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Why I joined the Atlanta Silverbacks Trust

One of my fellow asfctrust.org members asked me to write a little something about why I decided to join the Atlanta Silverbacks Trust. First off, let me disclose a few things about myself. I am not a native Atlantan. In fact, I am a very recent transplant. I arrived in Atlanta on October 31, 2013 fresh off my honeymoon in St. Vincent and the Grenadines with my wife, a Uhaul full of all my earthly possessions worth keeping after 32 years on earth, and a folded up printed out ticket to the November 1, 2013 Atlanta Silverbacks vs. New York Cosmos NASL game in my pocket. It was my plan to attend that game, and then hopefully the Soccer Bowl the following week between the same two teams. I interviewed Mike Bell one of the leaders of the Atlanta Ultras earlier that summer for a paper for a sports marketing class in my MBA program at East Carolina. For that paper, I also talked to leaders from supporter groups of other lower division teams, the now defunct PDL version of Oklahoma City FC and their supporters the Red Dirt Brigade, and also Gene Butcher founder of the well known phenomenon that is the Northern Guard, supporters of Detroit City FC. I had started a blog the previous year originally called Deep In The Pyramid where I chronicled my attempt to attend 100 matches in 1 year. I fell far short of that goal, attending 32 games that first season and 38 within 1 year of the first game, but the insights I learned from standing around random fields mainly in Massachusetts were instrumental in drawing me toward the Silverbacks.

It took a few years of research and experimentation for me to figure out what the soccer landscape was all about. Like a lot of Americans, especially those without clear ties to a distinct recent immigrant past, I grew up with my primary sports allegiances to my hometown teams in the “Big 4” American sports. As a Massachusetts native those allegiances tend to run pretty deep as we have a very strong sports culture driven primarily by the Red Sox, but also very much by the Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins. To that end, when I found myself unemployed during the depths of the recession in 2008 I started watching a lot of Fox Soccer Channel, and a lot of New England Revolution games on TV. When I emerged from a hole of depression and unemployment checks in 2009, I was able to gain a toehold in the job market, snagging a position as a car salesman at a Lincoln Mercury Mazda dealership. While this was a positive financial move for myself, and allowed me to somewhat stabilize my income, the car lot life left me very little time for recreation. I very much wanted to go down to Foxboro and see the Revs but my schedule wouldn’t accommodate it. I could usually just make it home in time for kickoff to watch it on TV. My relationship with my wife was built on us meeting at my house after work, switching on the TV, swiveling it toward the deck and grilling steaks and foil packs of vegetables while watching some very bad Revs teams. Fast forward three years, I quit the car lot in late 2011 in order to take the next steps toward pursuing my professional goals. I knew that in 2012 I would finally have time on the weekends to go see the Revs and I was very excited about the prospect. I have always been a very passionate fan. It’s definitely the New Englander in me. Pro sports are kind of our thing. For this reason, I was drawn to the supporter culture aspect of the experience. After spending the intervening winter chatting extensively on the Big Soccer boards with my fellow New Englanders, and making a trip up to Nashua, NH to watch the Revs season opener at San Jose and getting a chance to meet some of my fellow supporters, including Revs superfan Monty Rodrigues, who I am eternally indebted to, as our introduction was punctuated by him helping me into a cab and to a local motel after he found me puking in the bar parking lot after the game, a situation I would largely attribute to 4 years of pent up soccer exuberance looking for a social outlet. The first game I attended live was the 2012 home season opener. Although I generally had a good time, bought a Revs jersey I still have (Literally the first Lee Nguyen jersey ever made, a custom job before they stocked them, made in the Patriots Pro Shop the day of his first home game.) There was a level of passion I was looking for from the experience however, that the fans just never seemed to achieve. As in any group, some did have that passion, and those are the people I gravitated to and still keep in contact with, like my partner in Non League America Chris Reid and a few others, but the majority of even the most vocal supporters saw supporting as more of a tongue in cheek diversion than something to be serious about. I am not gonna lie, I initially subscribed to that line of thinking too. I didn’t always feel the way I do now, these experiences along the way have shaped and changed my outlook toward the game. At this time in 2012-2013 I came up listening to Men in Blazers and semi-embraced the self-deprecation of the American supporter cosplay approach. This is not a inherently American game, and White Americans in particular tend to gravitate toward the English game first due to the common language, but that same language that can be a source of connection to the wider world of football also can cause some problems along the way. I am not now, nor have ever been under any illusions of being a hooligan. I think that word throws a lot of Americans off because they think it’s kind of a funny term; one that is rarely used in our lexicon and when it is it’s usually in jest. If you called hooligans gangsters or gang bangers I think it would be a little more clear that this is not something you want to aspire to. Race also plays a factor in this interpretation. Due to the inherent intersectionality of race and class in American society, many White American fans view Whites of other countries as being inherently like them, by definition largely middle class and lacking meaningful experience in fighting and conflict. This is not true however, especially in more homogenous racial societies that are significantly more White through all social strata. As I kept attending Revs games and lower league games simultaneously, as any human I am a product of my experiences and those experiences shaped me and developed me as a supporter. Along this journey, especially by 2013, with that marathon of lower league and Rev attendances behind me, I realized there was a very important middle ground that I occupied that I didn’t seem to have too many allies with within the Revs fanbase. People who took supporting seriously. Again, I don’t mean euro hooligan seriously, but more like feeling the same way I felt about the rest of the Boston “Big 4” sports teams. There is no better example than the team that looms over the entire existence of the Revs, the Patriots. I was approaching the Revs games with the same attitude I would the Patriots and this was just not really the approach of many within The Fort.

