2020 was a disappointing year for Atlanta United and a hard year for most of us. Now that we have reached the merciful end of the season, we can look forward to 2021 and beyond with a sense of hope for what can be rebuilt and restored, how we can take the nostalgia for the near past and see that passionate verve of the 17’s restored to the Mercedes Benz Stadium and on screens around the world. That hope comes from our youth.
We, as a fanbase, got to see what a healthy George Bello can do. More importantly, George Bello got to see what a healthy George Bello could do. He is a young man brimming with potential and confidence. He is bigger, stronger, and faster than a year ago, and is developing the kind of instincts and touch that hard-fought minutes can bring. While he had his share of gaffs in his first full season, Bello is a smart young man who continues to learn from his mistakes and continues to build upon positive showings to become a player worthy of European interest and USMNT consideration in the very near future.
At the beginning of the season, Bello’s health and ability to contribute meaningful minutes was in doubt. Veteran fullback Edgar Castillo joined the squad as a stable presence on the left and Anton Walkes returned as an option at both the centerback and fullback positions. Bello’s bad luck seemed to return after a scary collision in Birmingham sent him to the hospital and put his season in doubt. In an ironic twist of fate, the disruption of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic gave George Bello and some of his fellow defenders time to heal and return to training. It provided a reset to their season narratives.
One player hurt by the disrupted season was George Campbell. With the team’s defensive depth torn to shreds by injury, Campbell made his MLS debut less than a year after signing as the club’s sixth Homegrown player, forgoing his commitment to Syracuse University. On March 8, George Campbell entered the match against FC Cincinnati just before the half after former fellow-2’s centerback Laurence Wyke was forced to depart with a head injury. Campbell played well as an unexpected substitute making his debut, helping to hold onto a 2-1 victory at home. Campbell seemed to have lucked into a heap of playing time as the emergency starter in upcoming Concacaf Champions League matches, regular season fixtures, and potentially a starter in the US Open Cup once his teammates returned to their regular starting roles. But fate intervened and Campbell’s season practically ended as the final seconds ticked away on his debut match.
One has to wonder how much 2020 has affected Campbell’s season. With increased restrictions of movement between MLS and USL sides, Campbell was forced to remain with the MLS squad for the duration of a lost 2020 season and failed to receive any more opportunities outside of the training grounds. This was a colossal test for a young player so hopefully he comes in hungry and ready to compete for more time in his second full year with the MLS team in 2021.
During the mid-season hiatus, Atlanta United added another exciting Homegrown player by signing Tyler Wolff from the academy. Tyler had already appeared for Atlanta United 2 in their season debut against Charleston in a front-3 featuring Luis Fernando and Phillip Goodrum and with George Bello playing the first half as a left wingback. Tyler is the eldest of USMNT legend Josh Wolff’s sons to play for Atlanta United’s academy and his signing may have been a preemptive attempt to keep his father, now Austin’s manager, from stealing his son for the expansion side.
Tyler made an impression on the coaching staff, and with a depleted attacking contingent heading into the MLS Bubble, Tyler got his chance against Inter Miami SC on September 2nd in Atlanta United’s first match back at the Benz.
Tyler may have been one of the most mismanaged players this season, and that is saying a lot considering George Campbell’s lack of minutes as injuries and fatigue piled up in the final month of the season. In just his second match, Coach Glass penciled Tyler Wolff in for his first career start at a position he had never played in central midfield where he would have to fight against Dax McCarty for every inch. Naturally, this match did not go well for Wolff or for Atlanta United, but that was no fault of the player. Tyler Wolff is and should be used as a forward and winger similar to how Jon Gallagher and Jurgen Damm were used in the final matches. Tyler has loads of potential but it will take a new manager with an eye toward youth development to get him that opportunity.
Atlanta United signed a second Homegrown Player in 2020 who will officially join the team in 2021. Efrain Morales is a tall and lanky 16-year old defender who began 2020 by trialing with Manchester United under the supervision of Tony Annan. In his debut match, Morales and Atlanta United struck gold.
Right place, right time.— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) August 16, 2020
Efrain Morales with his first career goal in his first career game pic.twitter.com/5SziJgsUEK
Annan raves about his young centerback. Morales is a gifted passer, a smooth defender, and highly advanced for his age. Morales appeared in four matches, mostly platooning with Atlanta United’s Superdraft first round pick Patrick Nielsen for starts alongside Mo Jadama. Expect Morales to train with the first team in the off-season but feature as a regular starter for the 2’s in his age-17 season in 2021. Morales will be in Atlanta United’s plans and seems likely to be the heir to Miles Robinson’s spot when he is ready following the 2021 season.
