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Tension brewing between Atlanta United and U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos

Players like George Bello can only be in one place at one time

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MLS: Real Salt Lake at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy -USA TODAY Sports

The U-20 World Cup is a great opportunity for teams to showcase young, talented players on the cusp of launching big careers in soccer. The 2015 tournament featured Zack Steffen and Matt Miazga for the USA and Kaku represented Argentina. In 2017 Josh Sargent was tied for the second most goals in the tournament and no doubt helped solidify his status as a legitimate prospect ahead of signing with Werder Bremen. Other players like Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Paul Pogba have won the Golden Ball award and gone on to become global superstars.

With the tournament coming up this summer, it seems like Atlanta United could have several players in the tournament including Ezequiel Barco with Argentina and others featuring for Tab Ramos’ USA team. George Bello, Andrew Carleton, and Chris Goslin seem likely players that could fight for roster spots, if not walk into them, as some of the top youth players in the country.

However, that may not be in the cards this year if the club sticks to not releasing players for the U-20 team as it did last season. As reported an article in The Athletic by Paul Tenorio, Atlanta United and other MLS clubs would not let some players join the team:

As the U-20 coach, Ramos has faced resistance from MLS teams in releasing young players, even when they are not starting or playing consistently. That happened with Atlanta’s Andrew Carleton and D.C. United’s Chris Durkin this past year, both of whom were held out of U-20 games because they were in the 18-man gameday roster for their respective club teams. It also happened when Atlanta refused to release left back George Bello for the Nike friendlies in December.

“They played in New York and George Bello was in Atlanta and we were playing Nike friendlies down here in Florida against Brazil,” Ramos said, shaking his head. “That’s a lost opportunity. Somewhere in the middle there (within the hierarchy), someone has to be talking about it.”

Tenorio goes on to describe how Ramos mentions that Pogba was released to play for France by his club Juventus and several players for Mexico were released during the LigaMX playoffs.

This is a part of the age old club vs. country debate that bubbles up from time to time that involves asking questions that don’t always have a clear answer: is it best for young players to stay with their clubs to fight for regular minutes with their first teams or perhaps step down a level and get minutes in international matches with players their own age? Do teams in domestic leagues have some kind of national duty to release players risking injury in non-club games? What about Barco, should Atlanta release all of its players as a matter of course?

In the US there’s an added wrinkle - the U-20 World Cup will happen during the long summer of an MLS season that is being compressed this year to fit in the new playoff schedule. It will also end when the Gold Cup kicks off in mid-June (a tournament that MLS does break for, unlike the U-20 World Cup, but Ramos isn’t taking shots at the league for that decision). Taking the example of Bello, if he ends up starting for Atlanta United regularly, is it worth it for him to leave the club for training camp and then a packed international tournament schedule?

This is a hard question to answer and one that has several factors described above that weigh on Atlanta’s coaches and front office leadership who make such decisions. Everyone has a boss though and it obviously puts Tab Ramos in a difficult position as he might be missing out on several players that could help him lead the US to a good finish in the tournament.

In the end, Atlanta United has to do what’s best for the club regardless of the needs of the National Team. There is obviously a need at left back for the club and in terms of development Bello starting for his club probably isn’t missing much by going to the U-20 World Cup - regardless of what Tab Ramos says. In fact, it’s arguable that he’d gain more from trying to hold off Tito Villalba in training and Albert Rusnak in matches than trying to mark someone like New Zealand’s Logan Rogerson.

The soccer times in the US are changing - and that’s a good thing. Gone are the days when a USSF residency academy in Florida fed young players to the college ranks on their way to MLS. Now players like Carleton or Bello have developed at a private academy or at one run by an MLS team. But with that change comes the conflict that Ramos has with the team, who has few options by to try to cajole or shame teams that don’t cooperate publicly to release players to play for him.