What a weekend it was in Atlanta.
The UPSL Fall 2020 season has been a long, long time coming, but last weekend on March 5 and 7, we saw the end of an embattled, exciting season that incorporated nearly every conference in UPSL’s Division I.
There are a lot of aspects to consider here, but let’s start with what took place on the pitch.
Results and Match Recaps
Ginga Atlanta completed a perfect 21-0-0 season last weekend in the UPSL Division I National Semifinals and Final at Silverbacks Park in Atlanta.
The Georgia Division outfit prevailed 3-2 over Brockton FC United in the semifinal and 0-0 (3-1) on penalties against Olympians FC in their final match under the Ginga Atlanta name.
Now known as Atletico Atlanta, the team is an outlet of FC Ginga, a coaching academy, transfer advocate, and international study program primarily designed for Brazilian prospective players looking to move to the United States.
Before they could take the pitch, though, the first semifinal took place on Friday afternoon at Silverbacks Park, the home of now-defunct NASL club Atlanta Silverbacks. The stadium seats approximately 5,000 supporters and provided a professional venue for the UPSL’s hallmark event to take place.
Semifinal 1 – Capital City v Olympians
The first match the stadium hosted was between Capital City FC of Austin, TX and Olympians FC of Mesa, Arizona. Olympians came in undefeated, but could not break the deadlock against a stout Capital City squad in the first half. The score was tied at 0-0 at the break, but Olympians came out quickly and scored the first two goals of the game in the second half. Capital City came back on two set piece goals in 10 minutes to equalize at 2-2, but their comeback effort fell short after Olympians got a match-winning goal in the 85th minute to progress to the final.
Semifinal 2 – Ginga v Brockton
In the other semifinal, Brockton FC United faced off against Ginga Atlanta in a match that improbably pitted two primarily Portuguese-speaking teams against one another. Brockton FC, representing the highly diverse city of Brockton, MA, is known for its high concentration of the United States’ Cape Verdean population, and that dynamic is very strong in Brockton FC’s team. Ginga, meanwhile, have a Brazilian influence that is prevalent in their team, their coaching staff, and their playing style.
The on-field display was just as exciting as the off-field dynamic, as both teams offered quality in attack and high-quality skills on the ball. Brockton went ahead early in the first ten minutes on a penalty kick, putting Ginga in a rare situation of being down early in a match. They responded well, leveling the score at 1-1 after 30 minutes, but a red card issued to Ginga a few minutes later ended their celebratory mood. They played with 10 men for almost an hour of game time, but they still managed to score the next two goals of the match and take full control of the match.
Their 3-1 lead was tested in the final 15 minutes, though, when a freak accident of a handball gave Brockton their second penalty of the match. A Ginga defender raised his hand to appeal a referee’s decision on the goal line, and as his hand was raised, a Brockton player crossed the ball towards him and struck him with the pass. Brockton dispatched the penalty to make it 3-2, but that was all they could muster in the end after a good chance at minute 90’+7 was skied over the bar.
Those two matches on Friday set up a third-place game on Sunday afternoon between Capital City and Brockton and the National Final between Ginga and Olympians to determine the UPSL’s best team.
Third-Place Game – Capital City v Brockton
The third-place game continued the narrative from Friday of high-scoring matches, as Brockton flew out to a 3-0 lead by early in the second half. Capital City came back and made the game exciting for the second straight time, though, scoring twice after the 80th minute to make Brockton earn their third-place finish. They did so and sent Capital City home to Austin with nothing in the third 3-2 result from as many games in the tournament.
National Final – Ginga v Olympians
The only game left to play was the most important one, the final between Ginga Atlanta and Olympians FC. Ginga had reached twenty wins with no draws or losses on the season, but Olympians had also not lost all season. Something had to give, and knowing this, both sides came out more cautious than in previous matches.
The first half ended 0-0 and was rather uneventful in front of goal, while the second half threatened to be the same. Neither team could find a way to score, though Ginga seemed to get closer until they suffered a second red card in two matches. For twenty-plus minutes of regular time, they were forced to defend desperately and hope for extra time, which did indeed come after the first 90 minuted ended with the score 0-0.
Extra time brought much of the same, with Ginga defending deep for the most part and Olympians finding themselves unable to break through their defense. Olympians only registered one shot on target during the match, and Ginga had none. Both of those were the two worst shots on goal marks for any team of the weekend.
