It's all over. The most inconsistent and unpredictable of seasons came to an abrupt end on a rainy Sunday evening, as a hard working San Diego Flash side ended the 2001 Atlanta Silverbacks' season in a hard fought 2-2 draw at Dekalb Memorial Stadium. The draw resulted in the Flash winning the series 4-2 on aggregate and advancing to the second round of the A-league playoffs.
The Silverbacks lost the first leg of this series 2-0 in San Diego due to two goalkeeping mistakes by Kevin Rueda. The first Flash goal came when a Flash corner kick was overrun by Rueda, and drilled into the net. Then, the Flash netted their second when a shot deflected off Rueda's hands and into the goal.
Just before the match began, a violent thunderstorm passed over the stadium, forcing the game to be delayed for nearly an hour. After the delay, a confident Silverbacks team came on to the pitch in an attacking minded 3-5-2 formation. Due to the offensive formation, Ian Checcio was forced out of the lineup in the back. And Randy Merkel entered the lineup as the fifth midfielder. Also Sean Finn took Sean Michael-Callahan's place in midfield.
San Diego was on the attack in the first five minutes, hoping to net an insurance goal. They nearly did early on, but David Clemente saved the 'Backs with a diving save in the 4th minute. In the 8th minute, Finn proved his worth as a starter when Iggy Moleka found the feisty midfielder at the top of the 18. Finn sent a curving ball that Flash goalkeeper Matt Hall had no chance to stop, but the ball missed the left post by inches. The 'Backs continued to attack and won a corner kick 4 minutes later. The cross found the head of Jason Annicchero, who sent the ball into the right corner. However, the ball found a Silverback's hand before entering the net, and the goal was called back.
Both teams battled after that with Atlanta unable to finish off their chances, and looking reluctant to shoot from outside the box. Also, San Diego threatened with a few dangerous counterattacks, and in the 41st minute of play, their hard work finally paid off. The counterattack began with Flash midfielder Javier Bustos beating a Silverbacks midfielder down the left side of the field, Jason Annicchero rushed across the field to mark Bustos, and gave Bustos little space to work with. But this could not be said for the rest of the 'Backs defense, as a Bustos cross found Chugger Adair unmarked inside the 6-yard box. Adair easily nodded the ball into the right corner.
But Atlanta didn't give up, and they pulled even just before the half when Ihor Dotshenko served Sean Finn inside the box. Finn calmly tucked a low shot past a charging Matt Hall and just inside the left post to tie the game at 1. The referee blew his whistle shortly thereafter, and the 'Backs entered the locker room right back where they started, needing to outscore the Flash by at least two goals to continue their season.
The Silverbacks took a big hit just 5 minutes into the second half when Atlanta defender Shaun McSkimming went down with an injury. Silverbacks trainer Adam Greer and others worked furiously on the former Scottish Premier League veteran, trying to get him back into the match as soon as possible. But McSkimming's injury was simply too much for him to continue, and Andrew Restrepo entered in his place in minute 53.
Sean Michael-Callahan entered in place of Eddie Rodriguez in the 58th minute for Atlanta. And the 'Backs nearly took the lead minutes after his entrance when a cross from Callahan found the head of a tightly marked Finn inside the 6-yard box. But Finn sent his header just over the upper right corner of the net.
Atlanta continued to push forward as the half wore on. Iggy Moleka was on top form and set up a few long shots by Finn that were thwarted by Hall. But San Diego finally took advantage of Atlanta's attacking formation, and they scored another counterattack goal in the 66th. The goal was nearly identical to their first one, as Miguel Suazo forced a 'Backs defender to pick him up on the left wing, then he sent a beautiful cross into the box that found the head of a Flash attacker who the defense had failed to pickup. It was striker Thiago Martins (who had been giving the 'Backs defense trouble all night), and he sent a beautiful header into the right corner past a sprawling David Clemente.
A few Silverbacks seemed to give up after San Diego's second goal. Particularly in midfield where only Finn seemed to show any desire to prolong Atlanta's season. Mario Benjamin entered in the 80th minute for Ihor Dotshenko, who had a horrible match, turning the ball over numerous times. Atlanta scored with time running out when a beautifully struck cross by Finn found the head of striker Ryan Walker who headed the ball into the net. Atlanta appeared to have scored again in the waning seconds, but they had yet another goal disallowed as the final whistle blew just before the goal.
A dejected Silverbacks team left the field in disbelief, knowing that they had the talent to make a much bigger impact in the 2001 season. Meanwhile, the Flash showed little emotion after the victory. Knowing that there was still plenty of work to do. San Diego is certainly a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. They played very well, and displayed great team chemistry, a chemistry that the Silverbacks have lacked all season. San Diego faces the Vancouver Whitecaps back home for an intriguing second round meeting. Meanwhile, Atlanta will have to wait nearly 6 months until they play again.
Man of the Match: Sean Finn
Finn's late season heroics have left Atlanta fans wondering why he wasn't starting all season. He has looked solid as he netted 3 assists and a goal while starting 3 of Atlanta's final 4 matches. In Atlanta's final match, Finn played his heart out. And his desire resulted in a goal and an assist. And a multitude of shots on net.
Weather: Rainy, 65 degrees
Scoring: 1 2 F
SD 1 1 2
ATL 1 1 2
Adair (Bustos) 42nd
Finn (Dotsenko) 45th
Martins (Suazo) 66th
Walker (Finn) 90th
SD: Hall GK, Brown D, Maurer D, O'Conner D, Hetherington D, Legg M, Calderson M, Suazo M, Bustos M, Martins F (Ayim 74), Adair F (Alceraz 85)
ATL: Clemente GK, Care D, McSkimming D (Restrepo 53), Annicchero D, Parra M, Merkel M, Finn M, Dotseko M (Benjamin 80), Rodriguez M (Callahan 58), Walker F, Moleka F
Stats: SD ATL
Shots 5 15
Saves 3 1
Corners 0 7
Fouls 16 20
Offside 6 1
Care 32nd (yellow)
Finn 60th (yellow)
Martins 73rd (yellow)