In a surprising move, the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League announced yesterday it was declining to exercise their option to extend the contract of head coach Brian Haynes. A month after Haynes’ Silverbacks lost the NASL Soccer Bowl 1-0 to the New York Cosmos, the league’s 2013 coach of the year now finds himself out of a job.
Originally brought to Atlanta in July 2012 as an assistant to interim manager Eric Wynalda, Haynes assumed the managerial reins a month later after Wynalda left to resume his Fox Soccer television duties.
In 2011, the Silverbacks finished last in the league standings with a dismal record of 4-4-20. In 2012, prior to Haynes and Wynalda’s arrival, the team was staggering along with a mark of 1-5-8.
After taking over as interim manager on Aug. 16, Haynes guided Atlanta to a 3-3-1 record over the remainder of the 2012 regular season. Haynes was named full-time manager in the offseason, and his Silverbacks raced out to a record of 6-3-3 over the NASL’s spring season, part of the league’s inaugural split regular season format. As a result, Atlanta was crowned spring season champions and awarded both a berth in the Soccer Bowl and the right to host the league final in November.
Over the intervening months, however, Atlanta struggled during their otherwise meaningless fall campaign, mustering only a 4-4-6 record. Although the team regained much of their early season form for last month’s final, the Silverbacks ultimately fell a Marcos Senna golazo short of a Soccer Bowl championship.
Triangle Offense spoke with Haynes by telephone Monday afternoon, mere hours after he was informed his tenure as the Silverbacks’ manager was over. Since the Soccer Bowl, Haynes says he had been going about preparations for next season, including an open tryout last weekend and a planning session about three weeks with club officials, including Wynalda, currently the Silverbacks’ technical director.
Haynes says that during this time, no one associated with club management expressed displeasure to him over his job performance or indicated he would not return as manager in 2014. However, at no time did the subject of his contract extension arise, an omission that Haynes did not find alarming, perhaps naively he now admits. There were also no discussions about renegotiating his contract or compensation.
“My option stated that the second of December was the day they were going to let me know if they weren’t going to renew my contract,” Haynes says. “And when they didn’t say anything, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m OK.’”
Instead, Haynes was called to a meeting Monday morning with Andy Smith, the Silverbacks’ president and general manager. During their 15-20 minute encounter, Smith informed Haynes that the club would not extend his contract for 2014.
“Yes, of course I am,” says Haynes when asked if he was surprised by the news. “I did laugh, because I’m looking right now at my NASL Coach of the Year trophy and I’m like, ‘That doesn’t mean anything.’ And as far as the club is concerned, I was the coach of the year for the spring season.”
According to Haynes, Smith’s only stated reason to Haynes for the club’s decision was the Silverbacks’ fall season swoon, a position reiterated later in the club’s press release.
Speaking this morning with Triangle Offense, Smith says that yesterday’s decision was the culmination of a weeks-long review following the end of the season.
“We regrouped after a few weeks and reviewed everything,” Smith recounts. “Part of that was with Brian, part of that was without Brian. And even after that it took some time. This type of decision is not one you make quickly. We didn’t want to rush into a decision and it be the wrong one. Only time will tell if we made the right decision.”
Smith cites that although the Silverbacks won the spring season, the team finished seventh out of the eight teams in the fall and only won one out of their last six matches. He says club ownership and management were concerned that the team was regressing back to dismal performances of previous years.
“When you turn things around, that becomes a place you don’t want to leave,” Smith says. “You don’t want to go back to where you were. And it looked like we were going back to where we were, unfortunately. And from ownership’s perspective, they didn’t want to have to start all over again.”
This decision also appears to coincide with an change in club ownership. According to Haynes, the long-rumored sale of the Silverbacks by Traffic Sports USA, their previous majority owner, has taken place. Minority owner Boris Jerkunica and a presently unidentified partner have assumed majority control of the club, with the league itself allegedly retaining a minority share.
“What everybody’s saying to me is this is the decision of the new owners,” Haynes says.
Smith would not identify any new owners of the club, saying that the team hopes to make an announcement in the coming week or so. But, he did confirm that a transfer in majority ownership is close to fruition.
“It will have occurred once documents are signed,” Smith says. “The agreement in principle is there. Everything just needs to be signed off on by the league. Let’s just call it ‘pending approval.’”
No one else, including Jerkunica and Wynalda, was present for Monday’s meeting with Haynes.
“Eric Wynalda left me a text this morning,” Haynes responded when asked if had any communication with Wynalda, who was in California. “Boris Jerkunica sent Andy Smith to talk to me. I did not speak with Boris, but I sent Boris and Eric a text thanking both of them for the opportunity.”
What was did Wynalda’s text read?
“He was going to get back in touch with me after he gets out of a meeting.”
Does Haynes believe Wynalda was aware of the club’s decision and Monday’s meeting?
“Yes, without question. No question.”