When neither team could decide it across 120 minutes, the match was sent into a penalty shootout. Ginga goalkeeper Alberto Ciroi, an Italian native who played in college with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, was no stranger to this position, being named UPSL Player of the Week on three occasions for his consistent penalty kick successes in goal. He delivered in the biggest moment of his Ginga career, making two saves and watching a third bounce off the crossbar as Olympians could only convert one of their four shots. Ginga, meanwhile, made all three of their kicks from the mark for an emphatic win on penalties.
With the victory, Ginga earns their first UPSL silverware as the Fall 2020 Champions and will now look to defend their title in the Spring 2021 season. They will start their title defense with the opening of Georgia Division play this weekend after being rebranded as Atletico Atlanta. Atletico will face last year’s second-place finisher in the division, Seas Jamaica United, on the first matchday this Saturday, March 13. Olympians return home to Arizona having taken their first and only loss all season by the smallest of margins, rueing their chances to win in regular time while having a man advantage.
As you may have seen, though, yours truly was at the event in person all weekend. Protagonist Soccer’s Dan Vaughn recently recapped his thoughts on the weekend in an article you should definitely read, but I wanted to provide my own perspective on the tournament in addition.
As previously mentioned, Silverbacks Park was the venue for this most important of tournaments in the UPSL. The stadium nestled in northeast Atlanta in the heart of Spaghetti Junction was familiar to me (as was the mind-bending traffic in one of Atlanta’s notorious traffic hotspots). I had attended Silverbacks Park as a player and as a casual fan, but this particular outing felt different.
Silverbacks Park is a solitary scar on the city that was told soccer couldn’t work in the South. Atlanta Silverbacks FC were a pro club in the USL First Division and later the NASL that built up over 20 years of history. It all came crashing down in 2016, and the club’s legacy was placed on an NPSL team that would morph into a seemingly defunct club in NISA, Atlanta SC.
In the process of that storied history, though, Silverbacks Park was constructed to be the home of the team. In a present-day era full of Lynn Family Stadiums and Banc of California Stadiums, a soccer-specific venue isn’t much to write home about. For the time, though, it was a pretty impressive show of dedication to the club.
Even today, signs are evident of what a top-class facility it once was. Abandoned ticket offices, merch booths, faded but stubborn stickers from supporters’ groups like Atlanta Ultras, and a full-service restaurant at the entrance all point to a rather special experience watching the old Silverbacks play.
Surely, nothing the UPSL could offer would hold a candle to what the old days would have been like. But for the first time personally, I got to witness a section of home fans go ballistic as their team eked out a championship. I saw away sections travel from across the country to watch their family members play. I sat in front of Jason Longshore, Atlanta’s best soccer commentator bar none, as he called the game for TV viewers across the globe (and it should also be mentioned that Jessica Charman joined him on Sunday and made her case for the second-best in the city).
All that to say, in many ways, it felt like the UPSL Nationals here turned back the clock. As rumors grow of investors in the Atlanta area looking to resuscitate the NISA franchise are building a new stadium, it becomes more and more painfully clear that Silverbacks Park’s status as a has-been is a very permanent one.
On days like this past Friday and Sunday, though, an aging giant in the annals of soccer history created a new chapter, and the atmosphere it provided was nothing short of special.
Ginga/Atletico always brings a raucous crowd, and they were in especially full voice during the final.
A local taco venture called Liga MAGG brought a truck and had a full-service operation going. Not only did I get my Spanish-speaking fix, but I also copped some pretty authentic tacos and a Jarritos for ten bucks.
I got the quintessential stadium experience of waiting for no apparent reason to be let inside the venue, which made it feel more professional even if it wasn’t a desired addition to the procedure.
It wasn’t Soccer Bowl 2013, when over 7,000 people squeezed into the stadium for a final. But for more reasons than one, it was the first comparable experience since then. It was indeed a final, and even if 7,000 didn’t attend, 700 were treated to a weekend of soccer that rewrote a small letter of history for Silverbacks Park.
And at 20 years old, this was perhaps my one and only chance to be a part of that history.
Willie B, the silverback gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo for which the franchise was named, has died. The Silverbacks themselves have died. In all likelihood, the chances of the stadium holding a professional team again are grave-bound, too.
But one of those stubborn stickers left over from a lifetime of love and support from the Ultras says it best:
“This love will never die.”