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How George Bello signaled a change in Atlanta United’s Academy development program

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Tony Annan described a revamped approach to youth development

SOCCER: SEP 22 MLS - Real Salt Lake at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On April 30, MLSsoccer.com released a detailed presentation by Tony Annan from the 2019 Generation Adidas Cup that has been available on YouTube since May 2019. In this presentation, Annan breaks down how the entire organization has revamped their structure and philosophy for successfully integrating talented young players into the professional ranks and how to support their on-going development.

The video is a little long, but well worth the watch.

As Annan explains, the team realized the serious issues that their first homegrown players were experiencing. Without revealing personal information, Annan discusses the real challenges players like Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin had as very young players. He wants to make a point of saying that once they left the academy, development staff had no contact with those players, which he sees as a big problem and the reason for this new approach.

Therefore, when 16-year-old George Bello signed his homegrown contract, Annan and the rest of the organization decided to use Bello as the prime subject of their new approach to wholistic development. They put in a regimented structure where Bello would appear in the highest quality competitions that he could from academy matches against MLS academies, the U-17 Generation Adidas Cup, Atlanta United 2 matches, first team matches, and even CCL matches. They wanted to give him quality minutes against quality opponents.

Meanwhile, Annan tells us that they worked with Bello to identify and build a plan to work on his weaknesses in his relationships with his left centerbacks, in identifying runs in behind from opposition wingers, and finishing his attacking runs with an accurate read on the other side of the field. They scheduled in independent training opportunities with members of the first-team coaching staff and academy instructors throughout the week as he continued to work toward improving his game.

While all of that was going on, Bello also had international duty with two United States youth teams. These camps led up to a tournament in Japan where he suffered a deep soft tissue injury in his groin that the staff immediately knew was an overuse injury. They had to assess whether it was their program, the national team staff, or a combination of the two that contributed to the situation. Regardless, it was time to make adjustments. This unfolded over several years where the program continued to evolve as Bello gave Annan frank and respectful feedback as they went.

Bello seems to be a really bright young man with a lot of drive and a great perspective on how he approaches his career and his growth as a person, a player, and a teammate. Annan applauds the mature youngster for his mindset that any adversity is potential for growth and learning. That sort of humility and drive for success will set him up for success in whatever he does.

Overall, Annan does a great job outlining:

  • Bello’s strengths and weaknesses as a player and working with the player and combined infrastructure and expertise of the team to give Bello every opportunity to succeed.
  • The team is interested in the players’ mental, physical, emotional, and financial health going forward, so they have set up a program where young professionals are required to arrive early to practices to eat breakfast at the facilities, check in with training staff, and log their health, and before they leave they are also required to eat lunch at the facilities.
  • Players are encouraged to meet with team counselors to work through any issues they may be experiencing. Annan points to Carleton and Goslin as two players who were successfully using the counseling program get back on track.
  • Young players are required to attend culinary classes with the team chefs, financial planning classes with SunTrust representatives, and monthly community service events. They want to build good citizens and community members along with great players by being actively engaged with the players from the time the enter the academy through their time as a member of the Atlanta United organization.

Annan tells us that this process has shifted their development approach from a team-based philosophy to an individual-based philosophy. Projection is the most challenging part of this new approach where they are having to identify players at a very young age from their academy teams whom they feel deserve the extra attention in this structure. He describes a scenario where a young player (in this case an ‘04, potentially Efrain Morales) is identified as a player who could potentially play for the first team one day. They are then able to plug that player into the structure they developed for Bello even earlier at 14 rather than at 16 to enhance the potential for that player’s success. The Academy wants to expose that player early in high leverage matches at Generation Adidas tournaments and other high quality minutes to create constructive adversity for the player to learn from and build on.

Annan says that this level of development for a player is maybe only realistic for one or two guys in the whole academy at a time unless there is significant potential in younger age groups. Below this level is what Annan calls the PPP which is made up of 6-12 players across several age groups who have been identified as very good and in need to extra attention from training staff for them to reach their full professional potential. This second groups meets twice a week for small-group instruction and development by Annan, personally. Level 3, is the position-specific individual instruction for players in each age group for basic player development on top on team training. Even though Annan won’t openly talk about specific players in AMA’s and in interviews, he says that players know who is in what tier in the development program and that it is an aspirational part of it for the players to want to advance.

It is very exciting to see the way Annan is creating a club culture through George Bello and how he hopes George represents the first of many highly talented players on the pipeline to the first team for years to come. If this presentation was from this year, he would probably have had something to say about George Campbell, too, who had not yet signed his pro contract when this presentation happened. In looking at how players have been handled since this presentation, we can start to see these practices in action with Efrain Morales as that top tier of talent, and Will Reilly, Josh Wolff, Garrison Tubbs, Anthony Reaves, and Marzuq Puckerin, among others as being in that next level of very real talent who are in the pipeline with AU 2 and are getting opportunities with Aberdeen and the first team in the preseason.

There is a lot to look forward to, y’all.