With all that in mind, I have always been a vocal supporter, even before I discovered the joys of singing for 90 minutes, I have been known to be a yeller at football and baseball games, and singing seemed like a much more constructive outlet for that energy. I want to be clear here. Even though I did not personally connect with every aspect of the Revs supporter culture, I was used to not connecting with every aspect of New England culture in general having spent the better part of 7 years in college and after from the ages of 18-25 in both Greensboro and Eastern North Carolina. Those experiences transformed me fundamentally as a person. My time spent back n Massachusetts after North Carolina and before Atlanta was spent primarily in the out-group of the local New England culture. I am and always will be a proud New Englander, but the eyes cannot un-see what has been seen and I knew that the world was bigger than New England. I no longer viewed things through a New England centric lens. Sports however, had always been an exception. I remember a Men In Blazers podcast from that time period when they were saying that Americans don’t understand what it’s like to be a true supporter and that Brits are born into their clubs as traditions handed down by their fathers. This lack of rootedness may be true in other parts of the country but that statement does not ring true to my experience as a New England sports fan. I was born into the culture of the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics and grew up watching all of them with my dad, and sometimes my grandfather (especially the Red Sox for him). I operated under the guidance of these cultural norms and felt obliged to support the Revs if I was going to be a soccer fan. I felt I didn’t have a choice, and I still pretty much feel that way. You don’t just get to wake up one day and pick your team. You are stuck with the team that represents where you’re from. At the time, I thought it was even a bonus that the Revs were owned by Robert Kraft and adjacently co-branded with the Patriots. Of course I knew Kraft was cheap and it was a fundamental problem to play in an empty 68,000-seat stadium. But despite Kraft’s habitual under-investment and use of the Revs as a Man-Mall traffic driver for his CBS Scene restaurant and Bass Pro Shop location, I didn’t understand how people could support European teams only and not their local team at least in addition.

The deeper and deeper I got into my exploration of soccer culture however, I found that there were some fundamental flaws in the structure of Major League Soccer that could not be overlooked. I always asked the question. OK if Bob Kraft is a capital B Billionaire, and he has the money to do so, why doesn’t he want to use that money to make MUCH MORE money and compete on the world market for talent and bring in stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Balotelli and players like that. Surely if he actually competed for talent with the Premier League and Spain he could easily bang out all 68,000 seats at Gillette for 17 home dates a year. People know the difference and know that the salaries are artificially deflated and as a result teams are severely restricted in the talent they can sign. This is when I started to research the intimate links of Kraft to the MLS league itself, and the MLS and its origins to the NFL. It became very clear to me that Garber, as a former NFL executive, and Kraft, The late Lamar Hunt, and others who founded the MLS have specifically built this league to be subservient to the NFL. Not every NFL team is invested in MLS, but Kraft is the strongest link between the two and its obvious to anyone with eyes that he feels he has a commitment to his fellow NFL owners not to threaten their NFL investments by keeping the available investment level in MLS sufficiently lower. At the same time, He has his hands in US Soccer, paid US Soccer President Sunil Gulati’s salary as a consultant to the Revs, and basically is pulling the strings on both leagues. There is no other way to explain the artificially low level at which MLS has been operating. You can’t try to tell me that natural market forces are dictating that players were out there playing on $33,000 salaries. The lack of autonomy of the teams was rubbing me the wrong way too. I used to laugh at the “Eurosnobs” who would try and point out the technical differences between clubs and franchises. To some extent, I bought in on doing things the American way. Then again I started to do more research and educated myself on MLS’s single entity. I realized It’s actually a discredit to even use the term “Franchise” to describe an MLS team. The NFL has franchises, the NBA has franchises, and while certainly not completely independent businesses like European football clubs, they operate with a level of autonomy FAR greater than an MLS outlet. MLS teams are literally logos flung out to different corners of the country and used for benefit of the single entity.

This is when my parallel explorations “Deep In The Pyramid” started to take on an added importance for me. Seeing all these independent ethnic clubs still out there competing despite having no chance at all at progressing to a higher level and competing on an even playing field started to make me mad. It was through writing recap articles of US Open Cup qualifying rounds that I started the process of self education about the amateur game that revealed the scope of just how many competitive soccer games were being played in complete anonymity. And these weren’t just recreational games, these were competitive games, played in leagues sanctioned by US Soccer, some as close as 15 minutes from my back door that no one knew anything about, while at the same time, I could turn on Fox Soccer Channel and watch some tiny club 3000 miles away play in the FA Cup. Look at what phenomenal theater this FA Cup is! And we have a tournament just like it? Why is US Soccer not promoting the hell out of this? Why are US Open Cup brackets not a thing like March Madness? People would love this shit! That’s when I made the final connection between MLS, US Soccer, and SUM’s complicity in systematically retarding the natural growth of soccer in this country. Needless to say, I was mad. But I was also intrigued. I was incredibly intrigued by the potential of the US Open Cup and was relentlessly searching for additional coverage of it. I wanted to see as many games as I possibly could online and on TV, and I wanted to see these US Open Cup games in person.

One of the games that I saw online was a game dubbed the “Battle of Atlanta” shot by some kind of high school auxiliary AV program that pitted the Atlanta Silverbacks against the Georgia Revolution (no relation).   While I was watching the stream I could see and hear a nonstop singing presence of a group of fans perched on one of the sets of bleachers. The nonstop part was an eye opener for me, because at that point my sole supporter culture experience had been at Revs games and even the most committed Revs fans will tell you, they do not sing non stop for 90 minutes. They certainly sing the majority, but there are large sections of the Fort crowd who don’t sing at all, and even the most engaged supporters have significant non singing periods. I would say the top singers are singing 60-70 minutes a game out of 90. There were probably about 10 of these guys on the stream instead of the Revs 500 or so in the Fort, but their level of commitment to sing with 10 people was inspiring. They also had smoke. Now I had heard about smoke, and seen videos on the internet of ultras from other places around the world, so I knew what it was, but this particular strain of support wasn’t something I had first hand experience with due to smoke being banned from Gillette Stadium and only players girlfriends and my crazy / lonely ass going to watch the amateur games around New England. Immediately following this game the Silverbacks made national soccer headlines for the first time that I could remember when they sold the rights to host the next game back to Seattle. I remember following that whole situation and watching that game on Fox Soccer Channel when Seattle gave Atlanta an absolute beatdown. At this point I was not a fan of the Silverbacks, just a committed soccer observer.

