Silverbacks’ future cloudy with MLS on horizon

The Silverbacks will host New York for the North American Soccer League’s championship Saturday.

While the present seems strong — the game is expected to sell out with 7,100 tickets — will a championship positively impact the Silverbacks’ future in Atlanta?

“The Atlanta Silverbacks are going to have a pro team participating in U.S. soccer at some level,” Boris Jerkunica, one of the team’s minority owners, said. “The question is at what level. Winning the Soccer Bowl will definitely help keep it at the highest level.

There is a twist to the story.

An MLS team may be on the way by 2017. Other than in the New York/Long Island area, no market has a team in both of this country’s top leagues.

Adding to the cloudiness, the Silverbacks have been for sale for more than a year because the team’s majority owner, Traffic Sports USA, is trying to divest itself of the stakes it has in some teams in the NASL.

The Silverbacks face three scenarios:

  • Someone can purchase the team and decide that Atlanta is big enough to support two pro soccer teams in four years.
  • That group can keep the Silverbacks as members of the NASL, or drop down to the U.S.L. Pro league, which would be considered the equivalent of Double-A baseball.
  • Or, the team is bought and moved.

A fourth scenario involving Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the leader behind Atlanta’s possible MLS franchise, purchasing the Silverbacks and moving them up, a path previously taken by Montreal, doesn’t seem likely.

A team spokeswoman said in an email, “Our focus is on the possibility of bringing an MLS team to Atlanta. If we are successful in doing so, it will be an expansion team. No other options are being considered.”

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said there are serious discussions — but no timetable — going on with three groups interested in purchasing the Silverbacks. Two, including one led by Jerkunica, are based in Atlanta. The other isn’t.

“Our goal is to keep the club in Atlanta,” Peterson said. “If we can keep Boris involved, that’s what would we prefer.

“We want to see it grow and develop along with the rest of the league.”

Jerkunica said he wants to stay involved only if the team stays in Atlanta. He said the MLS rumors aren’t affecting his desire to purchase the team, but until something more substantive happens regarding MLS, they are affecting his potential ownership group.

So everything may depend upon Blank and MLS.

Blank and league officials have had discussions about an expansion franchise. Blank likes soccer and needs tenants and revenues from the $1.2 billion stadium that is scheduled to open in 2017.

Atlanta hasn’t hosted two outdoor professional men’s soccer teams. It doesn’t have more than one team in any pro sports league. Peterson said the NASL is having conversations and gathering information to see if Atlanta can host two professional soccer teams.

What would be great for soccer fans in the city, a new team and the Silverbacks may be too much pro soccer for one city.

Neither Peterson nor Jerkunica view the NASL, with smaller stadiums, much-lower payrolls and more intimate feel, as a competitor to MLS. So as a soccer fan and as Silverbacks co-owner, Jerkunica said he’d like to see an MLS team in the city.

“I’m an Atlanta fan, No. 1,” he said. “Having multiple pro soccer teams here is a good thing for the city.”