The Atlanta Silverbacks Football Club defeated Asheville City SC 2-0 Thursday night at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, GA to earn a trip to the NPSL Southeast Conference Championship on Saturday night. The semifinal win was another chapter in what seems to be a fierce, budding rivalry between Atlanta and the second-year club. The smaller Blessed Trinity soccer pitch gave the match a very intimate and rambunctious flare, both on and off the pitch.
Under sweltering heat and humidity, both teams spent the first thirty minutes of the match poking and prodding the opponent’s back lines without ever seriously threatening. The surface was just as new to the hosting Silverbacks as it was to the traveling Blues, so this allowed both teams to acclimate. Asheville City were the first aggressors of the match, failing to convert a giveaway right in front of Atlanta goalkeeper Bryce Billington. Center back Mo Issahaku failed to clear a ball out of the box and a high bounce landed at the feet of Blues forward Elma N’For. He could not connect from point-blank range and Atlanta luckily remained tied. More chances for the visitors through the end of the first half no doubt gave Atlanta supporters pause.
The critical shift came at halfway, when Silverbacks head coach Roberto Neves subbed midfielder Kebba Demba out for forward Nyambi Jabang. Jabang had been dealing with a hamstring injury and not earned many minutes of late, but his arrival to the match was a catalyst for the Atlanta attack. Almost instantly, the forward combo of “Keka” Kamara and Jabang, supported by midfielders Aaron Walker and Joao Johanning, began to dissect the Asheville City back line. It would be a Jabang run into the box that drew a foul from an Asheville defender, earning a penalty kick in the 65th minute. Walker, who serves as the team’s captain, converted his fourth penalty of the season to give Atlanta the 1-0 advantage.
Once trailing, the visiting Blues ramped up their offensive pressure. A set piece following the goal forced a spectacular save by Billington, who dove to his left and barely kept the Silverbacks in front. With numbers forward for Asheville City, Johanning earned possession and looked to counter attack. He passed to the only red jersey countering with him, the aforementioned Jabang. From there, Jabang showed why he was the best player on the pitch Thursday night. A fantastic dribble and deke left Asheville defenders in the dust and Jabang with a great chance on goal. Jabang took a hard-angle shot past the diving Parker Siegfried that bounced off the back-side post and in to double Atlanta’s lead. Asheville City fought valiantly to get on the board, but it was Atlanta’s freshness and mentality that locked up the victory.
Left back Manuel Moreno continued his fantastic run of play on the back line. He came out earlier than expected, due to earning a yellow card. “That was a decision from the coach. I was angry because every player wants to play every minute of the game, especially important ones like this. But I have to respect Coach’s decision.”
He noted that the back line, as well as the entire team, is gelling unlike they have all season. “This team is a family. That is real. We have hard moments, but we are a family and I’ve enjoyed my time here with these guys.”
Moreno also noted that the superb defensive effort was not just about the four defenders and goalkeeper. “It’s not only the back line, it’s the entire team. When the team scores, it’s all of us. When the team defends well, it’s all of us.”
Summing up his first season in Atlanta, he mentioned it has been a joy. “For me, it’s a pleasure to be here with every one of these guys.”
Right back Ryan Marcano knew from the outset his play would go a long way in determining Thursday night’s outcome. Asheville’s plan was to tilt defenders to his side, hoping to coax a mistake from the young Marcano. “Yeah, they loaded our side with two defenders every time. I just had to communicate with Joao, Mo, Las in the middle. It was all a matter of communication to keep it locked up in the back.”
When talking about the unheralded midfield work of Aaron Walker, Abraham Lansana, and Ricardo Oliveira, Marcano was quick to give them credit for his success. “[The midfielders] make my job a lot easier. It enables me to make runs up and down the field and give the wingers some support outside.”
Veteran center back Mo Issahaku knows the postseason is when you have to be clicking as a team. Atlanta is right where they need to be in that department. “It’s about that time of year where we [the back line] have to be synchronized. If we lose, we go home. We know what’s at stake. We’re veterans, so we should know. We want to fight until the very end.”
Justin Hanover asked Issahaku about the difference in strategy and mentality from the first half to the second. “We sat back and absorbed the pressure in the first half. At the half, the message was ‘now we know what they have and we know what we have to do.’ We have to go take the fight to them. Nyambi came in a really switched up the entire game.”
Nyambi Jabang’s presence was the difference for an Atlanta team that looked fatigued early on. He noted that most opponents underestimate his ability coming off of the bench. “For most teams, when I come from the bench, they really don’t know me or what to expect. I haven’t played the last two games because of the hamstring. It can be frustrating. But I told Coach I would be ready tonight. I was excited to get in. That’s what teamwork is: the last few games, they did it for me. Now I came out to do it for them.”
The final score of the night is one Silverback fans will long remember.
Justin Hanover asked Jabang about his speed and what he saw in the lead up. “A lot of my goals are like that. I feel like I have the pace, so I just have to pick a side and go. He [Siegfried] came out and I knew I had the shot. Just went as hard as I could across goal.”
The win extends Atlanta’s unbeaten streak to five matches, dating back to a 4-1 loss on June 20th in Chattanooga. The Silverbacks will get a chance to redeem that loss and lift the NPSL Southeast Conference Championship trophy against Chattanooga FC at Finley Stadium Saturday night.
Contributor: Jordan Coker/Atlanta Silverbacks FC
Photo Credit: Joshua McClure/Atlanta Silverbacks FC