Sunday, August 12, 2007

Atlanta Silverbacks – Puerto Rico Islanders (10-08-2007)

On Friday morning I flew from
Brussels Airport to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport for a four week visit to my girlfriend/holiday in the US. After dropping off my stuff and resting a bit, I was happy to find myself in enough supply of energy to see a game of the local Atlanta Silverbacks that evening – it would be the only home game during the period that I could see. So, we entered the inevitable car and drove to the RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium on the outskirts of Atlanta.

Around 19.40 we drove up the sand road to the stadium, following a surprisingly long and slow line of cars (mostly SUV, this is the South!). RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium, at Silverbacks Park, is a long term project that is still in the process of building. At this stage the stadium holds just 3.000 people, but the goal is to expand it into a modern 15.000 seater arena. After 10 minutes I got out of the car to join the unorganized line in front of the ticket ‘office’. As with most US ‘soccer’ games, most spectators were families with young kids (girls or boys are almost equally represented), youth teams, and ‘Mexicans’ (the generic name for people from Central and Latin America). I decided to go for the $20 tickets, which turned out to cost $22.95 including tax! But the added tax, which is not indicated on the advertised prices, was not the only American aspect of the tickets… so was the sticker on the backside of the ticket:

Atlanta is sometimes called “Hotlanta”, because of the smothering heat in the summer, and this evening was a good example of this. Although the game started at 19.55 (no kidding!), it was still easily 27 degrees outside (and I’m not talking Fahrenheit!). Boy, was it hot!. We took our place in sector 107, not far away from the ‘infamous’ sector 109 ;-), the (ca. 50) hardcore fans of the Silverbacks.

Tonight the game was almost an international, given that the Atlanta Silverbacks played the Puerto Rico Islanders. This was a game in the USL First Division, i.e. the division under the Major League Soccer (MLS). While all sports games in the US are started with the playing of the Stars & Strips, the American national anthem, this game was preceded by two anthems: the Star Spangle Banner and La Borinqueña, the ‘national’ anthem of Puerto Rico (legally a “self governing unincorporated territory” of the US and not an independent country).

This points to a funny aspect of the ‘American’ football competitions. Whether MLS, USL1, USL2, or even the W-League (Women), the division includes mostly teams from the US (proper), but not exclusively! The Major League Soccer (MLS) counts teams from Canada (Toronto), the USL1 from Canada (Montreal and Vancouver) and Puerto Rico, the USL2 from Bermuda, and the W-League again from Canada (Laval, Ottowa, Sudbury, Toronto, Vancouver). Anyway, after the wordless versions of the national anthems, which didn’t encourage many of the 1.200-1.500 spectators to sing along, the game started.

While no American game is complete without an announcer shouting commercials at you every so many minutes, but this time we were ‘entertained’ even more, namely by a commentator who regularly told us what happened on the pitch – this might have been because the game was televised live as well, although my girlfriend’s alternative hypothesis is that most spectators understand little of the game and have to be explained what’s happening. Indeed, it seems that at least half of the adults in the stadium are parents of soccer-playing children with no or very limited knowledge of the beautiful game themselves.

What can I say of the quality of Second Division football in the US… possibly comparable to a good, but not top, level amateur game in Europe. To be honest, Grondhopper at various times thought he should have moved to the US at 21, as that must have been the only place where he could ever have had a professional football career. Nuff said! In addition to the poor level of play, the game was very slow, both the pace of the players and of their passing. While Atlanta was the somewhat ‘better’ side, Puerto Rico had the best chances at first, including a ball on the crossbar after 30 minutes. In the 42nd minute the young Senegalese striker Macoumba Kandji or “Mac” (predictably dubbed “the Mac Attack” by the commentator), who played only his second game for the Silverbacks, cut into the penalty area with a great dribble and was fouled: penalty. The arrogant young defender David Hayes didn’t waste this opportunity: 1-0 for the Silverbacks! Two minutes later Puerto Rico headed the ball just past the Atlanta post. Half time score: 1-0!

Now, normally I go for a snack hunt during half time, and one would imagine this to be a very pleasing activity in an American stadium. But not this time! While Americans eat themselves into obesity during baseball and football games, ‘soccer’ games tend to be fairly poorly catered for. This evening we would only have the option of cooled drinks (including Heineken and Heineken Light) and crisps. L We were entertained with a shoot-out for kids though. But the half time highlight was that I caught one of the balls that were shot in the audience (and the gratitude of the little boy I gave it too). Fair enough, most other men probably more enjoyed the celebration of the Atlanta Silverbacks Women Team, who were honored for their great season. Here is the proof that American women soccer looks a lot different than women football back in my days.

After waiting for over 20 minutes, the commentator announced the start of the second half as follows: “and we are televised and on our way”. The first 15 minutes little happened outside of the middle section of the pitch. Whenever the visitors would attack, the commentator would shout “come on defense”, probably in an attempt to explain soccer to basketball fans. Around the 60th minute the game started to pick up in excitement: a nice backheel flip of Atlanta was followed by a good shot of Puerto Rico and a close-range blocked shot of Puerto Rico. In the 73rd minute “Mac” started a beautiful action in the penalty box with his right foot and finished it in style with a left-footed shot in the far upper corner: 2-0! Just a couple of minutes later he would come one-on-one with the Puerto Rico goalie, but the latter held his cool and blocked the shot. Again a couple of minutes and a bicycle kick later Atlanta ended the game with a strong attack and skillful half-volley: 3-0!

At this point fans started to leave the stadium and walk up the hill to leave before the after-game fireworks. They missed little, except for a great reflex of the Puerto Rico Islanders goalie, definitely one of the best players of his team, who blocked a close-range shot in the low corner. Final score: 3-0 for the Silverbacks!

The family atmosphere of the game was even strengthened after the game, when the lights went out, and a 5-minute-fireworks show started. It might not have been the most impressive fireworks I have ever seen, but it did give a very friendly and cozy feel to the whole evening. So, quite satisfied, if tired, we made our way back to the car… and the air conditioning!

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