The Carolina RailHawks aren’t in Atlanta for this weekend’s North American Soccer League championship, the self-explanatory Soccer Bowl 2013. But Neil Morris is there to provide his observations on the occasion and Saturday’s match between the New York Cosmos and Atlanta Silverbacks for
ATLANTA—Midway through last night’s 2013 NASL Soccer Bowl awards banquet, I was retrieving some maple glazed ham from the carving table situated at the far end of the large garden tent permanently attached to Park Tavern in Atlanta. Former U.S. international John Harkes—rumored to be the debut manager of the expansion Virginia Cavalry FC next season—was speaking on stage when I noticed someone in my eyeline, standing about 15 feet away from the buffet. It was fellow U.S. soccer hall of famer Eric Wynalda, the technical director of the Atlanta Silverbacks, looking on in silence as Harkes spoke.
Beyond the surreality of this scene (consult Google for further explication, if necessary), last night’s soiree was largely a consequence of the NASL’s split regular season implemented this year. The logistics of not only planning such an event but scheduling the panoply of soccer movers and shakers in attendance are virtually impossible if the site of the championship game isn’t known until a week or two prior to the match. Because the Silverbacks clinched both their Soccer Bowl berth and the right to host the game by winning the spring season on July 4, the planning for everything associated with the event—including last night’s banquet—began four months ago.
Some NASL fans will scoff at the notion that their league’s competitive format is driven by shrimp cocktails and prawn sandwiches. However, it’s more than that: planning and selling tickets for the match itself is best accomplished with maximum lead time. Moreover, promoting the league
and nurturing its stature with (potential) investors and dignitaries doesn’t just take place on game day. It occurs in boardrooms and, yes, garden tents.
The other purpose of last night’s gathering was to present year-end awards. Some had already been previously announced. Minnesota United FC won the Fair Play Award. Kyle Reynish of the New York Cosmos won the 2013 NASL Golden Glove award by virtue of finishing with the lowest goals against average (GAA) over his 13 fall season matches. Brian Shriver of the Carolina RailHawks, who was not in attendance, won the 2013 NASL Golden Boot award for his league-leading 15 goals. Shriver was also named to NASL Best XI team announced earlier in the day, the only RailHawk so honored. And Pedro Mendes of the Atlanta Silverbacks won Goal of the Season, an award selected by fans voting on NASL.com. [See all the nominated goals here
The two unknown honorees were the 2013 NASL Coach of the Year and the Golden Ball winner as the league’s most valuable player, both awards selected a vote of media who regularly cover the league. Georgi Hristov of the Tampa Bay Rowdies won the Golden Ball award after finishing the regular season with 12 goals plus tying for a league-high eight assists. Meanwhile, Brian Haynes of the Atlanta Silverbacks was honored as Coach of the Year, an achievement predicated mainly on the first-year manager helming the Silverbacks from the league cellar to spring season champions.
As a disclaimer, I was among those who voted on both awards, and my choices were Hristov for the Golden Ball and the RailHawks’ Colin Clarke as Coach of the Year. My reasons for voting for Clarke were largely the same ones David Fellerath listed in his post last week
. Moreover, the conspicuous presence of only a single player on the NASL Best XI from the team with the best record over the entire regular season and
which advanced to the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—farther than any other NASL club—speaks to both Clarke’s accomplishments and the obstacles (numerous injuries; personnel problems) he had to navigate.
Indeed, Haynes referenced the overall best records posted by both Carolina and Tampa Bay during his acceptance speech. After his perfunctory thank yous, he made mention of Saturday’s Soccer Bowl, saying he hoped to do his best to represent Clarke and Rowdies manager Ricky Hill by winning the game.
Then Haynes—a shrewd master of mind games—gestured toward the Cosmos players and coaches in the room and said, “The Cosmos did what they had to do to get here. And I respect them for that.” The Cosmos sat stone-faced in response.
The remainder of the evening was an exhibition in glad-handing and backslapping. But, in addition to observing former comrades-in-arms/at-odds, it was also a place where you could enjoy a five-minute primer on soccer marketing from Peter Wilt, Aaron Davidson’s boundless opinions on the state of soccer in South Florida and the southeast U.S., and some scuttlebutt on the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame from Dan Flynn, the CEO and secretary general of U.S. Soccer. [Although he wasn’t at last night’s party, U.S Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati is scheduled to attend tomorrow’s Soccer Bowl.]
By night’s end, however, I ended up in more familiar surroundings: enjoying an Amber Light and small talk with RailHawks President Curt Johnson. And though he never said it, I wondered if he was thinking about that one goal the RailHawks didn’t score against Atlanta back on June 29, the one that would have put Carolina in the Soccer Bowl and last night’s celebration at some eatery in Raleigh or Cary.