Finally, we will check in our last two Homegrowns who are off on loans with other clubs in the USL.
Andrew Carleton came into 2020 with an ultimatum looming over him. Carleton needed to grow up fast and begin producing on and off of the field in a way that reflects his status of Atlanta United’s first ever Homegrown signing. The club hoped a season-long loan to Indy Eleven could do the trick to remove Carleton from the hometown temptations that proved ruinous for his relationship with both Tata Martino and Frank de Boer. If Andrew Carleton was to remain a member of the 5-Stripes, he had to show out in Indy.
On a veteran side with loads of attacking talent, Carleton seemed to fit right in. Carelton immediately built a strong chemistry with center-forward Tyler Pasher and became a key part of a dynamic attacking trio. Carleton mostly started on the left wing but occasionally moved centrally in the attack to either the attacking midfield or second striker position where he could slot dangerous passes or flip the field for loads of hockey assists. It is for that reason that Carleton’s season stats do not tell the full story. Accumulating one goal and three assists over 721 minutes in 14 matches does not look that great on paper but that does not account for the role he played. Ironically, Carleton’s assists came from brilliant performances by Tyler Pasher, so we know what he can do when he has a talented striker to feed.
All three of @andrewcarleton7's assists this season have come on goals scored by @Typash, and the two have connected in back-to-back outings after this goal for @IndyEleven.— Nicholas Murray (@NJEMurray) August 15, 2020
The connection's really starting to click for these two. #INDvPIT #IndyForever pic.twitter.com/CYt1cNrBUg
He seems to be involved in the build-up of nearly every opportunity Indy gets and is active on an off of the ball, something that was noticeably absent from many Atlanta United players this year. It may be an impulsive hot take to say that Carelton is a more intriguing player than Ezeqiuel Barco, but if Carleton can truly put his distractions aside and play like the player we know he can be then he could be a very valuable addition to the team in 2021. That’s a big “if”. Indy Eleven seemed to love Andrew Carleton so there is a possibility that he could return there, but the goal for a player of his ability should be higher. A loan to Aberdeen FC in the Scottish Premier League could be in his future.
The other player to go on loan in 2020 was Lagos Kunga. Kunga was the fourth Homegrown player signed after Chris Goslin and George Bello, and comes into a crucial year for his future with the club. After seeing his former teammates Goslin, Patrick Okonkwo, and Laurent Kissiedou depart last winter after failing to meet expectations, Kunga was under a lot of pressure to make a leap forward with Phoenix Rising FC.
Phoenix Rising FC are one of the better veteran sides of the USL, fielding players with top-tier experience. They are also one of the most potent attacking squads in the league. Kunga would need to fight hard to earn minutes with this side.
Work hard enough and you can take advantage of the lucky bounces.— Phoenix Rising FC (@PHXRisingFC) May 2, 2020
Check out this @RickSchantz1 breakdown of @LAGOSKUNGA's goal against New York Red Bulls in the latest Rising Insights!
FULL VIDEO: https://t.co/QP8Rac8gDu#RisingTogetherButSeparate pic.twitter.com/BqURMop4QK
In the end, Kunga finished his loan with a goal and an assist over 8 matches. Most of his appearances were late cameos of no more than a few minutes but he got a couple of lengthy late substitutions early in the season against LA Galaxy II and Orange County.
It is hard to tell if this was enough to earn a place on Atlanta United’s team next year. The club’s expectations with the player were likely clear between the club and the player but for reasons that are understandable, the specifics have not been made clear to the media. While a team in a rebuilding year may want to have all of their players back in the preseason for a new coach to consider, Kunga feels like one who may be surplus due to the prioritization of the wing position in international signings and how little of an impact he made in his loan. If Atlanta felt like 2020 was a fluke year, they could loan him out for one more year by picking up any contract options that may be left with him, but they could also let him walk like they did with three Homegrown prospects last year.
That wraps up our Homegrown season wrap-up. This will be an intriguing off-season to see who returns, who is elevated in importance, and which current academy players and college players may sign their first contracts with the club. There will be plenty more news ahead so stay tuned for what should be an active winter.