The Atlanta Silverbacks grinded out a thrilling 3-2 win over Guatemalan side Club Xelaju MC Saturday night in an international friendly played in front of a sellout crowd of 5,000 fans at Atlanta Silverbacks Park.
Saturday’s exhibition match represented the Silverbacks’ final test of the midseason break, with NASL Fall Season play starting next weekend. Head Coach Brian Haynes named a strong starting lineup featuring most of the players that figure to be on the field against Minnesota United FC on August 3. Defender Willie Hunt filled the void left by Mark Bloom, who departed for Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC on loan earlier this month.
The Silverbacks, NASL’s Spring Season Champions, picked up right where they left off and applied immeditate pressure on the visiting defense. The pressure didn’t take long to pay off, with the Silverbacks grabbing the early lead in the 7th minute. After earning a free kick in a dangerous area, the Silverbacks found themselves with a good look at goal from 25 yards out. Midfielder Danny Barrera was the one to take it, and he made no mistake, curling his effort off the under side of the crossbar and into the net to give his team a 1-0 lead.
After conceding an early goal, Xelaju started to control the possession and create some quality scoring opportunities. Despite being kept busy by the Xelaju attack, Silverbacks goalkeeper Joe Nasco wasn’t forced into any terribly difficult saves, but that changed in the 24th minute. Forward Israel Silva got on the end of a pass just seven yards from goal, but his effort was somehow pushed wide by an onrushing Nasco.
Nasco made an even more incredible save just five minutes later, denying a looping header from forward Edgar Chinchilla. The Guatemalan’s effort came from a well-placed corner kick, and forced Nasco to tip the ball over the crossbar with his outstretched arms.
The first half was back-and-forth, however, and it was the Silverbacks who created the game’s next golden opportunity in the 33rd minute. Midfielder Pablo Cruz played forward Brad Stisser in on goal, but despite having only Xelaju goalkeeper Minor Alvarez to beat, his near post effort was tame and ended up as an easy save.
The Silverbacks came out of the locker room following halftime with a purpose, and less than ten minutes into the half, the ball was in the back of Xelaju’s net again. In the 53rd minute, midfielder Milton Blanco played a beautiful cross-field pass to Borfor Carr to set up the goal. Carr then found Barrera, who curled the ball past Alvarez for his second goal of the game.
The 2-0 score would hold, but only until the 70th minute when the visitors sliced the Silverbacks’ advantage in half. Silva forced substitute goalkeeper Eric Ati into a huge save from a free kick, but midfielder Julio Estacuy was there on the doorstep to tap it in.
The second half was quickly proving to be just as back-and-forth as the first – only this time with plenty more goals. In the 72nd minute, the Silverbacks found the net once more. Cruz dribbled around three Xelaju defenders before crossing the ball into the path of substitute forward Alex Caceres. The Silverbacks trialist took the ball well, calmy depositing it into the corner of the net for a 3-1 lead.
The game continued to take dramatic turns, and in the 77th minute, Xelaju was again finding themselves back in the mix. Silverbacks defender Shane Moroney was adjudged to have taken down a Xelaju player just inside the edge of the box, giving the visitors a penalty. Silva was the one to take it, and he did well, firing it into the corner of the net to make the score 3-2.
Xelaju pressed forward in the final minutes in search of the equalizer, but it wasn’t to be, as the Silverbacks back line stayed strong and grinded out the win. The team will hope to carry momentum from the game into NASL Fall Season play, which begins on August 3 against Minnesota United FC at the NSC Stadium.