Monkey Business

This is part one of a five part series on the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Silverbacks.

Really, it was the only goal that mattered. It’s tough to remember how it began. Either Ciaran O’Brien or Raphael Cox brought the ball forward from midfield in about the 20th minute, beat a Carolina Railhawk or two and slid a diagonal ball out to the left side where Conor Chinn (a newcomer picked up after he was waived from Real Salt Lake in May) was jogging lightly on the edge of the area. As the ball was played, he broke into a sprint and one-timed it into the center of the box where Matt Horth was waiting to side foot it past the keeper. It was a movement that transcended the moment; watching the ball switched and pinged, the runs and movements locked together like rhyming couplets made me type “Woww” into my notes. On a turfed pitch hemmed in by squares of local advertising and a puce-colored sky, the last place Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League had scored a beautiful opener against the first place team in the league.

I imagine that every coach of a European soccer team fighting relegation asks himself the question at least once during the season: “where’s the line between trying to play crowd-pleasing, attacking football and doing everything it takes to win?” That night, the Atlanta Silverbacks ran an ambitious 3-5-2 formation. The teamsheet implied they’d at least intended to run a  4-4-2, which perhaps they should have done. The Railhawks, replete with the formidable striking duo of Maltese International Etienne Barbara and former Real Salt Lake striker Pablo Campos formed something between a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1, with Barbara playing just off Campos. Whether through a desire to merely spring a surprise on the 1st place Railhawks or an attempt to contain Barbara (the Mediterranean has already scored 14 goals this season, five more than the next closest player), the Silverbacks’ switch to 3-5-2 opened a gap between midfield and defense that the holding midfielder, Mattias Schnorf, couldn’t close effectively. Essentially, with only one Railhawk playing as a true forward and the other playing in the hole, two of the Atlanta centerbacks were always redundant. Schorf was overworked between covering Barbara and the two midfielders the Railhawks would bring forward when they had the ball. This created the opportunity for long balls to the forwards, hold-up play, and then dropping the ball back to the midfielders who would shoot on goal from outside the box.

These are merely my impressions. The Silverbacks retained possession well; they passed well, made their few chances count; but one can only guess at the rationale in switching their standard 4-4-2 formation into a 3-5-2. Why they’d play Mattias Schnorf, normally a defender, in a Pepe-inspired defensive midfielder role? Why they’d add another centerback (who mostly had nothing to do) and try and use width against a team they’d know (having played them once before) would focus on playing through the middle? In theory, I suppose Schnorf could have stepped into the backline to become a fourth centerback; but that didn’t happen in practice, as he would be picking up Barbara time and again, leaving two centerbacks useless to stop the midfield duo pressing forward from deep. On the offensive end, the two wingbacks combined well with the two attacking midfielders, but most the attacking thrusts would be ruptured before Chinn or Horth could shoot on goal. I couldn’t help feel like I was watching (in result and rationale, not insofar as form) Shakhtar Donetsk against Barcelona in last year’s Champions League quarterfinal match. Shakhtar set out to play ambitiously; they weren’t going to adopt a Mourinho-esque, all-out-clogged-toilet-defense against a team they knew was offensively superior. Like the French in the battle of Agincourt, they were going to don their heavy armor, mount their unwieldy horses, and ride out against an army that was always (probably) going to destroy them. Shakhtar tried to play an open, offensive game against Barca. They were shellacked 6-1 over two legs.

The loss in Atlanta hurt, but it went down easy. The audience, while predominantly quiet (it was a night to honor the fans of the Winnipeg bound Atlanta Thrashers hockey team), would come alive for hard fouls and pretty passing play and seemed generally engaged at least until the score was beyond reach. No one booed, no anger of any kind was evident. Quite the contrast from watching Aston Villa in the Premier League, where the home fans boo the players off the pitch after a 2-1 home loss that puts us in the bottom half of the table for the first time in three years. Silverbacks personnel relate how the fan base in Atlanta is bipolar–on the one hand you have a large group of non-assuming, un-soccer-educated newcomer fans (not all of them white Southerners), who while dissatisfied with the results on paper, aren’t wise enough to the schematics on the field to get very angry. On the other hand, you have a smaller group of wanna-be-ultra super-educated individuals (not all of them Hispanic) who have inflated expectations and seethe in discontent at every misplayed through ball and carelessly lost possession. Neither half seems to fully understand the very fine lines present all throughout the stadium which the organization is made to walk.

For starters, the Silverbacks are unashamedly an organization which aims to “move players to the next level.” I suppose most the organizations in the NASL are. Because of the lack of a promotion/relegation system in American sports (another article unto itself), the most any team in the NASL has to hope for is that eventually their fan base will grow large enough to merit being offered a spot in Major League Soccer. The roster offers a melange of talent from all over North and Central America; mostly young players coming either straight from college; dropping down from an MLS team; coming in from other similar D-2 (ish) clubs in other countries. The one unifying factor remains that most of the roster probably view Atlanta as a place to train, get experience, and ultimately take the next step. With that sort of mentality, can anyone (fans, players, paycheck-writers) ruffle their feathers at attempts to try out different formations and try out players in interesting positions? Well, yes–here’s another fine line. The Silverbacks currently stand to lose millions of dollars this season (the fate of any new club in soccer at least). It’s harder for fans to support a losing team; a dwindling ticket sale intake incurs a greater financial loss; a greater loss imperils the stability of the club, scares away potential investment, and unsettles the players. It’s not a very sustainable cycle, and yet most NASL teams (along with the majority of WPS teams and other professional marginalized sports in America (see the Atlanta Thrashers) manage to get by.

The point is–what incentive do the Silverbacks have to play attractive football? Clearly what works for the best team in the league is coincidentally what works for most Premier League teams. Long ball, route one play. Defend deep and stolidly, keep the midfield compact and allow your talented attackers to do what they do. The Silverbacks seem to be trying to righteously buck this trend. The coaches want the players to improve, but they also need to win. This season, it seems that the Silverbacks are trying (and failing, albeit honorably) to have their cake and eat it too.

Recently I went out to practice shooting on goal on a local field near my house. It had been raining all afternoon, but the sky and decrescendoing peals of thunder and flashes of lightning showed signs of stopping. After I laced up and dribbled for a while, the heavens opened up for one last bone-deep saturation. Coincidentally, the sprinkler system for the soccer field cut on right about the same time. As I stood there, watching the sprinklers running amidst the downpour, human intervention to keep the beauty of the field made redundant by nature’s determination to do the same, I thought of the Silverbacks franchise and their season.

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