Atlanta United will affiliate with the Charleston Battery for the 2016 USL season.
After dismissing the idea of forming their own USL team for 2016, Atlanta United did their research and made the decision to work out an affiliation agreement ahead of schedule. All MLS teams must have their own USL team or affiliate when they begin play, but a recent rule change allowed Atlanta to go ahead with an affiliation ahead of schedule.
Dirty South Soccer sat down with team president Darren Eales to discuss what Atlanta United hopes to get out of the partnership, and how both teams will benefit for the upcoming USL season. The affiliation agreement is only for one year, but Eales said that the team will assess the partnership and consider how to go forward.
Eales said the biggest asset an affiliation gives to the franchise will be the opportunity to sign players this year and have them play competitive matches ahead of the 2017 MLS season. He would not comment on when or how many players would be signed, but said to expect "more of those signings later on in the year."
"We’ve looked at all the data and the average is around 13 points between the teams that come in without any history or without a USL team unlike a team like Orlando or Seattle that comes in with a team that is already existing," Eales said to DSS.
"We know that there is a gap, and when you look at the way those teams tend to do in the season, it is usually in the first half of the season where they are falling behind and by the middle of the season they sort of catch up. For us the chance to affiliate early and play players, it may not be early, but getting to start to play some players early and getting them to play together and understand the culture will hopefully give us a competitive advantage if we didn’t have the affiliation."
The benefits of affiliation will extend beyond signing players, as Eales says both clubs will share technical and coaching expertise, and there will be cross-promotions throughout the year.
Charleston Battery president Andrew Bell said in a statement provided to DSS that the "[great] potential here between the two clubs," is what drove the USL team to seek an affiliation from Atlanta United.
"I think it’s exciting that we’re going to have an MLS team in Georgia, in Atlanta a market where there are significant ties between our communities, and I think for our fans there’s potential to really get a hold of supporting a team in Major League Soccer," Bell added.
"Our ownership philosophy has always been to have affiliation and to support MLS, going a long way back. We definitely want to see Atlanta United succeed, and it looks like what Darren and Carlos have done so far is putting them on the right track. Anything we can do to help we will, for sure."
Another bonus will be the opportunity for Atlanta United academy players to possibly train and play in some matches for the Battery. Under USL rules, teams can sign multiple players to "academy deals," which maintain their NCAA eligibility, but allow them to play in professional matches.
"That is another key factor from an academy perspective," Eales said. "There is playing but there is also training and there will be a chance for us to take a few players and have them train in first team football, where there is a big difference. That progression in playing in academy football and playing in proper men’s professional football can be a challenge."
"A thing like a long weekend in training where we take a few of the players in the academy we feel have been playing a bit strongly and take them there and feel what it is like to train in a professional environment, are useful tools we have now with this affiliation."
"Charleston is a fantastic organization," Mike Anhaeusesr, Battery GM and head coach, said in a statement provided to DSS. "The players are going to be taken care of, they’re going to be pushed, and handled in a professional way."
"We’ve been part of the process from the beginning and Carlos has been great to work with. They’re looking for a coach, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be looking for players already. That’s why they wanted to do it. They wanted to hit the ground running, even if it’s a couple of young guys."
Through having Atlanta United signees and academy players feature in Charleston, the front office hopes that Atlanta United fans respond and go out to support the team. Charleston is just over a four hour drive, and the Battery will play teams in Charlotte, Orlando, and Wilmington all in proximity to Atlanta. The two teams will cross-promote each other, and Eales knows that fans will turn out.
"From a fan’s perspective we don’t have any games this year, so this at least gives us something going on where we have some Atlanta United players our fans can follow," Eales added.
"I think there will be some games that we’ll be able to focus on later in the season, and hopefully we can offer support from the Atlanta United fans. That’s what we’ll be looking to try and encourage them throughout the season."