Silverbacks are back

The Atlanta Silverbacks men's soccer team is back after a two-year hiatus. During their self-imposed break they learned a few lessons that they are applying during their re-launch, which continues Wednesday with a preseason home game against Clayton State.

Aside from trying to make the playoffs, the team, now a part of the North American Soccer League, is focusing on two areas: improving its community relations and improving its player relations.

"We understand that we are here to serve the community with a team," said Rodrigo Rios, a former Silverbacks player who now is the director of soccer operations.

The international segments of Atlanta's population are showing a keen interest in the team, which includes players from Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland, Argentina, Japan and the United States.

Close to 300 season tickets have been sold. ESPN Deportes will broadcast the team's home games on 1100 AM, and several Spanish-language newspapers, including Mundo Hispanico, plan to regularly cover the team.

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"From what I've heard, the Spanish community will be at most of our games," said midfielder Lucas Paulini, an Argentinean who played at Virginia Commonwealth.

The players are doing their part to improve community relations. The team recently held a training session in which it invited children work out with the team. The team also plans to hold free clinics at various sites around Atlanta.

"We need to work together," Rios said. "In the past, we didn't have a very good relationship with the community. We are trying to change that mentality. People are being really receptive to that."

The Silverbacks ceased playing two years ago because they were dissatisfied with the structure of the USL, which they said was more focused on growing the league than the teams. The franchise applied to join the NASL in 2010.

The NASL was attractive because not only does it allow franchises more freedom to grow, but it's also considered higher-quality soccer. It is a tier below the MLS, similar to Triple-A baseball to the big leagues.

Like any new team, the players said every practice teaches them something new about their teammates' tendencies. The Silverbacks hope to play a possession-style of offense that is en vogue now, based upon the success that Spain, Holland and some domestic clubs are successfully using.

Two Silverbacks players, Milton High graduate Tyler Ruthven and Atlanta resident Emsad Zahirovic, who moved to the city from Bosnia in 2000, said it's nice to know that they are in a stable professional situation and playing in their hometown after spending most of the past few years playing either in college or for numerous pro or semi-pro teams around the country.

"I had a couple other options, but I thought it would be cool to play here," said Ruthven, son of former Braves pitcher Dick Ruthven. "I haven't been home in so long. It's been since I was 17."

***

Silverbacks vs. Clayton State

When: 4:30 p.m.

Where: Silverbacks Park, 3200 Atlanta Silverbacks Way, Atlanta, 30340

Tickets: Free for preseason games

Season tickets: Plans run from $150-$300. A platinum package is available for $2000 (four tickets to all men's, women's, and reserve games, VIP Parking, Silverbacks apparel, etc).

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