez are all proven goal scorers at the NASL level. New York’s veteran defense anchored by Carlos Mendes communicates well and deals with danger. The absence of Hunter Freeman, who had been injured, could loom large in this titanic matchup.
Former Silverbacks goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer has benefited from the experience of the Cosmos backline, which is something he did not profit from in Atlanta where, in 2011, he sat behind a patchwork back four that was statistically among the worst in NASL history.
Ultimately this game may be determined in the midfield. While Raul has grabbed most of the headlines, it is fellow former Spanish international Marcos Senna who is arguably the single most influential player in NASL that will have the greatest influence. Senna’s work-rate and creativity, even at 38, is a sight to behold and he pulls the strings on a talented New York Cosmos attack. Atlanta’s central midfield combo of Michael Reed and Dominic Oppong have lots of NASL experience and will look to negate Senna’s creativity.
Atlanta took a different route than Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville in assembling a squad from scratch this offseason. While the two Florida sides looked to Latin America for players, Smith built a team around veterans of NASL and thus far the Silverbacks have impressed (it’s worth noting that Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale are returning teams with new ownership who gutted the squad, while Jacksonville is an expansion side). This has happened despite the team’s training camp being the shortest in the league and many of the signings coming late.
New York should win on Saturday night, but an Atlanta victory would be one of the greatest stories of the year in North American soccer.
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