Toward the end of that action packed 2012 year when I attended all those games, the early qualification rounds for the 2013 US Open Cup were taking place. I made it a point to attend as many as I could. By that time I had found the subgroup of Revs fans and independent media types like Chris Reid, Fran Harrington, Matt Zytka, Hank Alexandre, Chris Camille, and Brian O’Connell who did share my interest in the lower leagues and the Open Cup. We had a little tailgate for the East Providence Sports (now internet sensation Providence City FC) vs. Mass Premier Soccer (now GPS Omens) state final match in Roxbury and that was the day that firmly cemented my commitment to independent and lower league soccer at the forefront of my fan priorities. I did attend a few more Revs games in early 2013, but by that summer I had made it a priority to move to Atlanta for both career and cultural reasons. I was miserable in Massachusetts and having trouble finding a job in my field. After 3 years of looking at houses online and selling my now wife the dream on the superior quality of life argument for the South I knew she was ready to make a move as well. I had just had a very positive experience at an advertising competition in New York and feeling particularly inspired I promptly knocked her up upon my return, set a date for a wedding just 7 weeks later, booked a honeymoon and paid out a 6 month lease on a 1 bedroom apartment in Atlanta in cash with no job in hand.

Meanwhile, down in Atlanta the Silverbacks had improbably won the NASL’s new short season first half, specifically installed to accommodate the much hyped midyear return of the New York Cosmos. I am a bit impulsive and perhaps optimistic to a fault, so when I initially purchased my ticket while sitting at home in Massachusetts to the Nov. 1st last regular season home game between the Silverbacks and Cosmos it seemed like a sensible way to announce my arrival in Atlanta. The reality set in that day when I realized that to go to that game would be to abandon my pregnant wife on day 2 in a brand new city. That wasn’t going to win me any brownie points at home so that ticket went unused. By the following weekend my focus was still on getting basics set up for us and I knew that as exciting as the prospect of the NASL final was, this wasn’t going to be a time to make conversations with a lot of new people, so I just stayed away and vowed to check out the Silverbacks the following year.

Over the course of that winter, I became acclimated to Atlanta. Things were going well for me professionally, and for my wife. I made an effort to find out who the local soccer people were and what they were all about. I found the local amateur league, the ADASL, and checked out several games at Agnes Scott College and the Georgia Soccer Park. I went and had a beer with local soccer luminary Jason Longshore, watched a few USMNT games at the Brewhouse with the local AO chapter, and even went to the first public launch event of the Terminus Legion. I kept asking everyone about the Silverbacks and I kept getting the same answers. We don’t care about the Silverbacks we are focused on bringing MLS to Atlanta. I could not for the life of me figure this out. You have a team, a professional team mind you, that just competed in a second division national championship right here in Atlanta, and you’re telling me you don’t care about that at all, but you care about a potential MLS team that won’t start playing for THREE MORE YEARS! I felt like if that’s the case, then you really don’t care about soccer, because the soccer is right here and you’re ignoring it! This really rubbed me the wrong way. The straw that broke the camels back for me was when I attended a USWNT match at the Georgia Dome with the local AO chapter the day after the second ice storm. On the field the game was a 8:0 thrashing by the women over Russia, but the real entertainment was in the stands. They had literally 2 songs they sang over and over again and when I attempted to introduce a song I knew from my Revs supporting days (Shit on those bastards below) just for a change of pace, I was reprimanded and told by the Capo (some skinny guy with tight jeans and an odd haircut who claimed to be a scout for Chelsea (OK!) and who kind of resembled that Nazi guy that got punched in the face) that “If we swear we might not get an MLS team. This is our chance to show we deserve it”) on some bowing down to the Soccer Don shit. To which my response was naturally, “What The Fuck?” I heard a laugh behind me, and that’s when I turned around and came face to face with Kreg Thornley, now the Treasurer of the Atlanta Silverbacks FC Trust, but at that time, just the first like-minded soccer individual I had met in several months of trying in Atlanta. We got to chatting, because as we’ve established there wasn’t any worthwhile singing going on, and we quickly realized we shared a common outlook on the game. I had to pry his name out of him with a crowbar, I don’t know if he thought Feds was watching or what (They probably were in that crowd!) but we realized we had already been chatting on Big Soccer, and he invited me to come out to the Silverbacks the following year.

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The spot where I first encountered Atlanta Silverbacks FC Trust Treasurer Kreg Thornley and became personally acquainted with the Silverbacks.

Now if anyone knows me, they know I love a tailgate. I was so excited for the Silverbacks 2014 home opener I showed up first to the Park. Literally the first person there. This set a precedent that continues to this day. Back then, the Silverbacks actually employed a game day operations staff at the Park and a guy there waved me on to the upper turf field to park. I pulled right in to the front left corner of the upper turf field, and assuming that this was indeed an approved tailgate spot, proceeded to light my grill. 2 minutes later I hear the guy yelling at me HEY! PUT THAT OUT! I looked down and in what could only be a harbinger of future pyrotechnic antics I discovered I had burned a spot on the astroturf.

My initial arrival at Atlanta Silverbacks Park for the 2014 home opener.

My initial arrival at Atlanta Silverbacks Park for the 2014 home opener.

