Writers note: We had the chance to interview Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. Due to the wealth of information he provided there will be two articles based on the interview. The first will cover the academy, while the second will cover the first team and the franchise as a whole.
Atlanta United's ambition is not to be denied.
As the expansion club continues to work towards their inaugural season, we've seen them begin to lay down roots to sustain MLS success, in contrast to what other clubs have done recently.
The main area of focus for the team now is the training ground, which will house the developmental academy. For the first time, the team took a step back in its momentum, having hit a recent snag in where the training ground will be located.
Nonetheless, the academy will begin play for the 2016-17 season, before the first team enters MLS, and will, according to Technical Director Carlos Bocanega, be the first expansion franchise to enter with an academy at the U12, U13, U14, U16, and U18 levels at the same time.
It is all part of a strategic plan by Bocanegra to establish Atlanta United's academy as the best developmental academy in Georgia from day one. For now, this is Bocanegra's role at Atlanta United. After the academy setup is finalized and work on the training ground has begun, he will hire a technical director for the academy to implement the club's vision. After that, Bocanegra will shift back mainly to the first-team, where he has not lost focus.
Bocanegra sat down with Dirty South Soccer to discuss his view's on the academy, and where Atlanta United will fit in the Georgia youth soccer landscape starting next year.
"The academy will be free to play, and for us it is about elite development," Bocanegra told DSS.
"We’re looking to get kids here and really build on what coaches here in the state of Georgia have done because there is a lot of talent here. We want to build on what these coaches have done and push it to the next level."
For Bocanegra, the academy is not just about producing professionals, but it will also serve as a way to mold young men that can make a difference in the community. As not every player who comes through the Atlanta United Academy will suit up for the senior team, they will still be present in the Atlanta-area and need guidance on their way to becoming adults.
The team will provide top notch facilities in the academy, including "sports scientists and nutritionists" that no other club can provide in an effort to become the most sought after academy in Georgia.
In order to do so, Bocanegra met with representatives from other developmental academies in the state to be transparent about the club's ambitions. He sat down with coaches from Georgia United, Concorde Fire, and other academies in the state to share the club's plan and invite them to participate in a grand scheme for Georgia soccer.
"We want to be that club that sits at the top of the pyramid all of the teams here in the Atlanta area and the Georgia area, but also be a resource for them," Bocanegra explained.
"We’ve talked to youth clubs extensively, and it has been great. They have done a really good job of being competitive nationally, and the model that Georgia United have where they basically have six clubs feeding into one club up top, we realized that was a fantastic model and that’s what we’re looking to do at Atlanta United.
"We’re going to open up our training ground and our training sessions and invite youth coaches out to watch. We will send them away with coaching plans and sessions and they can implement that into their club if they choose to. We want to be a resource."
As a gesture of cooperation, Georgia United actually ceded the club's spots to compete at the U16 and U18 levels in the United States Soccer Development Academy, so Atlanta United could begin play in 2016-17. Georgia United will remain at the U13 and U14 levels and collaborate with the new Atlanta United academy.
While fancy equipment and a nice training ground are great perks, Bocanegra ruled out moving to a residential academy model, such as the United States U17 program in Bradenton, Florida, to start.
"I like these kids going home to their parents and having dinner with their family, and really just as normal as possible," Bocanegra said.
"Education is stressed so high here in America, I think its a good quality, and I don’t want to pull these kids out of school to give them more training hours per day. Maybe we could come to something of a hybrid situation, but I think the schooling aspect of it is so important so I don’t want to take that away."
Bocanegra would not go into detail about whether or not Atlanta United could sign a homegrown player from the first crop of academy players it will feature in the fall. As per MLS rules, a club can sign a homegrown player if he features in the club's academy setup for a year, and continues to associate with the club if they head to college.
Unfortunately, no Atlanta United academy player will be eligible for a homegrown contract ahead of March 2017, but Bocanegra confirmed "internal discussions" about the topic of a potential homegrown player signing.
"For us at the moment we’re just interested in developing players and getting them to the next level."