By Charles Cuttone
Wrapping up playoff berth early is usually what teams in most sports strive for. It gives them a chance to rest some starters, heal a few injuries and maybe be better prepared for the postseason.
In the case of the Atlanta Silverbacks, Spring winners of the north American's Soccer League's unique split-season format, the team has known since July 4 they would be playing in and hosting the November 9 Soccer Bowl.
"I think that has been our challenge the second half of the season," said Silverbacks defender Beto Navarro.
"The first part of the season we kind of found our groove, our rhythm. Towards the end of the spring season, that was when we were able to close it out and fortunately win it."
While the Silverbacks have had a long wait to get to the Soccer Bowl, their clinching of the first half didn't actually come until more than 15 minutes after they had completed their last game, a 3-0 win in Minnesota. They clinched the title later on, when the San Antonio Scorpions registered a 2-0 win over the Carolina RailHawks.
Interestingly, according to Silverbacks coach Brian Haynes, the win was more important than what it brought.
"When we went to Minnesota and we played the game the way we played, we won it the way we won it, I was very happy," said Haynes, a former Trinidad & Tobago international now in his second year as head coach of the Silverbacks.
"Winning the league, winning the Spring, that was a bonus. To me, the way the guys played that game, that was the crowning jewel for me, because that’s what I wanted them to do all year long, and we finally did it. I was satisfied with that. It’s a cherry on the top to realize, we did something special and we are getting honored for it. But in all reality, in all honesty, I was very happy with just the fact that we did what we wanted to do with the game."
That win gave Atlanta a one-point lead over both Carolina and San Antonio. Had the result gone Carolina's way, they would have booked a spot in the final.
Haynes says he likes the split-season format, but in a way feels bad for the second-runners.
"That's difficult for them," he said. "They've done well in the Spring and it means nothing. A team the likes of a, let's say Tampa, was right up there (in the Fall) and Cosmos are right up there now, they have a chance to meet us in the final and they haven't had as good a season overall as these other teams. That's difficult for them, and for example, me understanding what I needed to do and I did it. I feel kind of bad for the other teams, but you know what, all the teams knew going into it, this was the way it was going to be, and now they are just going to have to deal with it."
Being the first-half champions has created some challenges for the Silverbacks, not the least of which is they did not play particularly well at the start of the Fall half after a nearly month long break from competition, but it also left Haynes with some choices to make during the break.
"It was difficult for me, because yeah, we won it, and now everyone wants to come play for us," Haynes said. "All these players wanted to come and try out."
Haynes brought in several new players -- Josh Suggs, Ferrety Sousa, Alex Caceres and Jesus Gonzalez -- while Mark Bloom was loaned out to Toronto FC. The biggest change however is bringing Ruben Luna back to the team after he left during the spring to pursue opportunities in Europe. The team also has benefitted from the return of Lucas Paulini, who missed the entire spring with a knee injury.
But the time off had different effects on the players.
"It has been a bit challenging to adapt to that, finding that purpose again, finding that hunger to want to win again," said Navarro.
It was Haynes’ job to make sure the team found that hunger again, and after starting slowly, the team has started to move back up the table, sitting in a two-way tie for third place, only one point out of a three-way tie for second.
" We said look, if we are going to go into the final we are not going to go into it limping," Haynes explained. "Let's go in there knowing that we can compete with any team and every team that we go to play against we want to start putting it to them--that we mean business."