Threatened with fines and providing restitution to Boris (Whoever that was?) I was redirected to the corner of the paved section of the lot by the woods, where as it turns out the Atlanta Ultras gathered. I was probably there for a good hour before anyone else showed up. When they did, the first person who arrived was a tall guy named Russ who I’d estimate to be in his early 30’s and his dad, maybe in his 50’s. They were both super cool and laid back, and very impressed that I had the foresight to bring a grill. I’m like “This is what I do!” Russ informed me that the Ultras were serving a suspension handed down from the NASL league office due to some kind of incident at the previous years Soccer Bowl. As a result there wouldn’t be the usual level of singing I should expect from the Ultras. This was fine by me, because I didn’t know the songs at that point anyway, and wasn’t really a supporter, just an interested observer. The two of us realized we shared a passion for heckling anyway, so that heckling got us through the suspension period without severely dampening our exuberance.   By now more and more people were starting to arrive. I met the guy Mike who I had interviewed for the MBA paper the previous summer, and many more colorful characters. They were really into punk, which is not my genre of choice, I’m really a classic down south rap guy, but I was educated as to the shared ethos of these cultures by my new acquaintances, and the whole vibe around the tailgate just felt right to me.

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Back in 2014 the upper field was full of carloads of Silverbacks fans.

The biggest thing was that these were people who were supremely comfortable in their own skin, and people who took supporting very seriously. They were not trying to be like any other supporter group I knew of, and indeed their song repertoire, which I gradually learned over the course of 2014 was not only EXTENSIVE. (These guys had like 50 songs vs. the Revs maybe 15-20) but it was not as derivative of all the other teams. Most of these songs and melodies I had actually never heard before. I did my best to learn as many as I could and eventually started singing along. I sang along on all the songs except for one. This song was not one of the unique ones. At the end of the games the players came over to shake hands with the supporters which I thought was pretty cool because the New England supporters always wanted the players to acknowledge them but they very rarely did, which was maddening because almost every team in the world does this except the Revs for many years, especially those fans that stuck with them while they were really sucking there for a few years (Now they do acknowledge) but when the Silverbacks players came over the Ultras sang “Atlanta Till I Die” I didn’t join in because I was used to singing “New England Till I Die” and how fraudulent would it be to say I’m “Till I Die” about some place I’d only been for 6 months.

2014 was a transitional year for me. A new city, following a new team, as I’ve said before an obligation I did not take lightly, and meeting lots of new people. It was really the people that kept me coming back. It was like everything that I had been looking for in a fan base I had finally found. I was finally among people truly like me. I still didn’t abandon the Revs though. That love-hate relationship continued and I subscribed to the MLS Direct Kick package and DVR’d the Revs games and came home drunk after the Silverbacks games and watched them late at night as a way to wind down. I had a ritual with my Silverbacks ticket rep Phil. He would call me at work on the Wednesday or Thursday before the game and I’d usually commit then but sometimes I’d have to tell him I wasn’t sure if I could go and in those cases he would always call back on Friday afternoon and convince me to get the tickets. I didn’t go to every game in 2014 but I went to most, I think around 10-11 games including the amazing US Open Cup home games against Real Salt Lake and the Chicago Fire (Still a very poorly officiated game in my opinion) and I learned about the Elder Tree, the Ultras home bar in East Atlanta Village where we watched away matches, including the infamous Colorado Rapids US Open Cup game that ended up with the Silverbacks seeing out a victory with 7 men. Often players who were injured or who didn’t make the traveling 18 would come to the bar to watch with us. I thought this was pretty cool. In the lower divisions it just matters a little bit more to everyone.   There are no prima donnas in D2. There can’t be. I’m making more money than the vast majority of these players and these guys are out there absolutely busting their ass for a chance to make it in this game and you can feel that.

By the time the 2015 season rolled around I knew I was all in on the Silverbacks. I bought the first season tickets I’d ever bought to anything in my life and it felt amazing. There was a season kick off event at Red Brick Brewing where fans could go and pick up their tickets. It was packed. There were merchandise giveaways, speeches by members of the coaching staff and front office and a general air of excitement around the place. There were new international signings like Simon Mensing and Paul Black to be excited about, and including a new coach of some repute Gary Smith, who did have an MLS Cup to his credit for guiding his respective local logo to the 2010 championship, as well as a more recent stint in the English Football League at Stevenage who had put together a deep enough FA Cup run to get on TV in the states the preceding year.

Gary Smith’s Silverbacks were a far cry from Wynalda’s 2014 squad which was built on creativity and attacking. Smith had the Backs trying to win every game 1-0, and more often than not ended up conceding late and losing by the reverse scoreline. As maddening as the on the field product was, the 2105 season was memorable for some great times off the field. I went on my first real Away trip with the Ultras to Tampa Bay to see the Silverbacks play the Rowdies. Another memorable moment of 2015 was a game between the Silverbacks and Cosmos that was delayed for three and a half hours by torrential rain. The supporters took cover in the corner of the stands underneath the walkway and stayed right up til the game ended at 1:00 AM.

In 2015 that the club started scheduling Silverbacks Reserves NPSL matches the same day as the NASL games that night. The Reserves games would kick off at 1:00 and myself and few other dedicated members of the Ultras would show up for a quick 1 beer tailgate before the Reserves match, watch the Reserves, have a 4 hour tailgate, then watch the first team. Those were some of the most epic long days I’ve ever had and also some of the most fun I’ve had as a supporter. The final home game of the NASL era of the Silverbacks was played on Halloween, October 31st 2015. The ultras hosted a “Trunk or Treat” at the tailgate and supporters kids, including my oldest daughter went around car to car in the tailgate lot dressed in their Halloween costumes getting candy. The supporters gathered for a picture after the conclusion of the game and procured the sign of our beloved section 101 for posterity. At that time the league office was running the Silverbacks and we didn’t think they would ever play again.

