When the Atlanta Silverbacks begin preseason training camp in Atlanta on Saturday, the team will be looking to rekindle the spirit and momentum with which they ended the 2012 season. With a returning group largely made up of players who made a clear impact on the team’s midseason turnaround last year, the Silverbacks aren’t just hoping to achieve their first winning season since joining the NASL in 2011 – they’re hoping to win it all.
Under the guidance of head coach Brian Haynes, who heads into his first full season in charge, the Silverbacks have a new outlook in 2013. Very much a player’s coach, Haynes will hope to continue the family-like atmosphere that he helped create last season. He’ll have some familiar faces on the team that will help him do that, with 15 of the 17 signed players returning for another season in Atlanta.
Defender Mark Bloom, a native of Marietta, and midfielder Richie Menjivar, an El Salvador international, are the only two players thus far who are new to the squad in 2013. Haynes, along with Silverbacks Technical Director Eric Wynalda, are in the process of adding the final pieces to the puzzle, with only a few more roster spots remaining.
The team did lose some players this offseason. Forward Matt Horth signed with the New England Revolution, defender Chris Klute sealed a season-long loan move to the Colorado Rapids, and midfielder Ciaran O’Brien inked a contract with the Carolina RailHawks. The club also parted ways with goalkeeper Daniel Illyes, defenders Patrick Robertson and Jose Burciaga, Jr., midfielder Tony McManus and forward Reinaldo Navia.
The majority of the returning players will arrive in Atlanta on Thursday, many of them coming from recent training stints with MLS sides. Defender Beto Navarro spent time with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, midfielder Borfor Carr trained with the Chicago Fire, midfielders Milton Blanco and Danny Barrera were in preseason with Chivas USA, and forward Pedro Mendes gained experience with Toronto FC.
Players like goalkeepers Eric Ati and Joe Nasco, defenders Martyn Lancaster and Shane Moroney, and forward Jahbari Willis took advantage of their local ties and consistently trained as a group at Atlanta Silverbacks Park throughout the offseason. They were often times joined by other professional players who called Atlanta their offseason home such as Fort Lauderdale Strikers goalkeeper Matt Glaeser and Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Sticking with the goalkeeping position, the 2013 season presents both Ati and Nasco with opportunities that haven’t yet come up in their short professional careers. Neither goalkeeper has been a consistent starter in the professional ranks before, but Haynes has put his confidence in the pair, allowing them to compete for the top spot on the totem pole. Ati started three of the final four games last season, while Nasco got the nod in each of the team’s 2012 U.S. Open Cup games as well as a few other league games. The Silverbacks could possibly introduce a third goalkeeper into the mix at some point, but the starting job has either Nasco or Ati’s name on it.
Moving on to the Silverbacks defensive unit, the coaching staff seems to be taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. The Silverbacks back line ended the 2012 season in impressive fashion, earning four shutouts and conceding just four goals over their final seven games.
Veteran Lancaster leads the way as he enters his fourth season in a Silverbacks jersey. He’ll be joined by Moroney and Hunt, who started their professional careers here in 2011. Despite being defenders, both players have demonstrated a nose for the goal over the last two seasons. Hunt has been a dangerous option on set pieces, scoring five header goals in 2011 and 2012, while Moroney bagged three goals last season, including a two-goal performance at home against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Former Cal FC players Navarro and Mike Randolph also return for another season in Atlanta. Navarro was a standout on defense for the Silverbacks last season, and when healthy, Randolph showed why he made over 40 appearances for the LA Galaxy earlier in his career. Rounding out the defensive unit is Bloom, who brings a “workhorse” reputation over from USL side Charlotte Eagles.
Menjivar, who has already appeared in four full international matches for El Salvador in 2013, headlines the list of midfielders that will don Silverbacks colors this season. The American-born midfielder, 22, has garnered rave reviews from Wynalda and others, and will play as more of a holding midfielder in front of the back line. Menjivar, a native of Panorama City, California, will be joined in the midfield by at least two fellow Californians, Blanco and Pablo Cruz. Blanco will help patrol the defensive midfield, while Cruz will look to add creativity to the team’s attack.
As any follower of the sport knows, speed kills. Thankfully for the Silverbacks, they not only get Carr back, but they also return Jamaican midfielder Horace James. The pair will add tremendous pace to the team’s midfield, and for Carr, he’ll be looking to build on what some would consider a breakout year in 2012. The Liberian winger appeared in 22 games last season, scoring a pair of goals that included a spectacular effort against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers that ended up being nominated for NASL Play of the Year. Midfielder Lucas Paulini would normally be rounding out this group, but the Buenos Aires native tore his knee in the offseason – an injury that will sideline him for the majority of the 2013 season.
Rounding out the signed players heading into preseason training camp this weekend is the group of forwards: Mendes, Barrera, and Willis. Mendes, 22, turned heads last season when he tallied four goals in just eight appearances after coming over from the Rhode Island Reds of the NPSL. The Brazilian earned NASL Offensive Player of the Week honors following a two-goal performance in a 4-2 win over the Strikers. Barrera, who can play in the midfield or up top, is a former U.S. youth international. The Colombian-born attacker featured nine times for the Silverbacks last season, scoring an impressive goal in the team’s final game against the Puerto Rico Islanders. The former UC Santa Barbara standout also spent time on trial with English side Derby County FC last season.
While Barrera and Mendes are more technical, Willis brings strength and power to the Silverbacks attack. The Atlanta native signed with the pro team from the Silverbacks Reserves last season, and made an immediate impact under Wynalda when he was the team’s interim head coach. The 6-foot-3 forward assisted on both goals in the Silverbacks’ 2-0 win over Minnesota Stars FC in Blaine last season. Willis will be looking to fulfill his huge potential this season, hopefully serving as a viable replacement for Horth.
The aforementioned squad, plus a few more impending additions, will gather for the first time this Friday when the team has its first meeting. Following physicals on Saturday morning, the Silverbacks will train as team for the first time in 2013. Nearly every signed player will be in town this weekend, with a few others arriving early next week. Haynes’ side will be thrown into the fire quickly, with the team’s first scrimmage set for March 7 against Georgia Gwinnett College at Atlanta Silverbacks Park.
Here is the Silverbacks full preseason schedule:
- March 7: Georgia Gwinnett College – 2 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park
- March 9: Georgia State University – 2 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park
- March 16: University of Alabama-Birmingham – 2 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park
- March 24: Nashville FC – 4 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park
- March 30: Charlotte Eagles – 4 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park
All preseason games are free to the public. To purchase single-game or season tickets for the 2013 regular season, call the Silverbacks ticket office at 404-969-4900.