Monkey Business, Part II

The plans for Silverbacks park.

Culture functions like a fractal; for every widespread trend or movement, you can look within the movement to see similar trends and movements, and you can look inside those smaller ones for similar trends and so forth. These smaller movements are important. They are more manageable and easier to understand and comprehend. In terms of culture, they are usually more local, more familiar. You can study them, and see what new information informs your understanding of the larger trends you first noticed.

Examining the history of professional soccer in Atlanta allows such a progression. The first inklings of a professional team began in 1995 with the Atlanta Ruckus[1], who played in the second tier A-League (the MLS was founded in 1993, with its first season in 1996). The team played in Adams Stadium, the football field of the suburban Briarcliff High School (located on North Druid Hill road, just a few minutes from where I attended college). In what must have been an attempt to catalyze local support for the team (not unlike the big name signings of the 1970s North American Soccer League), a few modestly exciting players were brought into the fold. The most famous of these was Bruce Murray, who at the time was the all-time leading goal scorer for the US National team. Watching the promotional video, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the swashbuckling Ruckus and a top-tier European team[2]. In 1997, Justin Fashanu spent a short time with the team, only a year before he committed suicide in Maryland.

Generally, sales suffered; the team lost money. Lots of it. American soccer needed to learn to crawl before it could stand on its own two feet; to walk a few tottering steps before proceeding forward confidently. The NASL of the 1970s was more effectively like a carnival than a serious agent of change on the landscape. Like a carnival, fans came out in droves to watch Pele, Beckebauer, et al. Like a carnival, after a show or two, the fans dried up and the act moved on. Soccer was an oddity then; as strange as driving on the left side of the road or eating snails and frog legs. There was an “exotic becomes erotic” fixation that lasted only long enough until the exoticness wore off. It would arguably take another two decades and World Cup 1994 fever before any lasting stamp, any secure foundation of soccer was laid. The Atlanta Ruckus were a part of that early foundation, but weathering the storms of fickle fandom on an insecure platform of passion is not easy going.

The Ruckus became the Silverbacks in 1998 after an ownership change. In 2001, Emory University graduate and start-up millionaire Boris Jerkunica became involved, eventually building a 5,000 seater soccer-specific stadium a 15 minutes drive north of Atlanta. In 2004, the team joined the United Soccer League First Division, yet another iteration of the tier below the MLS. I come into the picture in 2005, moving to Atlanta for school, blissfully unaware professional soccer of any kind was going on in Atlanta. Would I have cared had I known? Probably not. Like most of Atlanta’s (and the South’s) denizens, I couldn’t be bothered regularly with soccer. Even after the growth of my soccer interest in the wake of Euro 2008, I still couldn’t be bothered much with a local team. It didn’t help that the USL was floundering[3], squelching any decent prospect of effective marketing and branding in the Atlanta area. In 2009, prospects were so dim that Nike decided to sell its sizeable share in the USL to the Atlanta-based company NuRock Soccer Holdings. It was thought that Nike would sell its share instead to the USL Team Owner’s Association (which included the owners of several of the USL teams). In-fighting ensued, a stand-off flourished, and in November 2009, the USL broke apart. The official statement on the Silverbacks’ website read: “Due to the state of the economy and the potential of an MLS team coming to town, the men’s pro team has decided to sit the year out while the Silverbacks assess the landscape.” Second-tier soccer needed a league with a firmer structure and stricter financial regulations.

In December 2010, the Backs formed one of the founding members of the new NASL, the current second tier league under the MLS. Like the MLS circa 2006, major reorganization and internationalization has been employed. The Silverbacks owners decided to hit the reset button. New staff, new coaches, new players. Building a new team from the ground up has been difficult going, both on the field and off. Until recently, attendance has been decent (if occasionally subpar) while the team had languished at the bottom of the NASL table. There have been signs of life, however. At a recent game against FC Tampa Bay, the Silverbacks set a record high for attendance at 3,500 gate receipts (the team also won 2-1). They have signed or taken in on loan an interesting set of talent that is, by golly, fun and interesting to watch. The going has been tough. The Silverbacks were the only team in the league to completely reboot from the ground up–teams like the Carolina Railhawks more or less maintained a core heading into the new league.

Atlanta Ruckus fans.

Many of these issues (problems with personnel, coaching, and fanbase) were addressed in my previous column. Taking a wider glance, its interesting note how the NASL functions as something of a lagging indicator for the growth of American soccer. The MLS has been going strong for a few years now. Sure enough, a few of the old guard from the USL have even garnered enough support to make a largely successful leap into the MLS (see Timbers, Portland, among others). The NASL is not there yet; the Silverbacks, as has been noted, still stand to lose over a million dollars this season. That said, there are several positive signs. The team has improved throughout the season, as have ticket sales. The supporter sections (yes, there are two) have grown and even spent the last game chanting through the entire match (a difficult feat to accomplish with only about 50 people. A Silverbacks player has been named either offensive or defensive player of the week in the NASL each of the last three weeks.

What does this say about the state of US soccer? You can’t look too much into it, but conditions are certainly better now than they were five years ago. If the Silverbacks qua team and organization can be used any sort of microcosmic evidence (cue tie-in with the fractal geometry mentioned in the first paragraph), then there does seem to be a few rays of sunlight peeking through the thickset, Southern afternoon clouds.

In Part III of Monkey Business, we’ll take a look at how the current roster was put together, from coach all the way down the ladder.

[1] That’s not entirely true. There was a professional team operating in Atlanta in the late 80s/early 90s called the Atlanta Attack. They played first in the American Indoor Soccer Association and then in the National Professional Soccer League until 1991 when the team moved to Kansas City.

[2] The team actually made it to the League Finals that year. During the regular season, there were no draws. All games which finished regular time tied went to a penalty shootout. But a penalty shootout win only counted for two points (like in ice hockey now). The league final was a best out of three series that Atlanta lost, two games to one. Soccer and hockey really are trading positions.

[3] Floundering = a lot of discontent among several teams over how the league was being run; dissatisfaction with the instability brought on by several teams coming into and out of the league at a rapid pace.

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2 Responses to Monkey Business, Part II

  1. Anne says:

    Let’s get into the WayBack Machine and go back to 1966 – when Dick Cecil of the Atlanta Braves organization brought professional soccer to Atlanta in the form of The Atlanta Chiefs. The Chiefs played in both the NPSL and NASL and won the 1968 NASL championship. Phil Woosnam played for the Chiefs, then coached the Chiefs and went on to become league commissioner. I believe he was also integrally involved with the development of soccer (at all levels) not only in Georgia, but throughout the US.

  2. wojteck says:

    Excellent article. MLS top notch ;)

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