Friday February 22nd, 2019 5:21PM

Flowery Branch's Smith hopes to lead Silverbacks back to playoffs

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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ATLANTA -- When Jason Smith was the men's soccer coach at Piedmont College in Demorest just five years ago he never pictured himself at the next level.

It wasn't that he didn't think he had what it took to be a successful professional coach.

"It was just a question a question of being in the right place at the right time," Smith said.

Turns out the right place is Atlanta, and the right time is now.

Tonight, Smith will begin his third full season in charge of the Atlanta Silverbacks of the United Soccer Leagues, leading a team that many think is capable of capturing the league title for the first time in team history. The Silverbacks open the season against the Carolina Railhawks at 7:55 p.m.

Last season, Smith guided the Silverbacks -- which have been playing in Atlanta since 2000 -- to the USL championship series, where they fell to the Seattle Sounders.

"We had sort of a roller-coaster ride last season. We were rarely full-strength -- when we were I thought we were clearly one of the better teams in the league," said Smith, who resides in Flowery Branch. "We probably weren't quite deep enough to win a championship."

This season, Smith believes he has the right mix to continue last season's success -- with one big IF thrown in.

"We've got to stay healthy," Smith said. "We already have four guys not at 100 percent. And the difference between the teams in this league is so close that one or two guys can make a huge difference."

The USL -- essentially a minor league compared with Major League Soccer -- is quickly improving according to Smith.

"Every team in the league has strengthened themselves," he said. "This will probably be the most competitive year ever in the USL."

That's due to the continued influx of talent -- both domestic and foreign -- in U.S. soccer.

"A lot more players want to play now when they get out of college," Smith said. "There's a much larger talent pool now than when I played in college.

"Some Caribbean players and some African players are also starting to see the U.S. as a place to come play. It used to be everyone wanted to get out of the U.S. Now it's a place where players get an opportunity."

That includes players like Macoumba "Mac" Kandji, a Silverbacks midfielder who hails from Senegal in Africa.

"This league is a great starting point," said Kandji, a 22-year-old who joined the team late last season. "My goal is to get to Europe. But the level of play here is very good. Some people underestimate it, but it is very physical, and it is improving all the time."

The Silverbacks hope they have kept one step ahead of the competition, however, by retaining the core of last season's finals team while adding some potential standouts.

Two of the top new additions are midfielder Ansu Toure and defender Zach Kirby.

The Silverbacks acquired Toure through a trade with the Minnesota Thunder. "He was one of the most influential players in the league at the end of last season," Smith said.

Meanwhile, Kirby, who was originally drafted by the MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy out of college, fills a need in defense. Originally from Roswell, Kirby played college soccer at Boston University and was with the Galaxy when it was announced that world soccer star David Beckham was coming to play in L.A.

"It was a circus," Kirby said. "That's the best way I can describe it. It was great, but it was a little crazy."

Other key additions include goalkeeper Ryan McIntosh, who spent a season with D.C. United in the MLS and midfielder Blake Camp, who spent last season with the New York Red Bulls of the MLS.

Now Smith just needs to keep his returning core in tact and ready to play.

That includes USL defender of the year David Hayes, who is almost fully recovered from a sports hernia suffered last season.

"We've added some quality players this season," Hayes said. "They all seem to fit in real well."

Hayes, who has been with the team for four seasons, says his squad gets an extra boost from playing in the recently constructed Silverbacks Park -- located just north of Spaghetti Junction off Interstate 85 and Northcrest Rd.

"The environment is unbelievable," Hayes said. "For the owners [Boris Jerkunica and John Latham] to put that much money and time into a stadium like this, it makes us play even harder. They've proven on their side that they're willing to work, so we [as players] should as well."

The soccer-only Silverbacks Park, with a current capacity of 4,000, is about to enter its third season of use. Before that, the Silverbacks played at DeKalb County's Memorial Stadium. "It was a mess," Hayes notes.

But now, the team has a permanent home -- one they hope to expand after this season to a 7,000-plus capacity and add a restaurant. So far, Silverbacks ownership has spent more than $2 million on the facility.

"Once people get here, I think they're very happy with the product on the field, the level of intensity in the USL. And the stadium is great," Smith said. "You're really close to the players and the action.

"Unfortunately there's some skeptics out there, but once they get here, they're like, 'Holy cow. This better than I thought.' "

Yet thanks to both the Silverbacks success on the field and the stadium surrounding it that slowly seems to be changing.

"Our visibility has always been an issue," Silverbacks public relations manager Andrew Mosier said. "But we've got it now to where it's a great game-day experience, and our ticket sales are at a record high."

That includes Smith's father-in-law.

"When my father-in-law first came out -- he had been a big American sports fan, but not really soccer -- he loved it. And now he's a die-hard fan," Smith said.

Of course Smith knows that winning is the safest bet to attract more fans -- though he isn't going to put too much pressure on his club.

"The big thing for me here early is we don't have the entire roster, so I don't want to put a lot of pressure on the guys," Smith said. "I know once we have our full roster available, we're going to be a good team.

"Our goal is just to make the playoffs. To finish in the top three would be nice, but that's not our main focus."

Yet what if they should and Smith's star continues to rise? Does the man who once couldn't see himself as a pro coach now see himself moving even higher in the game?

"You have to test your knowledge of the game here, and I had to do that at Piedmont," Smith said. "But right now, I'm really enjoying myself. I've learned a bit each year. And at this point I feel like I could succeed here or in the MLS."

Not that Smith is even thinking of moving on, but as he once said, sometimes it's just a matter of the right place at the right time.

-- The Silverbacks' season opener against the Carolina Railhawks will kick off at 7:55 p.m. Saturday at Silverbacks Park in Atlanta. Tickets range from $12.50 to $25 and can be purchased online or at the Park. Please visit www.atlantasilverbacks.com for directions to the Park and more information.
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