When the news came out in January that the Silverbacks would return for 2016 as an NPSL club only, no one who I had been involved with was surprised. The Ultras were steadfast in our commitment to the club and in fact were energized by the fact that the club would now have a lot less money and red tape floating around it. Who knows, we might actually get a say in molding the direction of the club overall. It was also released though the local media that this new incarnation of the Silverbacks had brought in a new ownership group. It was in this spirit of eternal optimism that several members of the Ultras reached out to the new ownership group to get some face time and see where their heads were at. It is not a minor point that the Silverbacks would be coming back at all. It is customary in our closed system for lower league clubs and franchises to completely disappear. It is a remarkable achievement that the Silverbacks were effectively “relegated” for lack of a better term and continued to play. I can not think of any examples of this occurring elsewhere in recent American soccer history. There would be some major adjustments however for fans. Instead of a minimum of 15 home games stretching from April to October in the NASL, Silverbacks fans who stayed on to support the club would have to deal with a very short May to July 3 month regular season. In addition the team was no longer professional and would be operating in the amateur National Premier Soccer League. At the time, we thought that this slide down the non-existant American pyramid could serve to stabilize the club. The relatively low investment levels required to maintain a competitive team in the NPSL should have at least guaranteed the future existence of the Silverbacks at some level for the foreseeable future. Remember at this time, Atlanta United is still one year out from kicking their first ball in anger.

A delegation of 4 members from the Ultras met Phoday Dolleh, Alvin Glay, and Iggy Moleka for the first time at Silverbacks Park toward the tail end of that transitional offseason. It was a scary time to be a Silverbacks fan. No one knew what the future held, but we knew that we would have a team and that was good enough for the Ultras. Personally I was kind of excited because I was one of a small subset of the fan base that had supported the Reserves, at least at the home doubleheaders, and I had followed close enough to know that the Reserves had qualified for the US Open Cup due to their strong showing at the NPSL Southeast tournament at Chattanooga. In that meeting Phoday and Alvin told us of their vision for the Silverbacks going forward. It sounded pretty good. They told us there would be an NPSL Men’s first team immediately, as well as a Silverbacks Women’s team in the WPSL. Once those were solidified they planned to add a Reserve Men’s team in a local league to complement the first team, and a youth team branded as the Silverbacks to sit atop the development pyramid of local youth club powerhouse United FA. United FA, which is run by former Silverbacks all time leading goal scorer Iggy Moleka was to have a partnership with the Silverbacks. The youth team ended up never being implemented but the Silverbacks Women were financed by the United FA partnership and were very good. In fact, that season they made it all the way to the WPSL national semifinal. The Silverbacks Women had existed for many years in a previous iteration but there was not much link between the Mens and Womens teams beyond the co-branding and the fact that they both played at Silverbacks Park. Usually the Silverbacks Womens games were played on different days from the Men’s NASL games, Sunday afternoons if I recall, and attendance suffered from both that disassociation and the fact hat they were criminally under-promoted. The short season format of the NPSL left the Ultras hungry for more soccer action and the team smartly decided to start scheduling the Womens matches as doubleheaders with the Men’s NPSL team with 4:00 kickoffs for the Womens matches and 7:00 for the Mens. As a result, the Ultras started supporting the Womens teams with the same spirit that they did the Men. It seemed the Women really appreciated the support and everyone was pretty happy with the arrangement.

As the 2016 NPSL season opener approached, the Silverbacks had a lot going for them. They had one more year of the Atlanta market to themselves before Atlanta United showed up, and the Georgia Revolution, although a continuous presence in Conyers in the Eastern suburbs had never really penetrated too much beyond their immediate surrounds, generating most of their support from their affiliation with the Rockdale Youth Soccer Association, the large youth club their adult team sat atop from their inception through 2015. The Ultras wanted to make an emphatic statement of support that they were still with the Silverbacks no matter what league they played in. The resulting statement was the biggest pyro display the Ultras had ever coordinated, popping 38 smoke bombs simultaneously and dropping a banner that read “Fight On Red and Black” that ran half the length of the field before the 2016 home season opener against the Myrtle Beach Mutiny. The match was well attended, and although the Backs lost the game, 2-1, I think most of the 2000 or so people who attended that game left with a general sense of optimism about the Silverbacks moving forward.

Atlanta Ultras Season Opening 2016 smoke display.

Atlanta Ultras Season Opening 2016 smoke display.

On the field, the Silverbacks were pretty successful. They were able to attract some high quality players for the NPSL level, including both college guys and guys who had played professionally in various lower divisions and smaller countries overseas. Guys like the Bangura brothers who are Atlanta locals and Silverbacks institutions provided a link to the previous professional iteration of the club and familiarity and perhaps some reassurance to the minds of worried supporters that indeed this was still the same tragically flawed Silverbacks they had come to know and love. New guys like Pedro Polaz, Avery Shepard put their stamp on the club and ultimately helped qualify the Backs for the NPSL playoffs. Some past rivalries were maintained like the regional competition with the then still Carolina Railhawks NPSL reserve team, and new life was breathed into the Silverbacks vs. Georgia Revolution rivalry, which as earlier documented had been contested by the Silverbacks NASL first team in back to back US Open Cup games in 2012 and 2013, and has been continuously played between the NPSL Silverbacks Reserves and the Georgia Revolution in NPSL league play for many years. A couple (literally 2) of us kicked off the season by hopping on a plane to Philly and renting a car to trek out to Reading, PA midweek for the Silverbacks season opener. The rest of the fans showed up to a watch party at the Elder Tree to support. Poku was in attendance as a guest of Phoday and Cristian and I took some pics and debuted the now infamous “Illumigulati” Pro Rel For USA banner at this match. The Backs ultimately lost that game 2-0 to get knocked out of the US Open Cup.

