The NASL pulled the plug last night on the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Let's talk about a few things first before reminiscing.
MLS is not to blame for this. USSF is not to blame for this. The simple fact is that the team did not have an owner (it was funded by the league in 2015, and essentially was funded by the "league" when Traffic Sports was involved in 2011-2013). The NASL is growing as a league and teams are investing more money than ever before. While the budget was higher for the team last year as opposed to the earlier days, it was still the smallest in the league. That just wasn't going to work in the long term.
There were lots of mistakes made that eventually made it easier to fold after the 2008 season. There were external issues too, the whole USL/Team Owners Association/NASL split was starting to happen and the Silverbacks were at the forefront of that.
There was no talk of the team returning until a few months before they were brought back by Traffic Sports to complete the new NASL in 2011. That first season, and the first half of the 2012 season, were really tough to watch. Things began to change with Eric Wynalda coming into the picture in 2012, people were talking about the team on a regular basis and the product was much improved on the field.
Even with that, there was talk after every season that the team would fold. They came really close after 2013 and 2014. Ultimately, it wasn't going to work without committed local ownership that could invest at a comparable level to the other NASL teams.
Yes, Atlanta United's launch has changed the landscape now. The Silverbacks had issues well before they were on the scene though, and that is what ultimately ended it.
I feel bad for the players, coaching staffs, and front office who worked so hard over the last few years to make it work. It was like running uphill in quicksand, but they kept at it. They made it work as well as it possibly could have. They did everything that they could.
I feel bad for the kids who grew up as Atlanta Silverbacks fans. The Ruckus were my first experience cheering on an Atlanta pro soccer team, and I remember how I felt when they almost folded mid-season in 1996. Soccer playing kids had players to look up to on the Silverbacks. Especially recently, so many of the players took on that role extremely well and served as great role models.
Sadly, there weren't a ton of great memories on the field over the years, which also had an impact on the team's chances for survival. I'll remember the miracle run in 2007 to make the USL Championship and Ryan McIntosh having one of the best half seasons at goalkeeper I've ever seen. Macoumba Kandji was incredible to watch as a raw, young talent (which was later echoed by Kwadwo Poku). The 2013 Spring Season and Soccer Bowl were a great surprise.
The 2014 US Open Cup run is what I'll probably remember best. The electric atmosphere at Silverbacks Park and the late winner by Poku against RSL was one of the most exciting games I've seen in person. I'll never forget watching the insane game in Colorado against the Rapids, and holding on to a win with eight players on the field.
I have tons of great memories of Silverbacks Park. The team planted a lot of seeds that will bloom in the coming years. I hope that is remembered in the long run.
Atlanta soccer will be just fine, this isn't a referendum on Atlanta as a soccer city. This is a situation where a team without an owner couldn't find one. The NASL could only prop the team up for so long, it needed to stand on its own feet and it just couldn't.
It is a sad day for Atlanta soccer, the Silverbacks will be missed.