Atlanta, GA (April 11th, 2014)- It seems like years have passed since the NASL season ended in Atlanta last year. The hometown Silverbacks falling, for the second consecutive week in their own stadium, to the New York Cosmos in the league’s pinnacle game, the Soccer Bowl. Perhaps the time has given the Silverbacks organization and fans alike the luxury of washing themselves of the loss, but it’s hard to resist conjuring memories as the 2014 season unfolds this weekend in Uniondale, New York against those same Cosmos.
If anything, you can’t use the cliche’ definition of insanity to describe this organization over the last few months. They sure seem to have made concerted efforts to squelch any lingering remnants of a fall season that saw the Silverbacks post a 4-6-4 record and lose 5 out of their last 6 games including the Soccer Bowl. They declined the option on former Head Coach Brian Haynes’ contract a month, to the day, after falling in the championship game and rumors of continuity issues in the locker room.
“The group of guys we have here want to play for each other and want to be here and that’s something I think we may have lacked in the past. So, in that sense, you know, people may say we’ve lost some skill but as a team I don’t think we’ve ever been more united,” said Midfielder Bobby Reiss.
Technical Director Eric Wynalda expressed similar sentiments regarding the locker room atmosphere.
“The biggest concern that I had, if I’m being really honest, is I had some really strong personalities last year. For all intents and purposes, it had a very negative effect on the locker room. Those people are no longer here.”
Additionally, a new, local, majority ownership group took the helm, they “eliminated” the head coaching position, and re-vamped a majority of the roster save for 8 returners. The team’s top two scoring and assist leaders are gone and goalkeeper Joe Nasco, who was selected to the NASL’s best XI team in 2013, has moved on to greener pastures with MLS side Colorado Rapids.
Turn the page to the currently assembled roster which hopes to be, by Wynalda’s wishes, an aggressive, attacking team that will look to outscore opponents moreso than prevent them from scoring.
“The players that we brought in have brought a great attitude, ambition, work rate, honesty, which is always welcome. I’m really happy with these guys as people. They’re really genuine. They want to work hard. They want to win. That’s all I really can ask from them. They’ve done a really good job. I’m really happy with the way they’ve gelled together as a group,” says Wynalda.
The team signed three notable strikers in the offseason: Deon McCaulay, a slender Belizian international who has shown flashes of his speed and scoring ability in seven pre-season friendlies but needs some refinement within the flow of the attack; Kwadwo Poku, of Ghana, provides a physical presence, noticable comfortability on the ball, technical stability, and more than solid finishing skills; and David Estrada, recently acquired on loan from the MLS’ Seattle Sounders, who involved himself in a goal (from an outside midfield position no less) against Clemson last weekend just days after joining the team. These three will need some time to learn how to run off each other and build chemistry but the individual tools are clearly visible and Wynalda seems very pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“They’re just getting started and they’re already very good. Very good. I think all three of those guys would be starters in the next level up. None of them would miss a beat. The real question is can we get good service for them? Create a system that works for them?”
The midfield and defense are different stories from a chemistry standpoint as there are a few familiar faces. Lucas Paulini, despite dislocating his elbow last weekend against Clemson, will return to anchor the midfield while Pablo Cruz is back to man the left outside midfield position. Borforr Carr, out with a foot injury, will have to wait to return to his familiar right mid spot. Bobby Reiss has spent much of the preseason in a holding mid position until moving to central defense last weekend when the Silverbacks played their best 90 minutes of soccer this year. Mike Randolph returns to man his left back position and Edgar Espinoza, an offseason aquisition, has been a nice addition at right back. Espinoza, will provide a needed physical presence in the Silverbacks defense. Finally, Derby Carillo, a Salvadoran international will start between the posts. He’s a commanding 6-foot-4 and uses his size to appear even bigger to oncoming attackers. He removed himself from the friendly against Clemson last weekend after feeling a slight twinge in his hamstring but he’s been solid for most of the preseason and should be set to go on Sunday.
Meanwhile, having won the Soccer Bowl in their first season in the NASL (technically a half season as they did not participate in the 2013 Spring season), the Cosmos have taken a converse approach to the offseason and rightfully so. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“Most of the guys that we played against last year are still there in that starting 11, so we know the way that they’re going to play and there’s definitely a motivation there to not let them steal one from us again,” said Reiss.
They return almost everyone from the championship team from last year including ageless midfielder, Marcos Senna. Senna led the Cosmos with six goals last season including the game winner, a perfectly placed half volley from the top right side of the 18, in their 1-0 win over the Silverbacks in the Soccer Bowl. They spent 2 weeks in Dubai this offseason training and playing preseason games and he already seems to have found his form, tallying in a 3-1 preseason win over Al Wasl FC of the Arabian Gulf League.
Diomar Diaz also returns to the Cosmos midfield. Second on the team in scoring last year, he notched five goals during the Fall season and will continue to be a stabilizing factor in the Cosmos possession based system.