Steve and Cristian in Reading

Cristian and myself were the only ones crazy enough to travel to Reading, PA on a weekday. We had a good time.

Silverbacks supporters at the Elder Tree watching the 2016 Atlanta Silverbacks debut as an NPSL first team in the opening round of the US Open Cup Away to the PDL's Reading United AC

Silverbacks supporters at the Elder Tree watching the 2016 Atlanta Silverbacks debut as an NPSL first team in the opening round of the US Open Cup Away to the PDL’s Reading United AC

As often happens on the Planet of the Backs, just when things seem to be going well, we were thrown a monkey wrench from Silverbacks Park staff that the clubs opening round playoff game would not be able to be played at Silverbacks Park due to a conflict with the weekday rec leagues that book the park out 7 days a week. This was not the first time the club and park that share the same name have been at odds, and at first the match was announced to be played at 3:30 on a weekday afternoon. The fan outcry on social media was loud enough to force the force the club to at least move the game to a new location and play it at a standard evening start time. The first playoff game was played at Georgia Gwinnett College on Thursday July 7th against the Carolina Railhawks NPSL. The Backs came out motivated and put a beatdown on Carolina 4:0 setting up a Saturday night showdown Back at Silverbacks Park against the expansion side Tobacco Road FC from Durham, NC. (Who after the season switched leagues to the PDL) Tobacco Road had knocked out top seeded Myrtle Beach in the first round, a result that pleased Backs fans as Myrtle Beach had given Atlanta the most trouble in the regular season. This game really had the feeling of an NASL Backs game. There was a sizeable crowd on hand and the Silverbacks trailed 1:0 right up into second half stoppage time when Joao Johanning forced what appeared to be a handball in the penalty area on behalf of a Tobacco Road defender. The Referee, reluctant to award the potentially game tying penalty at that critical juncture, shied away from making a decision and awarded the free kick just outside the area. No matter though, because team captain Mitch Garcia’s left footed placement over the wall left the Tobacco Road keeper flat footed and stunned as the last large crowd seen at Silverbacks Park erupted as it appeared the Silverbacks had played their way into Extra Time. Mitch Garcia, Adnan Bangura, Pedro Polaz and ultimately a header by Avery Shepard off a bounce put the Silverbacks ahead for good in the 99th minute, securing the Silverbacks the South Atlantic Conference championship, a berth in the South Region playoff, a trip down to Miami to take on Sunshine Conference champion Miami United, and the club’s first piece of silverware since the Spring 2013 NASL Championship.

A crew of about 8 from the Ultras made their way down to Miami for what proved to be the final game of the 2016 season for the Silverbacks, as the Backs fell 2:0 to Miami the following weekend. At the end of the season the Backs announced a postseason friendly with Middlesbrough’s U21 side. The Backs lost that match, and most of the Ultras stayed away due to perceived high prices for the meaningless postseason friendly against the English youngsters, perceived greed on behalf of the Park and Park ownership, and the Park selling individual seats within the supprters section. The South Atlantic Conference was presented to the players after that match and lots of fans took an opportunity to take pictures with the players and the cup. Perhaps more importantly the Silverbacks playoff run had gotten them far enough to merit inclusion in the 2017 US Open Cup field and potentially at least a chance to win their way to a cross town matchup with the new MLS franchise outlet Atlanta United, a team whose looming presence many Backs supporters felt was at least partly responsible for the pseudo relegation the Backs were now living with.

The financial realities of operating a competitive football club appeared to be a bit of a shock to the new Silverbacks ownership group and the 2016-17 offseason saw further consolidation of the club’s managerial and administration duties. 2016 manager Jacenir Silva did not return and partial owner/agent Phoday Dolleh assumed managerial duties heading into 2017. With the MLS franchise outlet now fully operational in their new multimillion dollar practice facility and the much hyped Mercedes Benz Stadium nearing completion, the vast majority of Atlanta’s soccer attention was diverted from Silverbacks Park to the shiny new toy “Uncle Arthur” (excuse me while I throw up in my mouth) had bequeathed the citizens of Atlanta. In retrospect the relative success of the 2016 season may have provided a false sense of optimism for the future of the Silverbacks. The radical (per game) attendance drop that the Silverbacks escaped as their first team dropped from NASL to NPSL while still the primary game in town, came to fruition in 2017. Although the club announced an opening day attendance of over 1600 for the Silverbacks 2:1 loss to the Birmingham Hammers, the eye test showed attendance was probably closer to about 1000. The signing of multiple NASL era Silverbacks players like fan favorite Alex Harlley and 2010 World Cup qualifying goal leader Deon McCaulay excited the club’s small existing base like the supporter groups Atlanta Ultras and Westside 109, but did not penetrate the consciousness of the city. Nevertheless, the team appeared loaded with talent on paper, building around the aforementioned with returning team Captain Mitch Garcia, Avery Shepard, Left Back Kemar Brown, Midfield boss Abraham Lansana, Abdul and Adnan Bangura, and adding new faces like former NASL player Taka, as well as local talent like DZ Harmon and Thierry Jules.

