In front of around 1000 people at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Facility last Thursday, Atlanta United’s U16’s clinched their place in the Development Academy’s Championship Weekend with a dominant victory. This week, we recap that match, preview the upcoming semifinal round, and we look at a United youngster up for a season-long award.
U16’s defeat Bethesda in Style
United’s U16 team came into Thursday night’s quarterfinal against Maryland-based club Bethesda SC. With goals from four different players, the Five Stripes put forth a very impressive performance en route to a 4-1 win. Atlanta started with a similar lineup to their group stage effort, but with two big additions: Homegrown Andrew Carleton starting on the right wing, and Charlie Asensio stepping into the defensive midfield.
Twelve minutes into the match, after a couple of early chances from Carleton and George Bello, lightning was spotted in the area and the match was delayed. Fortunately, the storm in question skirted to the south of the Marietta area and after a quick 30-minute break things were back underway. Just 6 minutes after the restart, United found their opener after Zyen Jones beat his defender down the left flank and played a ball across the box to Dylan Gaither, who swept it into the net. The second also came courtesy of Jones’ lightning-pace; after Alessandro Castro released Jones on the counter, he turned on the afterburners, speeding past his man before squaring it to Carleton for the open-net tap-in.
With Bethesda reeling, United kept their foot on the gas pedal and found a third just before half-time. After a lengthy spell of possession, Gaither swung a beautiful right-footed cross into the box to a wide-open James Brighton, who nodded the ball past Bethesda keeper Cole McNally. Half-time came at the right time for Bethesda, though, and they came out swinging after the break, forcing United keeper Sai Brown into a couple of good saves and a clearance off the line by Asensio. While the attack sputtered a bit in the second half, United found a fourth off of a great short corner routine, with Carleton playing provider this time for the excellent Jones, who got the goal he deserved. A late goal from Bethesda’s Gabe Segal spoiled the shut-out, but at full-time, Atlanta was celebrating their well-earned victory.
While the on-field action was exciting to watch, the off-field spectacle made for interesting viewing as well. Homegrowns Chris Goslin, Patrick Okonkwo and Lagos Kunga were present and spent a good amount of time signing autographs for kids in attendance. When they weren’t doing that, they and others from the U18 team were leading the crowd in chants with the help of around 20 or so academy players from younger age groups. Even Tata Martino was taking pictures with fans in between taking physical and mental notes about the youngsters on the field. Atlanta United’s front office and staff have talked a lot about building a culture of camaraderie at the club from top to bottom, and it was great to see that culture developing in real-time on Thursday night.
So, Who’s Next?
Atlanta United’s U16’s will now travel to the National Training Center in Carson, California for the Championship weekend from July 14th-16th. Friday’s semifinal opponent for the Five Stripes will be the Vancouver Whitecaps, who took a 3-0 win over their Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders in the quarterfinals. The ‘Caps have earned a reputation as one of MLS’s best development clubs and are no stranger to this stage of the DA Playoffs.
Theoretically, if Alphonso Davies wasn’t off at the Gold Cup scoring goals for the Canadian National Team, he would be young enough to play in this match for Vancouver. While Atlanta won’t have to worry about facing him, the team they will face has plenty of talent in it. Michael Baldisimo, Alessandro Hojabrpour and Jose Hernandez all represented Canada at the U17 CONCACAF Championships and should all be high on the Whitecaps’ list of potential first-team players.
Both semifinals will take place on Friday the 14th, with the third-place game and the final both taking place on Sunday the 16th. The other semifinal pits defending champions FC Dallas against Real Salt Lake, and both teams are predictably loaded. Atlanta United’s stated goal is for their academy to be as productive and highly thought-of as their three fellow semifinalists, and a strong performance in Carson will go a long way towards reaching that goal.
Brighton up for Goal of the Year
The goal that James Brighton scored in Thursday night’s quarterfinal was his 21st of the year and second of the playoffs, but not one of his most spectacular of the season. However, he did score an absolutely sensational goal against IMG Academy way back in September, one of his four on the day. That goal is one of three finalists for Development Academy Goal of the Year in the Eastern Conference, and as you can see, it’s more than worth winning that honor.
The voting, which can be found here, began on Sunday and runs through tomorrow. We all know Atlanta United fans own the world of online polls, so make sure to make your voice heard on this one as well.