Adding further intrigue to the day’s events was a Twitter post from ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas just after 5 p.m. yesterday: “Eric Wynalda told me that, if offered, he would take the now vacant head coaching position for @ATLSilverbacks.” Lalas did not provide any further context or elaboration to this solitary tweet, and Wynalda has not publicly responded.
Smith, who also read Lalas’ tweet yesterday, says hiring Wynalda as head coach “is not our go-to move right now.”
“Would Atlanta consider Eric?,” Smith asks. “I’d say we would consider it, but again, the challenges remain the same in that he lives in Los Angeles and has a wonderful job with Fox that pays him a very lucrative contract. We have no way of competing with that, and that’s why when we first started this, the opportunity for him to remain on [as manager] wasn’t a reality. That’s was the original conversation: ‘We want you to be our head coach.’ And there was no way for it to work, both financially and logistically.
“Who knows, maybe we will consider it. But at this point, that is not the decided direction, for sure.”
Haynes spoke at length on how he contends the NASL’s split season format hamstrings coaches throughout the league, now including himself.
“The league is set up in such a way that you have to win the first half of the season to reach and host the final,” Haynes explains. “It’s almost a curse in both directions. I did it; I got to the final. I didn’t win, so for that reason I’m gone.”
Haynes says that after winning the spring season, his young team, with an average age of 23, was not equipped to self-motivate over a 14-match fall campaign that essentially served as a purposeless prelude to the one-off Soccer Bowl.
“The club is now saying I let off,” Haynes says. “I didn’t let off. I was trying to make sure that we played well and stayed consistent. Other teams were trying to get to play against us. And so I had to figure out ways to motivate [my players], and I tried all different ways. But all they were thinking was, ‘We have a final to play.’
“And then a team comes in, New York [Cosmos], and wins the second half of the season, and these [teams] that did well in both seasons get nothing for it. It’s ridiculous. We can’t change it; we just have to deal with it. We have to play a different way to get to the final, and once you get there you have to win it because if you don’t, in my case, you’re gone.”
Smith confirms that he witnessed some ill-effects wrought by the split regular season format. But, he also contends that obstacle is one all coaches are expected to effectively handle.
“We were the first guinea pigs to understand the challenges that you have to overcome as an organization, one of them being players not having to win a game to get in a final they’re already in,” Smith says. “So, the challenge of motivation is different. But that said, we all have challenges, and it’s a matter of overcoming those challenges. Players will always say they’re motivated, that they’re ready to play and don’t go out to lose. But, you could see it in certain games that they weren’t rising to the occasion.”
Last season, Atlanta was one of three NASL clubs—along with the Carolina RailHawks and Fort Lauderdale Strikers—owned by Traffic Sports USA. All three teams also reportedly carried the lowest player budgets in the league.
“With the tools and resources that were given to me in Atlanta, I think I did a great job,” Haynes says. “And when I look at other teams and the resources they have, I feel honored that I did a good job.”
For Haynes, this financial deficit, combined with the split regular season’s structural impediments, exacerbated his team’s fall season woes.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that was going to motivate [the players] is the thing the club didn’t have: money. As bad as that is, that was the thing these guys needed. Do I blame the club? No. I think the guys knew going in that the club didn’t have money, but they were just thinking maybe they’ll get a payout if they did well. And when that didn’t happen, all I could do is get my focus on the final and get these guys ready to play”
Smith confirms that conversations about player compensation took place. But such bonuses were not realistic given Atlanta’s limited player budget.
“The money that we have for the year doesn’t differ from the first season to the second season,” Smith says. “We would have loved to have thousands of dollars to throw at our players for additional motivation on a game-by-game basis. But Atlanta, I’d venture to guess, probably has the smallest player budget in the league or close to it. That said, it’s impressive that Eric and Brian were able to put together a team and win the spring season. But it’s no different for the second half of the season.”
“It was becoming ridiculous,” Haynes continues, “to the point where we actually met with the owners and the GM, and [Jerkunica] actually said to the GM, ‘Look, the most important thing is winning the final.’ That was before he became the majority owner. When he became the majority owner, the whole thing changed and it was, ‘They didn’t do as well as they should have in the second half of the season and we think the club is going in the wrong direction.’
“Because the results didn’t go the way the club wanted now, in hindsight—if we had won the final, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation—all of sudden it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
And now Haynes finds himself looking for a job. He says that rumors regarding FC Dallas and their vacant head coach position were overblown. He remains interested in coaching FC Dallas, a club where he once played and later worked as an assistant coach for five years. However, he has not interviewed for the position, and the extent of his contact with the Major League Soccer side was a single phone call days after the Soccer Bowl with Fernando Clavijo, FC Dallas’ technical director, who told Haynes he would be only one of their candidates.
“My name came up because of how well I did in the league,” Haynes explains, “but not well enough to keep my job here.”