If you’ve ever been driving an older vehicle to get an emissions test done, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the advice “drive it like you stole it.” Of course, this is because once your car is fully warmed up and the different engine parts are working at their peak performance, you’re much more likely to see good results.
Yes, this is an extended metaphor for youth development at a professional soccer club, and while it is admittedly a bit ridiculous, it does have some application to where Atlanta United currently stands. The Five Stripes’ academy officially began it’s third season last weekend, and when you stand back a bit and take stock of where the club’s development system is compared to this time 24 months ago, you see how much has already been accomplished. Four academy products have debuted for the first team, sixteen have made at least one professional appearance, and players who have been with the club since the beginning have shown real progress. It certainly feels like, at this point, the “development machine” at the club is fully warmed up and ready to produce quality talent for the next several years.
With all that in mind, here’s a few things to look out for as the new season gets rolling.
Integration with USL and Beyond
The most tangible evidence of an academy’s performance is producing professional-quality players, and as we already discussed, Atlanta United has shown no hesitation to give their kids professional minutes when they’ve earned it, even if it’s just limited exposure. This has primarily been with the club’s USL expansion side ATL UTD 2, and despite the 2’s on-field growing pains, fans have been able to get glimpses of several of the club’s most promising academy kids.
Six current members of the U19 squad have already made their pro debut with ATL UTD 2: defenders Kendall Edwards, Natneal McDonald and Luke Mitchell, midfielder Dylan Gaither, and forwards Jackson Conway and Diego Lopez. There are others who could be on the cusp of a pro opportunity, such as DA Eastern Conference U17 Best XI centerback George Campbell and midfield standouts Victor Delgado and Takuma Suzuki.
This off-season saw a significant change to the academy’s coaching structure, with Tony Annan taking a step back from coaching any specific age group to focus more on a true director’s role, as well as becoming more involved with the USL team and integrating young players into it. ATL UTD 2 is still the newest component to the club’s development structure, and Scott Donnelly’s side is still feeling out it’s role in United’s everyday operations and long-term aspirations. How the academy players do at that level, and whether any of them follow the lead of Laurent Kissiedou and Alessandro Castro in signing a professional contract with the reserves, will be something to follow all season.
The Next Wave Approaches
If players from the U19’s are going to be consistently pushing for USL minutes, it follows that kids from younger age groups will be taking their places. Atlanta United has done some of this in the past, but has not been as aggressive with promoting kids above their own age group as some other MLS clubs. Expect this to be a greater focus this season.
With this year’s U17’s, this will be of particular interest. The U17 age group in the Development Academy is a split-age group containing players from both the 2002 and 2003 birth years,. This year’s roster is heavily-skewed towards the older kids, with most of the 2003’s on a U16 team that does not compete in the DA. Last year, the U17 roster was very similarly skewed, but as the season went on, 02’s like Josh Francombe, Juan Zuniga, Tarek Sirdah, Wasswa Robbins and Jordan Matthews slowly earned more opportunities, and by season’s-end, more than half of the starting XI was from the younger age group. The U16’s are a talented bunch with a handful of USYNT players in their ranks, so which players stand out and earn chances with the U17’s this year will be an important sub-plot.
For the kids currently on the U17 roster, 2018-19 will also be a big year for their own progression and national exposure. Last season, we watched as players like Campbell and Conway, both of whom were primarily bench options for the team that won a national championship in 2017, took over leadership roles with the 17’s and went from inexperienced youngsters to genuine professional prospects at their positions.
This year’s U17 crop contains a ton of potential options for who can make a similar leap in stature. Will we see it from experienced returnees like Zuniga, Francombe or Robbins? Will a new recruit like USYNT midfielder Landon Ameres make a name for himself? Or will it be one of the youngest players on the roster such as highly-rated center-back Kobey Stoup or 14-year old goalkeeper Vicente Reyes? With former Newcastle United midfielder Stephen Glass taking the coaching reigns, and high-level competitions like the Generation adidas Cup on the schedule, the U17’s are likely the academy’s most interesting age group and should make for intriguing viewing over the next twelve months.
Atlanta United began their academy back in 2016, launching teams at every age group all the way down through the U12’s. At the time, it was impossible to really say anything about the youngest players in the system. Fast forward 24 months, and all of a sudden those kids who started with those U12’s are beginning to make themselves known.
Of the 22 players on this year’s U15’s, 15 of them were on that inaugural U12 team. Some are already earning some national plaudits, with players like defender Bryan Casanova and midfielders Samuel Kolby and Efrain Morales earning YNT call-ups within the past year. Looking even younger in the academy, five players on the U14’s are in their third year with the club and only two are new to the program in 2018. The U13 squad is made up entirely of players returning from last season’s U12 team.
With this, you’re beginning to see a pattern for how Atlanta United wants to operate their academy system: bring players in at a very young age and spend multiple years committing to their development, ingraining the concepts and values associated with their style of play, and patiently guiding them up the age groups. Then, once they reach a certain age, the rosters are supplemented with talented youngsters from around the Southeast and beyond.
Once these players are old enough and experienced enough to be knocking on the door of the professional ranks, they’ll have spent potentially 5, 6, even 7 years being well-drilled in the philosophies and nuances of how to be an Atlanta United player, the same philosophies that come straight from Carlos Bocanegra’s desk and out of Tata Martino’s mouth. Ideally, these kids and all those who follow them will be better prepared than any in the club’s short history to make an immediate impact when their time comes. Even for the U15’s, that time is still at least a couple years away, but if it’s anything like the last two years, it will be here sooner than you realize.