Another notable change includes goalkeeper, Jimmy Maurer, who hopes to fill the shoes left by Kyle Reynish who has also moved on to the MLS with the Chicago Fire. Reynish was the league’s “Golden Glove” winner in 2013, awarded to the league’s top net minder. Maurer has had stints in the MLS, the PDL, and in Chile before joining the Cosmos last season.
Like Reiss, Wynalda re-iterated that familiarity will play a role in trying to subdue the Cosmos’ strengths on Sunday.
“We’re very familiar with the way that they play and, I think that, the advantage we have is they are very unfamiliar with the way that we play. They don’t know what we’re going to look like. They don’t have a clue.”
Through seven pre-season games the Silverbacks posted a 4-1-2 record, mostly against college teams. The one loss coming against the only professional team they saw this spring, the Charlotte Eagles of the USL. Preseason games can prove to be outliers because there is a good deal of tinkering that occurs, but there is a noticeable difference in the way the team is trying to play. They try to get the ball upfield quickly and have been comfortable playing the long passes through the air both laterally and longitudinally. The concern may lie in the team’s willingness to slow the game down, use smart drop passes, and exhibit patience when things get chaotic. That hasn’t been a strong point throughout the preseason friendlies and it may prove detrimental against a team like New York who does just that. With New York’s pension for possession, the Silverbacks may only see a few quality chances to score. Game time is set for 5pm EST on Sunday afternoon and, by the way, the Cosmos greatest alum, Pele’, will be in the house for a special pre-game ceremony with the current team and Soccer Bowl Trophy. Pele’ played three seasons with the club from 1975-1977.
Get To Know The Silverbacks: Bobby Reiss
Hometown: Palmdale, CA
College: Cal State Fullerton
In Which Position Are You More Comfortable, Central Defense Or Holding Mid?: “Personally I grew up playing more of a defensive role, outside back, center back. A little bit in college I played some holding mid and last year I had success at holding mid. I’m comfortable in either position. At this point right now it’s just wherever I fit best to help the team win games. Whether it’s defensively in the midfield and I get to go forward a little bit which is fun, but, playing center back is fine and I don’t mind keeping the back line solid. I think what I give in the back is a little comfort on the ball and we can kind of play the style we want to play and play out of the back. We definitely have other holding mids on this team that know how to play; Jesus, Lucas, Blair, all these guys. So, it really doesn’t change our team in any way. I think I add to a little comfort in the back and we can play the way we want to play.”
Favorite Food: “I’d have to say some Panda Express. Any day I’ll take that. Don’t tell the coaching staff.”
Favorite Activity Outside Of Soccer: “I like to disc golf a lot. Got into it last year with a buddy here on the team and there’s a course not to far so we go out when the weather is nice and disc golf quite a bit.”
Have You Ever Heard Of Foot Golf?: “I have, but, I haven’t been able to find it. I know there are some places in California but I haven’t seen any here.”
What’s Your Entertainment Preference? Movies? Music?: “I’d say music and movies. I love some country music. Kind of weird coming from California. Movies? Really I’m up for anything. Any good movie that will keep me entertained.”
What’s The Most Recent Movie You’ve Seen?: “I saw Noah. Pretty controversial movie but any publicity is good publicity is the way I see it. I thought it was good.”
Other Quotes I Found Interesting:
“The comfort level that I’m in also is dependent upon the comfort level of everybody else. There’s a lot of guys that are making an adjustment to it. I think, sometimes, phone calls aren’t as good as meetings when I can’t be here. Practices have been fairly good. Practice schedule, recuperation schedule, the strengthening and conditioning side of things, everything, kind of, has fallen into place. We’ve had some bumps in the road because it is preseason, so it’s not always going to be that smooth, but I feel really good about it. I feel, like, especially in the last two weeks, although we’ve been in constant contact and I’ve been in Europe, we still have gotten the group to a place where they all know what they hell they’re doing. So in that regard I feel really really good about it.” -Eric Wynalda on his transition to coaching the team and juggling his schedule.
“Technology is wonderful. I haven’t missed a practice yet. That’s another huge part of it, is that I’m able to stay connected at all times. It’s not like big brother or anything. I think the fact that I haven’t missed anything at all has been great. Even from England or Germany, Manchester, London, didn’t matter. Long flight. Watch a game.”-Eric Wynalda on being able to keep up with the day to day while away.
“It’s been comfortable. Again, from the outside people might think it’s crazy, but, like Eric says, he’s basically here Wednesday, Thursday through Sunday, and I really don’t notice. The assistants are very well equipped to do their job and Eric comes in and it’s not like he takes over the show, you know, it’s just everyone’s collaborating and it hasn’t really affected us much at all.” -Bobby Reiss on the players dealing with the unique coaching situation.
Alec Campbell, Sports Radio 92.9 The Game
Follow Alec on Twitter @AlecCampbell5