ATLANTA – The lights flickered, but they didn’t stay on long enough during the Atlanta Silverbacks’ loss to the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League Soccer Bowl on Nov. 9 at Silverbacks Park.
Atlanta fell 1-0 to the recently reformed Cosmos in front of 7,211 fans, a Soccer Bowl attendance record, after a tough spell during the NASL fall season. Atlanta lost four of their last five games coming into the final, but coach Brian Haynes reminded his team that anything can happen in one game.
“It doesn’t matter what has happened the last three games,” Haynes said. “If we win the finals, then we won’t hear anything about those last three games.”
Unfortunately, the Cosmos were too good. Marcos Senna scored with a stunner in the 50th minute, after a cleared cross fell right to him near the left corner of the box, and he placed it perfectly in the opposite top corner.
“I’d have had to have been standing in that corner to stop it,” said Silverbacks keeper Joe Nasco.
Given how he played during the game, making several huge saves, it wasn’t entirely inconceivable that he might have been. Nasco kept the Silverbacks alive on many occasions, affording Atlanta multiple chances on goal on the other end of the pitch. But the Silverbacks could not convert, in part, due to Nasco’s counterpart, the 2013 NASL Golden Glove Award winner Kyle Reynish. Reynish allowed less than one goal per game during the fall season, and that was the difference in the outcome.
“We didn’t take our chances; they did,” said Haynes after the game.
The fall season was the first downward turn during Eric Wynalda’s tenure with the Atlanta Silverbacks, initially as interim coach in July 2012 before transitioning to technical director in January 2013. The first 12 months were mostly blissful growth. Wynalda and a few key players he recruited from his former team, Cal FC, immediately turned the team around. The Silverbacks lost just three of their final 12 games in 2012 and carried their momentum over to 2013, winning the spring season NASL championship.
That title earned them the right to host the NASL Soccer Bowl against the winners of the fall season, the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were legends in the old NASL during the 70s and 80s and featured stars like Pele and Franz Beckenbaur, but faded once they lost their big attractions. They rejoined the NASL for the fall season and dominated, going 9-4-1 with 31 points (Carolina, who finished second, earned 23 points). Led by Senna, who won the 2008 European Championships starting in the midfield for Spain, the Cosmos won four of the five games leading into the title game.
The Silverbacks, however, came back to earth during the same time period. Atlanta suffered some injuries – including one of the team’s leaders, Borfor Carr – and stumbled to a seventh place finish, losing six games in the process.
Dynasties take time to build, and annual contenders that win multiple championships often suffer setbacks in the process. It’s part of a team maturing, understanding that it takes even more effort and focus to stay on top. As the old saying goes, form is temporary; class is permanent, but the young Silverbacks, who count 28 year-old Nasco as one of its veterans, have yet to make it to the next level.
Wynalda, a champion and one of the greatest players to don a U.S. jersey, knows all about this. Patience isn’t really his thing, though. As a player, he lashed out at those he perceived as against him, including a few of his coaches. Recently, he has criticized the ability of prominent American coaches, including former USMNT coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. As much as he wants the Silverbacks to dominate the NASL, he’s also boosting his resume slowly but surely, so those in the soccer world currently ignoring him will be forced to recognize.
He’s won everywhere he’s coached, but now his Silverbacks are going through growing pains. A handful of Silverbacks hit the floor when the final whistle blew, overcome with emotion. They fought incredibly hard against a superior team, and were a chance or two away from a different outcome. That’s what makes the game so beautiful, and so cruel.
As Wynalda joined his team near the award ceremony stage, he spoke words of encouragement to members of his young team individually. After accepting the second place medal from Commissioner Bill Peterson, he walked off and took some pictures, only taking a brief glance at the Cosmos lifting their trophy and celebrating wildly with their fans.
Frustration at the inability to erase the doubters and show the world that their plans were in fact working seemed to weigh on Haynes as he walked into the press conference. Asked to make a statement, he responded, “What do you want me to say, that we should have won the game and we didn’t?” before quickly recomposing himself to his usual calm, confident nature.
He was joined on stage by Nasco and, eventually, Wynalda, when the healing process began. Wynalda put his medal on the table and began talking about rebuilding, hoping some key players don’t get nabbed by bigger clubs and keeping the good people around that made the club so much fun to work with. As Haynes and Wynalda answered questions about the future, the sting of the loss seemed to lessen. The pieces are still in place for the long run. Though it was clear this process would now take longer than perhaps originally imagined, the players who fell to their knees after the loss will remember that feeling for a long time. Heavy defeats can bring teams together and make them work harder as a unit to avoid it. This additional motivation combined with their vision might just be the silver lining to a tough season.
The press conference ended, and Wynalda sighed as he walked out of the tent.
“This is only the beginning,” he said to Nasco, already back to his big-picture mindset. He had already moved on, anyway, leaving his second place medal behind on the table.