Knowing how short the NPSL season schedule is, I made it a point to attend every single game I could, including preseason games and to the extent reasonable, treat them with the supporting passion I would for a regular season game. Functionally this worked very well for me to satiate my soccer appetite and allowed me to get my season started the first day in April when I went up to Dalton to see the Silverbacks draw 1:1 with Dalton State. The following weekend the Backs played a 3 half scrimmage against some local rec league all stars from Sons of Pitches, the league the Atlanta Ultras had formed a team and started competing in in hopes of spreading the Backs culture year round and filling in some of the gaps crated by a 3 month regular season schedule. That game wasn’t much competition, but the following week the Backs got a real test from the Liga Magg All Stars, a team composed of some of the best players that play in the highly competitive Sunday Latino league at Silverbacks Park. The Backs came through with a 2:1 win there and followed that up with a 7:2 thrashing of start-up aspiring UPSL (another of the alphabet soup of amateur leagues like the NPSL the Silverbacks play in) club Savannah Clovers at Silverbacks Park. On April 26th the Silverbacks played a closed door friendly against Atlanta United and drew them 0:0. The result was controversial as an apparent Silverbacks goal appeared to be erroneously called offside according to eyewitness reports from the lucky few allowed to step onto the sacred MLS franchise outlet’s undoubtedly immaculate turf.

The overall theme of the 2017 season was that of unfulfilled potential. Despite having one of the most stacked rosters in NPSL on paper, the Backs just could not put it all together at the right times. They got knocked out of the US Open Cup in the second round by a red hot Jamaican international Romario Williams led Charleston Battery, the farm team affiliate of Atlanta United, which ruined the Backs chances of getting their date with destiny with the downtown outlet. The Backs had some nice regular season victories, including Home and Away sweeps of the Georgia Revs, FC Carolina United, and the Knoxville Force. From a supporters perspective, the highlights of the season included a strong showing at the Georgia Revs new Southside location in Henry County, as well as an epic road draw with new league attendance darlings Asheville City.

Atlanta Ultras away to the Georgia Revolution's new home in Henry County, GA.

Atlanta Ultras away to the Georgia Revolution’s new home in Henry County, GA.

Asheville, unaccustomed to road supporters took the Silverbacks fans presence personally, which was bemusing to the Backs fans. After the road draw and the Asheville fans unilaterally declaring a rivalry, Asheville returned to Silverbacks Park to claim all three points the following weekend. In what turned out to me more stadium scheduling issues, the rubber match occurred at Silverbacks Park in the first round of the playoffs. Atlanta won the decisive knockout game, ending Asheville’s season and moving on to the conference tournament in New Orleans. The Silverbacks had a big challenge ahead of them in New Orleans and ultimately fell for the third time to the Jesters 1:0, after losing 2:1 both home and away in the regular season.

Atlanta Silverbacks Starting 11 vs. New Orleans Jesters Away in the second round of the 2017 NPSL Southeast Conference Playoffs.

Atlanta Silverbacks Starting 11 vs. New Orleans Jesters Away in the second round of the 2017 NPSL Southeast Conference Playoffs.

The Backs had a few postseason friendlies, winning again up in Dalton to Correcaminos, an aspiring NPSL team built from mostly the same Dalton State players the Back played to open the preseason, and losing to both social media darlings Lowcountry United and the USMNT U17 team with a limited roster and remaining Backs players who hadn’t already moved on after the playoff finale, mostly going through the motions at Silverbacks Park.

Personally, I attended 20 of 25 Silverbacks matches in all competitions in 2017. It was a major commitment but a ton of fun. I took my family on the away day to Asheville, which was a ton of fun for my kids, and I also took my 3 year old daughter to some of the pre and postseason friendlies. I am very excited to pass along the Silverbacks supporters culture to my kids, and am looking forward to years of Silverbacks soccer with my kids as they grow up. I actually just got them small Silverbacks personalized jerseys with their name on the back for Christmas. It was very exciting to hear in the fall that Silverbacks ownership was willing to speak with supporters about a possible supporter ownership program. I feel very strongly that partial supporter ownership will allow the Silverbacks to remain anchored in Atlanta despite the presence of Atlanta United. The Silverbacks can continue their practice of making meaningful change in the lives of players who would otherwise not have the opportunity to play, and fans can get an affordable season of exciting soccer for the price of one day out to the other team across town. I have been putting my money where my mouth is for several years as I have continued to support the Silverbacks despite numerous obstacles. The presence of those obstacles has made this opportunity all the more satisfying.

So often, the argument of American soccer detractors is that the teams lack history. The truth is, Silverbacks related clubs have been in continuous existence for over 20 years here in Atlanta. The Silverbacks have a living breathing vibrant human history here in Atlanta. As Atlanta’s primary soccer team for 20 years, they have welcomed a diverse array of people from all over the world to the city of Atlanta. In a larger context, this seems wholly appropriate for a team whose genesis overlapped the lead in to the 1996 Olympics. In my four years being a supporter of this club, and in my conversations with people who have supported the club a lot longer than me, It seems this rich history has been uncelebrated and under-exploited.   In the worldwide game of football, there is a place for clubs like these. Smaller clubs. Amateur clubs, actual semi-pro clubs, and low wage but fully professional smaller clubs. The development of clubs at this level in the United States will make a major impact in ensuring that players get a chance to play and develop, form careers in the sport, facilitate international transfers, and potentially turn amateur clubs into fully professional clubs using money earned through an integrated system of leagues with promotion and relegation. Even in the current system, devoid of Pro-Rel, the opportunity to have a unique impact is still there for community-based clubs. This is the purpose of the Atlanta Silverbacks Trust. By putting the community in charge of 25% of the club, we can collectively keep open a unique link between Atlanta and the rest of the world. Throughout its history Atlanta has a well documented reputation as a city with global aspirations. In practice that reputation has been fulfilled not only by Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but by having places for people who get off those planes to go, lives to live, and promises and dreams to fulfill.  The Silverbacks are proud to embrace that global perspective and fulfill those dreams. I look forward to seeing what the next 20 years will bring to the Silverbacks as a partial community owned club. It is for all these reasons and many more I haven’t listed that I truly believe in the value of the Atlanta Silverbacks going forward. I am proud to be a member of the Atlanta Silverbacks Trust and I invite you to join us in building the future for the Atlanta Silverbacks Football Club.

