This past weekend provided a somewhat unique experience for many of Atlanta United’s brightest young talents; a chance to play against one of the South’s amateur clubs from NPSL. This week in the prospects recap, we review that match, and we look at two academy players representing the United States in very different situations.
U18 Academy Earns a Draw in Birmingham
On Saturday evening, Atlanta United’s academy faced one of the more unique opponents it has had to play against this season; NPSL’s Birmingham Hammers. A squad consisting of a mix of players from the U18 and U16 teams put on a good performance against the Hammers, ultimately coming away with a 1-1 result.
Atlanta’s starting eleven consisted mostly of their key U18’s with a few younger players mixed in, including the 15-year old left back George Bello. United started brightly, confidently knocking the ball around the midfield. The first big chance came around 15 minutes in. Bello combined well with left winger Machop Chol, finding space in the box and firing a shot that was saved well by Hammers keeper Pritchard N’Daira. United was able to claim the rebound and reset the ball out to Victor Pereyra-Zavala, whose shot was tipped just over. U18 leading goalscorer Patrick Okonkwo had few opportunities but was still able to get his head on a pair of crosses, with both headers ending up off target. Birmingham began to find more momentum towards half-time, but after 45 minutes, neither side had found the back of the net.
The breakthrough arrived for United just 3 minutes into the second half. After some build up down the left side, a bouncing ball was played into Pereyra-Zavala just outside the box. The midfielder expertly played a volleyed through ball between two Birmingham defenders to find Okonkwo, who laced a left-footed shot past newly-subbed in keeper Brad Louis. For the 19-year old striker, it was another fine goal to add to his impressive tally of 26 from the DA regular season.
As the second half went on, Atlanta used the opportunity to mix in several of their younger players, getting them important experience against some college-aged players. U16 regulars Bello, Dawson Gideon, and Kendall Edwards started the match, while Will Crain, Dylan Gaither, Blake White and James Brighton all came off the bench after half-time.
Like the first half, United started off possessing the ball with poise and confidence, and the Hammers grew into the game as the half went on. Unlike the first half, however, the home side’s pressure earned them an equalizer. On a corner kick, Hammers captain Jack Ball ghosted away from his marker on the back post and was able to power a header past Atlanta keeper Russell Shealy. Birmingham had chances to get a winner, mostly coming from long throw-ins, but when the referee blew for full-time, it was all square at 1-1.
If I had to pick a man of the match from Atlanta’s perspective, I’d go with Victor Pereyra-Zavala. The U18’s midfield engine may be small in stature, but he more than held his own against the physical Hammers midfield. His beauty of an assist was a small part of his performance on Saturday. While he was on the field, he controlled the possession and tempo of the match for the youngsters, and his presence was missed once he was subbed out. Overall, this match provided Atlanta United’s academy players with valuable experience against a good opponent, and I’m sure we’ll see Tony Annan and the club arrange more of these type of matches in the future.
More News from Youth National Teams
Just hours after his club teammates finished up in Birmingham, Lagos Kunga and the United States U20 National Team concluded their group stage of the World Cup against Saudi Arabia. Kunga was an unused substitute in a 1-1 draw that ultimately resulted in the US clinching the top spot in Group F. Kunga has appeared off the bench in the team’s 3-3 draw with Ecuador and their 1-0 win over Senegal. Next up for the U20’s is a round of 16 match-up with New Zealand.
Meanwhile, back in America, another Atlanta United youth earned his first youth national team call-up, as U13 midfielder Alejandro De Villena was selected for YNT futures camp in Carson, California. De Villena becomes United’s fifth player born in 2003 to be called into a US youth national team camp this season.
In US Soccer, age groups are divided by the year in which a player is born, meaning that players who are born in the second half of the year are often a school grade below their older teammates. Statistically, players born earlier in the year are called into national team camps at a much higher rate than players born at the end of the year. The futures camp exists to counteract those trends; it is specifically for players born after July 1st in either 2002 or 2003, or for players who have shown their talent despite not being filled-out yet physically. The fact that such a camp exists can be considered a commentary on the failures of US Soccer’s youth scouting, but at least it’s providing players like De Villena with opportunities to prove themselves on the national stage.