In the late 1980s, Brian Haynes, then a star midfielder for Atlanta Attack, the city's now-defunct professional indoor soccer team, traveled to Lawrenceville for a game. At the time, soccer in metro Atlanta, arguably even in America, was something of a novelty. A woman asked Haynes if he was "one of the boys who bounce that ball off your heads?"
Today, Haynes is the new coach of the Atlanta Silverbacks. He says the thousands of fans who regularly fill the team's multi-million dollar complex near Spaghetti Junction for games are educated, and honest, about the sport.
"If they want to see someone on the field they'll let me know," he says with a smile as players from as far away as Jordan pass the soccer ball on the field behind him, hoping to earn a spot on next year's squad.
Haynes was named head coach last August at the recommendation of Eric Wynalda, a former U.S. Men's National Team star and TV analyst who served as interim coach over the summer. In April, Haynes kicks off his first full season with the team.
Founded in 1995, the Silverbacks have occupied an interesting corner in Atlanta's sports landscape. The scrappy operation, both on the field and in the team's seven-member front office, has built a fan base whose attendance last year was only rivaled by one other team in the North American Soccer League (the second division in the country's so-called "soccer pyramid" underneath Major League Soccer) — the San Antonio Scorpions.
From April until September, supporters flock to the 5,000-seat stadium to watch athletes from around the country and the world play high-quality soccer. Last year, the team finished 7-9-12 and doubled its game attendance and the number of season ticket holders. Yes, the local sports scene is still dominated by the big three — the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks — but the Silverbacks has the loyalty of its hardcore supporters, and continues to pique their interest with logo design contests and public votes for the team's name.
Haynes wants more. Recently, he had an "open-eye dream" of stands rising from the ground along the goal ends of the Silverbacks field, completely surrounding the pitch with fans. The 50-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago, who's spent his entire professional soccer career playing in the United States, is taking the next four months to build the rest of the team before its first season game against the Scorpions. The former midfielder not only wants to create a winning squad, but also show players that they can move to the so-called "next level" — Major League Soccer, or any of the other overseas leagues. It's happened before: Last year, 22-year-old Silverbacks defender Chris Klute was scooped up by the MLS' Colorado Rapids.
"I'm not doing this for me anymore," he says. "I'm really and truly doing this for the players so they can do everything I've done and more." Soccer fans pining for an MLS franchise in Atlanta should take notice of the Silverbacks. Or at least wish Haynes the best in leading the team to championships.
MLS has signaled in recent years that it'd like a presence in the Southeast, where interest in soccer is strong, and has looked at several cities, including Atlanta. In the past, the league has sometimes turned to existing, lower-level teams with built-in fan bases to make the jump. The best way to grow that fan base and keep hardcore supporters happy — and attract the MLS' attention — is to win. And considering that Arthur Blank has directed architects jockeying for the job of designing the new Atlanta Falcons stadium to include offices for an MLS franchise, you could argue there's support in high places for a top-flight pro team.
Haynes, however, remains focused on the upcoming season, and is looking forward to April 6, when the Silverbacks will "kick San Antonio's butt."