 

Steven Bayley

12/14/17

Morrow, GA

Unaffiliated Leagues Series: Vol. 1- Gotham Soccer League

Welcome to part 1 of our Unaffiliated Leagues Series where we shine a light on some competitive leagues that for one reason or another do not feel it necessary to affiliate formally with US Soccer in order to achieve their goals.  In this series we hope to touch on a wide variety of clubs and discuss the reasons why they may feel there currently is no place for them within the formal US Soccer organization as it is currently structured.

 

Non League America:  What is the Gotham Soccer League?

 

Gotham Soccer League:  Gotham Soccer League was founded in 2006. At the time, there wasn’t an option for players who wanted full-field 11v11 soccer on weeknights in NYC. For the first 8 years, that’s all we did, and we slowly grew to two divisions. Growing the league wasn’t a priority at first because it was only a side project of the founder. The goal was simply to provide an easier option than the time-consuming Sunday leagues since they require travel and giving up a full day of the weekend.

 

NLA:  How does the GSL differentiate itself from other lower divisions leagues in these regions?

 

GSL:  New York City has an incredible adult soccer scene, and last time I counted, there were 20 adult leagues. So it’s very competitive, and it’s hard to stand out. However, over the last two years, we have done things that no other league has ever done, and we continue to innovate. We film a 4K HD game highlight video every week. Every team gets filmed each season. A professional photographer shoots a game for every team each season. We pick a Best XI. We host All-Star games. We started one of the only women’s divisions in town. We held the first ever Champions League style tournament and had the best teams from different leagues face off. And we give our divisions news coverage that more resembles a pro league. We like to say we’re the rec league that provides the pro experience. Other leagues have attempted to copy what we’ve done, but only sporadically. When we are in season, there is constantly new video, photography, stats, etc. And the players seem to love it. It takes hours each week since we do almost all of it ourselves, but it’s a labor of love!

 

 

NLA: I’ve noted no US Soccer affiliated.  Why is that?

 

GSL:  That’s a great question. First, we want to keep our league affordable. The cost would have to be passed on to our teams, and we don’t want to raise prices. Second, there’d be no real benefit to our league. The only thing we miss are state and national cup tournaments, and we are already having intercity games among our own leagues. We are hoping that someday, you’ll be asking leagues why they aren’t affiliated with Gotham Soccer League!

 

NLA:  Any plans for the future (growth, expansion)?

 

GSL:  In 2015, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to grow much in NYC due to the limited field availability. So we decided to try starting a new city (Cincinnati). It really took off, and now we’ve gone from one city and 16 teams to seven cities and over 150 teams in only two years! And we are already scoping out some more new cities for 2018 and beyond. It’s a ton of work, but it’s exciting, and it feels great every time we see people in a new town sporting Gotham shirts and enjoying our brand of soccer.

 

NLA:  In my opinion, the amateur and open cup regional tournaments are the most exciting feature of lower league soccer in the US.  Any plans for regional/national tournament structure?

 

GSL:  We have already had regional competitions (Gotham teams from division regions playing each other) as well as tournaments among different local leagues. We’ve found that we don’t need to be part of US Soccer to hold interesting and innovative tournaments. We just need quality teams and a sense of adventure! It’s been very cool to see these matchups go down. And we definitely want to see soccer in America go forward. It can be done from the outside. We’ve had scouts from pro teams watch our games, and big clubs have started to realize that there’s talent beyond the traditional channels.

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NLA: What other cities does GSL have leagues in?

 

GSL:  Currently our seven locations are:  New York City, Cincinnati, Tucson, Indianapolis, Columbus, Phoenix, and Dayton. And we’re in the process of starting 2-3 more cities as I type this.

 

NLA:  What are some of the biggest hurdles you have had jumping into different markets?

 

GSL:  Real estate is always the biggest challenge. We need good fields that are available on nights and times during which our potential players want to run a game. Sometimes we have to be creative, but we love a challenge.

 

NLA:  Have any clubs jumped from other leagues in NYC to Gotham?  Or vice versa?

 

GSL:  I would say that MOST clubs who have joined Gotham played in other leagues first. It’s been very validating to see teams jump from their current leagues into ours. Clearly we’re doing something right!

 

NLA:  What’s the greatest success story of the league?

 

GSL:  As the person who runs our NYC divisions (which are our biggest both in teams and revenue), my answer is always going to be biased. But I’m quite proud of the growth we’ve experienced in the last two years in New York because we didn’t think it was possible. Still, we pulled it off, and we’ve grown revenue 73% in two years, and we did that without adding field time! We grew because more teams wanted to join, and we found ways to fit them in.

 

NLA:  Who is the most interesting player that you’ve encountered?

 

GSL:  I’ve met a LOT of talented players and great people in our league. But one of my favorite stories revolves around a guy named Tom. Tom moved to New York City in the spring of 2015. He joined one of our coed divisions by himself, and I quickly recognized that he was a leader and he was organized. I made him captain of his team almost instantly. The next season, he joined another one of our coed divisions, and he again excelled as a captain. The following season, he took the guys from his two former coed teams and formed a men’s team in our small-sided division. After a strong season there, he recruited some guys yet again and joined our 11v11 division. The first season was rough, but by the end of fall 2016, his team had won five games in a row by a ridiculous margin (I believe around 30 goals scored vs 3 conceded) and they won their first silverware. So in 15 months, he went from the new kid in town who knew NO ONE to the captain of one of our strongest 11v11 teams. It’s remarkable!  Tom’s one of many great player stories. And it’s really all about the players—that’s why we do this. Every smiling player reminds us why we run the league in the first place.

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Steve Bayley & Chris Reid