News - Silver linings

Checking out men’s soccer, the new game in town

It’s a beautiful night for Silverbacks soccer. It’s a beautiful night for anything: 70 degrees, light wind, no humidity. Unheard of in Atlanta in summer. Looking out across the football-turned-soccer field at DeKalb Memorial Stadium, the only vista is thick, dense, deep green pines. One would never know that Memorial Drive and its gas stations, fast-food restaurants and auto parts stores are scant yards away.

The crowd, such as it is, begins to materialize. Almost every group of fans can commandeer a concrete grandstand row to themselves. Silverbacks regulars, a category that appears to cover everyone, lug seat cushions and sand chairs to soften the hard, rough, backless seating. A couple of guys keep up a rhythmic beat on a large drum, a snare drum and a cow bell, their festive amateur band far superior to the canned noise of Philips Arena and Turner Field.

Almost everyone carries a white plastic shopping bag containing a newly-purchased Silverbacks souvenir shirt, a red and black quasi tie-dye job reminiscent of the Lithuanian Olympic men’s basketball team outfitted by the Grateful Dead. Almost everyone has food. Almost every group includes kids. Little kids, about 4 or 5 years old.

Up in the press box, reachable by a pair of steep — I mean practically vertical — metal ladders, white paper tablecloths are thoughtfully draped over the concrete writing surfaces. The California blond to my right drinking a Bud Light is Silverbacks forward Quinton Hart. He won’t be playing tonight, so he’s keeping stats.

What stats? “Just who scores,” he says. How time-consuming could that be, given the lack of scoring in soccer? In fact, Hart spends most of the first half of the game entertaining the stream of kids clambering through. And loving it, from what I can see.

Kids are the focal point of Silverbacks soccer. Kids greet the players as they take the field. They are encouraged to play as the game is in progress, not only in, on and around a giant inflatable soccer ball at one corner of the field, but also on the track surrounding the field. Some days, the team practices early in the morning, allowing the players to conduct soccer camps in the afternoon.

For a season that begins with training camp at the end of March and runs through the playoffs in October, players in this league, the top tier of the United Soccer Leagues system, earn anywhere from $1500 to $4000 a month, plus incentives. No standard contracts, no guaranteed contracts, although some players’ contracts stipulate that they cannot be cut due to injury. “It’s enough,” Hart says, breaking into a huge grin. “For a bachelor.” Especially because the Silverbacks provide apartments for the players.

A little cash, a place to crash, free beer and all the kids you can teach. Life is good.

The soccer? That could be better. But that is the point. The Silverbacks are A-League, part of a grand plan to turn the United States into a soccer nation. I wonder, though, given our national star-driven professional sports psyche, whether that is possible.

If you want to see the best and most recognizable soccer players in the country, Memorial Stadium is the wrong place. The stars play at Georgia Tech: the Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association. The Silverbacks entertain a couple of hundred fans; the Beat draws a couple thousand. Still, it takes Mia Hamm’s appearance to make a significant dent in the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (A word to the wise hoping to see her and her Washington team at Tech this Saturday: 15,000 fannies in the seats means a dearth of parking on the streets.)

The Silverbacks’ biggest crowd of the season came June 18 when they beat the MLS Tampa Bay Mutiny in exhibition. Now, a week later, the Silverbacks and division-leading Charleston Battery play tentatively. As is true of the caliber of play in the minor leagues of any sport, speed and authority are scarce.

A loose affiliation with the MLS is more likely to mean that an injured pro may get in game shape here than that one of today’s Silverbacks will be tomorrow’s Tony Meola. Not that Silverbacks fans care. The stars are out, the mosquitoes are not and the parking is only $3. Can’t top that.

Hot shots/What’s hot in Atlanta sports
Don’t you know Pete Babcock is thanking his lucky stars for Dick Versace? If not for the Memphis Grizzlies’ blabby president of basketball operations who ignored the NBA gag rule in place until July 18 — Babcock would have spent three weeks defending his drafting of Pau Gasol instead of basking in the glow of having pulled off the stunning trade for Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

What will happen to college basketball if every 18-year-old with potential opts for the NBA? -- The student-athletes will actually be student athletes, that’s what. And maybe the college game will improve if teams stay together for longer than a season.

4.67 -- Braves bullpen’s collective earned run average with John Rocker.

1.11 -- The pen’s ERA without him.

Want to bet -- that Vince Dooley outlasts UGA president Michael Adams?

Fantasy league -- Who would you rather have drafting your team: Michael Jordan or Jerry Krause?

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