It all comes down to three teams, two games and one night. The Atlanta Silverbacks will play their last game of the NASL Spring Season on Thursday night against Minnesota United FC at the NSC Stadium. It’s a crucial matchup that could determine the Spring Season title and the host of November’s Soccer Bowl – the league’s championship game.
In contention with the Silverbacks are the first-place Carolina Railhawks and the third-place San Antonio Scorpions, who will do battle against each other at Toyota Field in San Antonio on Thursday night. To make proceedings even more dramatic, the RailHawks and Scorpions will be kicking off 30 minutes after the Silverbacks and Minnesota United, meaning there could be some serious scoreboard watching going on.
“If we stick to the game plan in Minnesota, I think we’ll get a result that is favorable to us,” said Silverbacks Head Coach BRIAN HAYNES. “We don’t care where the goals from. It’s going to need to be a concentrated effort from all of the guys.”
A Silverbacks win, coupled with a RailHawks loss, would give Haynes’ team the first ever NASL Spring Season title and the advantage of hosting the Soccer Bowl in November. If the Railhawks defeat the Scorpions, however, then they would win the title outright, regardless of what the Silverbacks accomplish on Thursday night. The Scorpions still have a shot at the title as well, but they’ll need a win over the Railhawks and a Silverbacks loss.
The Silverbacks could also theoretically win the title even if the RailHawks draw in San Antonio, but they would have to make up the four-goal deficit in goal difference to make that a reality.
With the new split-season system – one that is used in many countries internationally, it has placed more significance on the regular season, creating this dramatic last week of games. It’s not often you see three teams vying for a title on the final match day.
“In all honesty, I’m very ecstatic of how well the boys have done, and I know finishing with a win is what we want to do,” Haynes said. “How well they’ve done the first half of the season is a credit to them and their hard work.”
The Silverbacks come into Thursday’s “4th of July” matchup in Minnesota on the heels of a heartwrenching 1-1 draw with the league-leading Railhawks. Silverbacks defender Bobby Reiss scored his first professional goal, getting on the end of a flicked header from forward Pedro Mendes to give the Silverbacks a big 1-0 advantage on the road. But a share of the points was on the cards, as the RailHawks pulled out another dramatic late-game equalizer. A corner kick from former Silverbacks midfielder Ciaran O’Brien found the head of midfielder Austin Da Luz, who powered home from the middle of the penalty area to clinch a 1-1 draw and keep first place in his team’s grasp going into the final week.
The draw was Carolina’s only blemish on an unbeaten home record at WakeMed Soccer Park this season, and the Silverbacks now travel to NSC Stadium where they have won only once since joining the NASL in 2011. That win did come in the last meeting between these two teams at the NSC Stadium – a 2-0 shutout last July under then interim head coach Eric Wynalda.
Thursday’s meeting will be the second of the season between the Silverbacks and Minnesota United, with the former looking for revenge after a disappointing 3-2 loss at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. The Silverbacks carried a 2-1 lead going into halftime thanks to goals from midfielder Milton Blanco and forward Ruben Luna, but Minnesota United stormed back behind goals from forward Simone Bracalello and midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan.
With the Silverbacks averaging only one goal a game over their last five, the team’s attack will look to get back on track against a Minnesota United defense that has given up 9 goals in their last four games.
“I think that as forwards, we need to get our shots on frame and finish our opportunities,” said Silverbacks forward RUBEN LUNA. “If we keep the shots on frame, then anything can happen. It’s our job to finish them.”
The Silverbacks’ back line will look to veteran defenders Martyn Lancaster, Mark Bloom, and Mike Randolph to keep Brazilian marksman Pablo Campos in check. Silverbacks defender Beto Navarro, who has played every minute of every game this season, will be sorely missed after being sent off in stoppage time last weekend in Carolina.
In the biggest game of the season, the Silverbacks take on Minnesota United at the NSC Stadium in a must-win match that will take the NASL spring season down to the wire. Kickoff is at 8:00 p.m. ET, with the RailHawks and Scorpions kicking off thirty minutes later at 8:30 p.m. at Toyota Field. Both games can be seen online by clicking here.