Monkey Business, Part III

It’s tough building a professional sports team under any circumstances. It’s especially tough building a franchise in an area without a lot of money to throw behind the particular sport; without a reputation for producing top soccer talent; for a league complicated by issues of ownership and a serious rival league; completely from scratch. When the Atlanta Silverbacks temporarily disbanded late in 2008, they gutted the organization, leaving only the ownership (Jerkunica, et. al), with one exception, Rodrigo Rios, whose longevitous Silverbacks career was rewarded by being named Director of Football.

They decided on a coach, Jose Manuel Abundis, who was best known as a prolific scorer in the Mexican La Primera Division and for the Mexican national team. If you were sports conscious in the 90s and into soccer enough to be reading this blog, you might remember Abundis from the 1999 Confederations Cup Final against Brazil. He scored against a squad that included Ronaldo and Ronaldinho en route to a thrilling 4-3 win. He played a year in the MLS and was active as recently as 2008. Strong and compact, Abundis brings a firecracker sensibility to the position (he certainly doesn’t have the sangfroid of Wenger or Ancelotti). I’ve seen him viciously berate refs on dubious calls; he was given a touchline ban twice during the 2011 season.

The players were culled from every whichaway, though mostly through combines. The roster includes a collection of mostly American talent, former stand-outs (not quite elites) from colleges who got drafted in the later rounds by MLS teams; players from other NASL/USL teams looking for increased playing time; a few guys who made it through the combine. To illustrate one journey, the Backs’ number 10, Lucas Paulini, was born and raised in Buenos Aires. He moved to the states in 2007 to pursue a scholarship at the ancient Tusculum College; from there, he transferred to the higher profile Virginia Commonwealth, before eventually making his way to the Mississippi Brilla[1], a USL development side. He came to Atlanta for the combine, and made the team.

None of it would matter, however. Even if you had stocked the Silverbacks with more talented players, it’s not certain they could have put in a top-half-of-the-table-performance in the NASL this year. In the 2010 version of the New York Times Year in Ideas, Brian Phillips detailed the notion (based on the Barcelona/Spain success) that the more players from the same club team played for the same country, the higher the demonstrable success of that country. It makes sense: the more players play together, the more they know each others styles, can predict where and when each other will be, can anticipate passes and movements in such a way that other less experienced can’t keep up. The Silverbacks were the only team in the NASL to completely scrap their roster ahead of the renaissance of the league. It’s in no way coincidental that the Silverbacks had far and away the worst record in the league this season.

Look across pro-sports, especially in America, where expansion teams in major sports are a fact of life. Expansion teams are often given first picks, top talent (to an extent), and other incentives to make them more competitive. They almost always fail miserably in their first few seasons. The idea of a core is an underrated one in pro-sports. If you have a bunch of guys who are used to playing with each other, they’re going to be better off than a bunch of guys who aren’t, all things being equal. Even if all things aren’t equal, the bunch of guys used to playing with each other might still win out. This probably explains why Duke, a school that is unusually good at retaining it’s talent, tends to always be good at college basketball; why the 2010-2011 Miami Heat, who had unquestionably the most talented and athletically gifted side, were unable to win an NBA championship; why Barcelona (almost) always beats Real Madrid; why the Tampa Bay Rays are capable of toppling the much higher spending Red Sox or Yankees.

The 2011 Silverbacks lacked a core. It wasn’t their fault, they just weren’t capable of having one. I went to six or seven matches over the course of the season. I was always surprised by the fact that the Silverbacks would lose without getting noticeably pounded. While in possession, they were sharp; they moved the ball around well; physically, they were no smaller or slower than the opposition (with a few exceptions); a few rogue formations aside, they didn’t seem to be tactically naive. They were just not capable of winning. They lacked the cutting edge and steel required to score goals when it mattered. I remember watching a 3-2 loss against FC Tampa Bay in June: the Backs came back twice to tie the score, and yet a winner for Tampa just felt so inevitable. I got that feeling a lot last year watching Aston Villa, where Gerard Houllier’s attempts to rebuild the team seemed to de-emphasize the core Martin O’Neill worked so hard to build. Villa gave up an obscene amount of goals last year, using the same defensive pair they use now.

All this is not to make an excuse for the way the team performed. A lot of naivete was exorcised on the pitch this season, across the board. Improvements were made. A core is developing. The team will be holding open combines again this fall, but in the early stages of looking at the following season, there is a lot to be hopeful for.

[1] Brilla is the Spanish word for “Shine,” and is taken from the Brilla Soccer Ministries, who’s goal is to spread Christianity through soccer.

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