Three standouts from Atlanta United’s youth academy have been rewarded for their hard work and excellent play with a step up to the big time. In this week’s prospects recap, we tell you all about the club’s newest homegrown signings, and we examine a couple of upcoming tournaments for some of the academy’s younger players.
Kunga, Okonkwo and Bello sign Professional Deals
During Saturday’s MLS match against Columbus Crew, Atlanta United teased a special announcement to come at halftime. This announcement turned out to be the unveiling of three new Homegrown player signings from the club’s academy: Lagos Kunga, Patrick Okonkwo, and George Bello. The trio was introduced one-by-one to the sellout crowd of 44,000+ at Bobby Dodd Stadium in what was surely an emotional and memorable moment for each of them.
All three players have accomplished a lot in their youth careers up to this point, and all three had established reputations both locally and nationally before even joining Atlanta United. Okonkwo had amassed 55 goals in two Development Academy seasons with Georgia United, and followed it up this season with 26 more for Atlanta’s U18’s. Despite playing for local club Decatur-Dekalb YMCA, Kunga was on US Soccer’s radar as early as 14 years old, receiving call-ups to U15 and U17 National team camps alongside the likes of Christian Pulisic, Haji Wright, and Joshua Perez. Since joining Atlanta United, Kunga has showed his class with the U18’s and returned to the national team picture, earning four appearances and scoring once for the US at the U20 World Cup. Considering what both Kunga and Okonkwo have been able to accomplish before joining Atlanta United and since, their signings should come as no surprise.
While all three will be homegrown players, the signing of George Bello should be viewed in a different light to the other two. Okonkwo and Kunga are both 2017 high school graduates and will age out of the academy in less than a month. Bello, on the other hand, was born in 2002 and won’t turn 16 until next January. He’s a full seven months younger than the current youngest player in MLS (Bryan Reynolds of FC Dallas). Furthermore, he’s a left-back by trade, a position that is notoriously overlooked by American youth clubs. Bello earned his reputation as one of the best players his age while playing up multiple age groups in the USYS National League with Alpharetta Ambush. This season, he was once again playing above his age with Atlanta United’s U16’s, constantly converting turnovers into chances down the left flank.
Now, Bello enters a massive 18 months in his young soccer career as he integrates with Tata Martino’s squad. He should also be a big part of the next U17 World Cup cycle, which will unofficially begin with the Nike Friendlies this December. He’ll spend the entire cycle as a professional player, which should absolutely thrill Tab Ramos, John Hackworth and the rest of the USYNT coaching staff. His signing should signify a couple of things: the willingness of Tata Martino and Carlos Bocanegra to promote a young player who’s ready regardless of his age, and the quality of this particular young player.
Upcoming Tournaments for the 02’s and 03’s
By now, you should know all about Atlanta United’s two academy teams heading to Westfield, Indiana this week for the Development Academy Playoffs (if you don’t, read this). What you may not know is that a third team, the U14’s, are also in Westfield for US Soccer’s U14 USSDA Showcase event. The 2002’s will begin their showcase today against Chicago-based club Sockers FC before taking on Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders. The U14’s have struggled to score goals at times this season, yet they enter the showcase with five straight victories. The team’s leading scorer is Parker Smith with 11, while midfielder Chase Oliver and defender Josiah Blanton have also stood out for their strong play. US Soccer will be streaming the game against the Rapids on Wednesday at 2pm, so tune into that one if you can.
Meanwhile, the 2003’s will be playing in another tournament starting next Thursday, June 29th. This is an 8-team event based in Montreal put on annually by the Montreal Impact. Atlanta are drawn in Group A along with the hosts, DC United and Houston Dynamo. There’s been a lot of player turnover in the 2003 age group, and Tony Annan has brought in a lot of new faces from around Georgia and the Southeast to make up next year’s U15 squad. This tournament should be their first time officially competing together. Every game of the Montreal Tournament will be streamed on Facebook Live by the Impact’s academy, so be sure to check out some of the games.