The Atlanta Silverbacks Football Club defeated Chattanooga FC 6-5 in penalty kicks after a 0-0 score Saturday night at Finley Stadium to claim the 2018 NPSL Southeast Conference championship. In one of the most exciting matches of the season, the top two teams in the conference weathered a grueling defensive battle through the scheduled 90 minutes and additional 30 minutes of extra time. Both teams converted all five scheduled penalties before CFC skied the sixth. Center back Mo Issahaku buried the sixth and final shot for Atlanta to give the ‘Backs their second conference title in three years.
Sporting the all-white kits for the first time in 2018, Atlanta played as pure a defensive game as they have this season. Goalkeeper Bryce Billington earned his third straight start with Theo Blachon sidelined by a leg/hip injury. For the second straight postseason match, Billington was flawless in goal and had plenty of help from the starting back line of Ryan Marcano, Abdul Bangura, Mo Issahaku, and Manuel Moreno. CFC’s vaunted defense did its best work as well.
Both teams played the first forty five minutes out of the back, cautiously testing their defensive counterparts but never engaging in threatening attacks. Atlanta dominated the early possession before the home team made more and more progress forward. The Silverbacks clamped down defensively to get to the break unscathed. At the half, both teams made adjustments to augment their offenses. In the second half, chances began to appear for both sides. In the 78th minute, Manuel Moreno’s free kick was deflected by Mo Issahaku and bouncing passed the CFC goalkeeper to net, only to be cleared by a center back inches before the line. In the 82nd minute, it looked as though Chattanooga had finally solved the Atlanta back line and took a 1-0 lead. But the go-ahead goal was immediately ruled offside and the match remained scoreless.
The home team continued to pour numbers into the box, pressuring the Silverbacks’ defense. They held serve throughout the added time period, even creating a few counter attack chances. Their chance came in the 112th minute, when Karsimi Konneh was fouled in the box and gave Atlanta a penalty kick in the waning minutes. Captain Aaron Walker came into the match four-for-four on penalty kicks in the season, including Thursday night against Asheville City SC. Walker’s shot was saved by CFC goalkeeper D’Amico and the teams saw out the final eight minutes to decide the match from the spot.
Both teams converted their first two kicks, but the third kick for Atlanta sent the already wild match into overdrive. David Koloko’s shot was saved by D’Amico, but the head referee blew the CFC goalkeeper for an early departure from the goal line. Koloko redeemed himself on the re-kick. Looking to even up the shots at four a piece, center back Ebrima Njie’s shot was deflected by D’Amico. But again, the head referee deemed D’Amico came off his line early. Njie also netted the goal on his re-kick. The teams finished the scheduled five penalties at a perfect five-for-five. In the first sudden death round, CFC air mailed a shot well over the crossbar. Issahaku stepped up to the spot and buried the final shot of the night, giving Atlanta the monumental victory.
The entire Atlanta bench swarmed Issahaku and ended in a dog pile at the south corner of the field. Eventually, the team went to greet the traveling Atlanta supporters at the north end of the field before being awarded the NPSL Southeast Conference championship trophy. The away fans that made the trip up I-75 were able to join the team and staff on the field postmatch in a celebration that could only be described as pure, unadulterated jubilation.
Midfielder and captain Aaron Walker knew that he let a golden opportunity slip away when his 112th minute penalty kick was saved.
“That was a roller coaster ride. It was a long 120 minutes. I had the opportunity to put the game to bed [with a penalty kick] and, unfortunately, I didn’t convert it. I had to do the best I could to get it out of my mind. And the guys stepped up. Every single person here encouraged me. That gave me words of wisdom. That’s what you want in a team. You see the fight that we have: to go on for 120 minutes, not be fazed, and step up like that in the end.”
After a stellar match Thursday, forward Nyambi Jabang continued his strong play. While the numbers may not have shown, his toughness in ball battles and continuous fight helped Atlanta keep the clean sheet. He talked about what this championship moment means and how long it has been in the work.
“This is what we worked for. Coach kept saying we’ve been working together for seven months now for this moment. After the last match, [Justin] asked if this feels like a family. Yes, absolutely. We’ve been together for so long now.”
Jabang, like many players, mentioned the significant impact captain Sheriff Suma had, and continues to have, on this squad. “Sheriff Suma started everything, and now we’re still together as a family.”
The quotes of many other players could not be accurately depicted due to uncontrollable screaming, running, and jumping.
Atlanta claimed their second NPSL conference title in three years after winning the South Atlantic Conference over Tobacco Road FC in 2016. The win sends the ‘Backs to the NPSL South Region semifinal Tuesday night against Miami FC. The winner advances to the NPSL South Region Final against the winner of Laredo Heat SC and Little Rock Rangers.
Contributor: Jordan Coker/Atlanta Silverbacks FC
Photo Credit: Jordan Coker/Atlanta Silverbacks FC