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Silverbacks look to get underdog monkey off backs

More than 27,000 people tuned in to the 2011 USL W-League final on Fox Soccer Channel as the dark horse Atlanta Silverbacks romped to a 6-1 victory over the Ottawa Fury last August. Among those in the viewing audience were… the Atlanta Silverbacks.

“The irony was that the final was played on tape delay, so we actually were home,” head coach Chris Adams said. “We flew in and basically watched it on TV.”

In the lead-up to the game, the broadcast team built up a David versus Goliath scenario as they hyped the Fury, their undefeated season and league scoring leader Mallory Outerbridge, hinting a lopsided result might be in the works at the expense of the team from Atlanta. Adams and the team watched the game with the knowledge that they had taken the title, but still a little shell-shocked.

“They’re talking about the juggernaut of Ottawa that’s undefeated,” Adams said of the commentary. “Did we feel snubbed? Absolutely. They definitely underestimated us,” he continues with a slight grin, “the announcers and maybe our opponent.”

It’s a of theme of minimization that sticks with the team despite a five-year run of consecutive division titles, which includes three final four appearances. Yet the team still remains a relative unknown to many people.

An awards banquet to kick-start the final four weekend unintentionally turbocharged a team already riding a wave of playoff momentum into Seattle. For some who may not know, a Silverback is a gorilla. As a general rule you don’t want to poke them, tug their fur or really taunt them in any way – any zoo keeper will tell you this.

The league banquet landed a haymaker squarely on this gorilla’s nose.

In spite of a dominant one-loss season in which they outscored their division opponents 25-5, on the strength of seven clean sheets, only one Silverback player walked away with any hardware. Forward Megan Tomlinson earned her second consecutive appointment to the All-League Team. The rest of the team sat by as the awards were divvied out amongst players from other teams.

“It was a bit humbling, truthfully, to sit there at a banquet where only one of your players was really identified for their contribution,” Adams said.

Although Adams says his team doesn’t play for individual accolades, he also concedes “Yeah, it became a bit of a driving force.” The team put its collective head down the next day and ran straight at a tough Vancouver Whitecaps team before stunning everyone in the final with the largest margin of victory in the 17-year history of the W-League Championship.

“We left Seattle with the biggest award you could have in the championship trophy. That was obviously very satisfying and gratifying to walk out of there after being underestimated,” Adams said. “And you obviously couldn’t question the result in the final, being 6-1.”

As the 2012 season gets underway, however, the Silverbacks do not return as the Kings of the Jungle. Rather, they come back to a league set ablaze by a massive influx of former WPS and U.S. National Team players. With teams such as Seattle Sounders, D.C. United and Pali Blues among those stockpiling top-tier athletes, all the attention this pre-season has been on the dispersal of superstars and not on Atlanta’s title defense.

Instead of joining the frenzy to sign marquee names for his club, though, Adams, now wearing the General Manager hat as well, spent the off-season scouring the region for young players who are relative unknowns on the national stage. He’s working on addressing an issue that plagued the team last season: Depth.

“Depth would be the weakness of our group,” Adams said of the team that lost a third of its roster over the course of the summer. “But what speaks to the character of the group we had was that it became sort of a rallying cry. We went (to the playoffs) with 16. We had to make the decision that once we got down to that core of 16, that was the group that was committed and had each other’s back. That core of 16, we played our very best soccer when it counted and continued to just get better as the season wore on. It’s a bit of a scare and makes it even a bit more miraculous that we were able to do what we did.”

The coach, entering his fourth year at the Silverbacks’ helm, feels a younger, hungrier player may be more inclined to stick with the club not just through a full season, but maybe for several consecutive years. It’s part of what Adams considers an ideal blend: Youthful enthusiasm mixed with experienced, hard-working leaders who return year-after-year.

The 2012 season does have a few other quirks in store for the team, however. Three expansion teams joined the league this year, all in neighboring states, which allowed the creation of a more regional Southeast Division (last year’s Atlantic Division saw the team traveling as far as Dayton, Ohio). Joining VSI Tampa Flames, FC Jax Destroyers and Central South Carolina Cobras in the new division will be perennial rivals Charlotte Lady Eagles. In each of the past three seasons, one of the two teams has eliminated the other in the Eastern Conference playoffs. With Charlotte returning less than half last season’s players, the new-look Eagles will provide even more unpredictability in the Southeast.

Although this year’s opposition is an unknown quantity at this point, the schedule offers the Silverbacks some advantage in that their opening game will come a week after Charlotte and Tampa have already played their opener in North Carolina. Additionally, Atlanta’s first four games will be at Silverbacks Park, giving them the comforts of home as they feel out the new opposition. The flip side, though, is the team will play 5 of its last 6 games on the road with the one home game coming against the same Lady Eagles who served the Silverbacks their sole defeat in 2011 (at home, no less). And what better way to end the season than to play Charlotte on the road in a game that likely will decide both teams’ playoff fates?

Adams says he isn’t too worried about the uncertainty on the horizon for the team, though.

“Right now our focus has to be on preparing ourselves and just doing what we need to do to be at the top of our game,” he said. “I’ve always felt with the Silverbacks we always get so many returning players that we’re always talented enough, that we need to focus on ourselves and what we need to do.”

With tryouts wrapping up early this week and a few returning players still undecided, the team have yet to announce a roster for the season, but Adams said he has several surprises in his back pocket. Stay tuned to EqualizerSoccer.com for a roster breakdown once the official announcement is made.

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