It’s not often that you have a competitive match to prepare for five weeks after the conclusion of a regular season campaign, but that’s exactly the challenge facing Atlanta United as it looks toward formally finishing off its season in the Concacaf Champions League this December.
So what is the plan, exactly?
Here’s what we know:
First, Atlanta United’s front office plans to hold talks with players on a one-on-one basis over the next seven to ten days, according to Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. In those talks, any player with a contract option that can be accepted or declined will be notified what action the club plans to take. Those roster moves will be made official and publicized at the end of the month.
Bocanegra added that every player currently on the roster is eligible to play in the second leg against Club America (Atlanta United currently trails 3-0). Players who have their options declined at the end of the month may still have an opportunity to play by extending their current deals by a matter of weeks. Some players may elect to take that opportunity to showcase themselves one last time before hitting the market in search of a new team. Some may also choose to utilize that time differently, and we can expect at least some players to decline.
In the meantime — between now and the last week of November — Atlanta United’s players are on a break. Bocanegra said the club encouraged everyone to take some time off to forget about soccer and be with family and loved ones — some of whom haven’t been able to visit with family in close to a year due to COVID-19. Players will reconvene at the training ground at the end of the month, presumably working with current interim manager Stephen Glass.
Maybe the most interesting part of all of this is how a proverbial “lame duck” game like this presents an opportunity for players from Atlanta United 2 and the Academy. Bocanegra said several players who have excelled at those levels will be given an opportunity to train with the first team during the mini-camp ahead of entering the CCL bubble. The leading names on this list would be Erik Lopez (technically a 2s player at the moment) and Jackson Conway. Conway lead Atlanta United 2 in scoring with 6 goals in 10 appearances. Macky Diop, who also scored 6 goals (12 appearances) could also be in contention. It would make sense for Atlanta United’s youngest homegrown, center back Efrain Morales, to also get some experience in camp.
The list of Academy players who could make the training camp is impressively extensive, as several have had impressive displays on the field in USL this season. Midfielder/winger David Mejia and fullback Caleb Wiley would be prime candidates to get some training experience. But maybe no Academy player is more certain to be called in than Will Reilly, who established himself as a regular presence in central midfield for Atlanta United 2 this season.
There’s really no downside in calling in too many players to train, and things will be highly flexible all the way up until the camp begins. Bocanegra reminded media that the club can’t even ensure that players they want to participate in the camp will return without testing positive for COVID-19, so more options can’t hurt.