Atlanta United have their first piece of silverware in club history, a US Soccer Development Academy National Championship. We’re here to recap all the action from the weekend in Carson as the U16’s ended the club’s inaugural academy season in celebration, as well as discuss the significance of this accomplishment.
Atlanta United’s U16 team arrived in Carson set to contest two matches over three days, needing to win both to claim a title in the club’s first attempt. First up on the checklist was Friday’s semifinal against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
In a back and forth match against a very strong opponent, United struggled to gain the upper hand throughout the first half. Then, in the 32nd minute after a good buildup down the left side, Andrew Carleton got on the end of a pass from Alessandro Castro before spinning and firing a shot past goalkeeper Evan Ince. The goal gave Atlanta an added confidence, and it translated into the second half as United slowly took control of the match. After withstanding some more pressure from the Whitecaps, United sealed the victory when Carleton won possession along the sideline before firing a long pass to a streaking Jackson Conway, who calmly slotted past Ince to make it 2-0. Coupled with an excellent defensive performance, it was enough for the U16’s to advance through to the final.
Awaiting Atlanta in Sunday’s final was the back-to-back defending champions and the number 1 seed FC Dallas. From the start, it was immediately clear that this team would be the U16’s toughest opponent of the playoffs. The first half offered few clear-cut chances as both teams traded midfield possession in an ebbing and flowing match. United was able to control possession in patches and weather the storm in others, thanks to good work from the back line and the midfield.
Early in the second half, Dallas nearly found the breakthrough on multiple occasions through their two Homegrown signings Jesus Ferreira and Bryan Reynolds, but some last-ditch defending from Kendall Edwards and Will Crain were enough to keep the score level. In the 64th minute, the substitute Conway was able to hold off multiple defenders and earn a foul at the edge of the Dallas box, setting up a chance from a free kick. Carleton stepped up and hit a perfect free-kick over the wall and past FCD keeper Michael Collodi for a 1-0 lead.
Dallas struggled to recover following the goal and allowed Atlanta to take the momentum. Just 3 minutes after the free kick, Conway’s flicked-on header was chested down into space by Carleton. With his next touch, he did this:
Down 2-0, Dallas threw everything they could at United’s defense, and in stoppage time they got one back after Ferreira’s free kick was headed in by Edwin Cerrillo. Just minutes later, another FCD shot had to be tipped up and over the bar by goalkeeper Sai Brown. That turned out to be the game’s last chance, and when the final whistle blew, the celebrations were fully on.
The Heroes of the Day
When it comes to picking out the best individual performances from the final, you have to begin with the man himself, Andrew Carleton. Both of his goals were absolutely spectacular pieces of skill from a special young player. There may not be another kid in the country that could have done what he did this past weekend.
That said, winning any championship is always a full-team effort, and there were plenty of others who deserved acclaim. First and foremost of those was the back-line. After earning a clean sheet in the semis, the back four of Edwards, Crain, George Bello and Natneal McDonald were able to effectively shut down an FC Dallas front 3 consisting of Reynolds, Ferreira, and DA Central Conference Player of the Year Brayan Padilla. Even when Edwards went off injured in the second half, Thomas Toney came in and didn’t miss a beat. In truth, the Dallas defense kept Atlanta’s attacking stars quiet for most of the match as well. The difference in the match was Carleton taking advantage of the limited opportunities he got.
In midfield, Charlie Asensio and Dylan Gaither were the dominant forces in the quarters and semis, but in the final it was Alessandro Castro who put in his best performance of the playoffs. Castro was seemingly everywhere both in possession and without the ball, consistently making the correct pass or the timely interception. Finally, Jackson Conway made a real impact off the bench in both games, scoring in the semis and re-injecting life into United’s attack in the final. With James Brighton moving up an age group in the fall, Conway could be a real star for this team in next-season’s title defense.
The Greater Meaning of All This
In professional soccer, the results of youth teams ultimately doesn’t mean a whole lot, so what should really be taken from this triumph? First off, the triumph itself should be celebrated for what it is. This group of youngsters came together over an 11-month season, took on the best the United States has to offer, and beat them all. That in itself is worth recognition.
While Tony Annan and the academy staff deserves a lot of credit, they’ll be the first to tell you that the real credit lies with the youth clubs that make up Georgia Soccer. This team is made up of players from seven different clubs across the state, and the majority of their development as players is because of the work of coaches and parent volunteers at those clubs and at home. Georgia United, which brought along the likes of Carleton, Asensio, Chris Goslin and others, nearly won the whole thing two years ago, but they could only accomplish so much with their limited resources. This title proves that the Atlanta area and the state of Georgia has always been absolutely loaded with talent. Now that Atlanta United has arrived with it’s gleaming facilities, professional environment and deep, deep pockets, it feels as if we’re only scratching the surface of what can be accomplished with youth development in the South, and that’s very exciting.
So, the 2016-17 season has come to a close for Atlanta United’s academy, and it will start up again in September with more teams, more players and more games. There’s also several recent academy graduates about to start their freshman seasons across the NCAA, with the goal of an eventual Homegrown deal dangling in front of them. We’ll be around to tell you all about it when the time comes.