Atlanta Silverbacks are in a very sticky situation... and management couldn’t be happier
The following article was written by Andrew Mosier and published in 90 Minutes Soccer Magazine
“Creating an environment encouraging men, women, amateurs, professionals, our youth and adults to come together for the good of the game.” So reads the Atlanta Silverbacks mission statement. A utopian vision that is slowly, and successfully, coming to fruition.
This mission, that is only now truly taking shape, began in the early ’90s when
Stephen Pratten , Boris Jekunicia, John Latham, the ownership group of the club, and a handful of others began debating what was necessary for the game to thrive in the United States. “In the , the game is so segmented,” says Pratten, club president, who represented at the youth level before coming to the to attend
University in the early ’80s. “It seems like everyone in the sport is fighting each other—youth leagues, amateur leagues, professional leagues—in order for the sport to grow, the various factions have to work together.”
Pratten and company figured the best way to start was from the top. They acquired the operating rights to the folded USL side, the Atlanta Ruckus, and in 1999 fielded the first Silverbacks squad. But along with the professional team, they began fielding youth and amateur adult teams under the club banner; something still uncommon among American professional franchises. Now, there are nearly 4,000 people playing within the Silverbacks organization. “We cover the entire spectrum of soccer,” says Pratten. “From recreational under-four mini-soccer leagues up to adult recreational leagues, elite youth teams, women’s W-League and a professional men’s team.”
With the creation of the all-encompassing club, the Silverbacks are not only offering a place for people to play, but also hopefully planting the seed of long-term support for the game and the Silverbacks, something Pratten feels is necessary for the game to continue to grow in this country. “Though we want to excel with the elite teams, the recreational programs are just as, if not more important, because that’s the majority of the people playing,” Pratten says. “If you look around the world, it’s not the relatively few players who almost made the professional squad that are the fans, it’s the thousands of people who never were going to make it—it’s the legions of recreational players who are the biggest supporters. They are the ones who become fans because they have a passion for the game, not because they were once good players.”
Because of its size, the club has been broken down into separate divisions within the organization: the USL First Division team; the W-League team; professional development teams—the elite youth program which competes in the highly competitive USL Super Y League; competitive youth divisions; the Silverbacks Sports Center, an indoor facility offering two full-sized indoor soccer fields, roller hockey, flag football, volleyball and other activities; Silverbacks Park, the complex the club is building; and the Silverbacks Youth Foundation, the non-profit arm of the club that runs all of the recreational youth programs.
With the groundwork of the club in place, the next step was to create
Park —home for the nearly 100,000 strong in
Atlanta ’s soccer community. Located on a 20-acre plot of land in the heart of suburban Atlanta along one of the heaviest traveled interstates in the country, the organization is in the midst of a four-phase, multi-million dollar development process that Silverbacks
director of marketing
Laura Fedrigo hopes will someday be “the Home Depot Center of the East.”
Phase one of the project saw the installation of three playing fields, two field-turf fields and one grass field on the site, completed last year. Because of the large number of public fields throughout
Atlanta and limited available real estate, the club opted not to build a large-scale complex featuring multiple fields as F.C. Dallas did at
Park . Phase two, expected to be completed in the early spring of 2006, is the construction of a 2,500 capacity stadium complete with locker rooms, concessions and parking. The “mini- stadium” will serve as home to both the USL and the W-League sides next year; both of which had been playing in the decrepit DeKalb Memorial Stadium. Phase three, which has also begun, is the construction of a sporting club that will include a swimming pool, tennis courts, 30,000 square feet of office and retail space, and a restaurant and bar. Phase four will be the construction of a 15,000-20,000-seat stadium, which has a tentative 2007 completion date.
The success, professionally at least, of soccer in
Atlanta hinges on
Park . In the seven-year history of the professional side, the Silverbacks have only made the playoffs twice, in 2001 and 2002. This year, led by former MLS All-Star Alex Pineda-Chacon, the club finished in eighth place in the USL Division One 12 team table going 10-15-3. But it is widely believed that will change with the opening of the facility, due in part to what is seen as a newfound ability to attract and retain quality players. “I think they have a better vision of the future than a lot of clubs,” says Silverbacks goalkeeper Joe Barton. Barton spent the 2003 season as a developmental player with the Los Angeles Galaxy before joining
Atlanta in 2004.
“Players are going to want to come play here.” Unlike most USL teams, which do not have their own facilities, everything will be centralized at the park creating a truly professional environment—something essentially absent even in much of the American top flight. It is hoped this newfound professionalism will afford the Silverbacks the luxury of creating a nucleus of players from which to develop a certain amount of continuity from year to year, a problem in the highly transient USL, and to which fans can become attached. “We’re looking at guys who want to come here and stay for more than a season,” says head coach Jason Smith. “We need to have players here for more than a season or two. It makes for better soccer, and it gives the fans someone to cheer for. It puts the game at more of a personable level.” And because of the inclusion of youth soccer within the organization, paid coaching opportunities are more readily available for players, making it economically feasible for them to stay in
Atlanta year-round. “For so long, players have had to bounce back and forth between indoor and outdoor to make a living,” says Fedrigo. “We’re creating an environment where players can stay here year-round and focus on their outdoor game.” Player development is also something the organization is betting on heavily. “We will have the luxury of seeing players rise through the ranks, from the youth recreational leagues to the elite teams, and on up to the professional teams,” says Pratten. Though the men’s team has yet to sign a player brought up through the club, four players on the women’s team were previously part of the organization’s youth program.
So the seeds of a soccer club unlike that of any other in the country have been sown and is by all indications, flourishing. What’s next is the task of boosting attendance for the professional branch of the club that in 2004 ranked fourth to the bottom in the league, averaging just 1,625 people per game. “Playing at DeKalb Memorial brought our professionalism into question because it was such an old place with such a bad field,” says Fedrigo. “It’s hard to get fans out to watch a game at a place where the people they are there to watch don’t want to be playing there. A lot of our players looked forward to playing on the road because the stadium was so bad.” The aforementioned venue featured a cement grandstand with no actual seats, and an absurdly narrow, mostly-dirt field covered with American football lines that the Silverbacks shared with a community college and a number of high school football teams. “Now we can create an atmosphere that is enjoyable for everyone. First in the mini-stadium, and as we build our fan base, we can carry that over to the larger facility,” says Fedrigo.
With the opening of the new facility, the Silverbacks will also begin an aggressive marketing campaign in hopes to become more visible in a market in which they are competing against the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Thrashers, the
Georgia , Georgia Tech, and NASCAR for media attention. But in a major league city, it is all but impossible for a second-tier team to garner even minimal media attention. However, with the completion of the full-sized stadium comes the possibility of moving to the top-tier of American soccer, MLS, a topic on which no one in the organization would directly comment on, though hints of future promotion of the club in the not so distant future were prevalent. “It is our goal to bring top-level soccer to the people of
Atlanta ,” says Pratten. “Though when that will take place exactly is hard to say.”