MLS youth academies are, for the players who are good enough, springboards that propel talented players to the next level in their soccer careers. In America, that springboard sends players down two pathways: the professional path and the collegiate path.
Two graduates from the Atlanta United Academy became friends despite ultimately going down the two different pathways: Takuma Suzuki, who now plays at Wake Forest, and George Campbell, the newest homegrown player to play for Atlanta United’s first team.
As the only top level professional club in Georgia, very few players in the local area experience playing for a youth academy that rivals European youth academies’ quality in facilities, coaching, and opportunity.
Academy players get the full treatment while playing for Atlanta’s youth academy: locker rooms and showers, physios and trainers, access to ice baths and a fully outfitted gym for weight lifting after practice. And like other MLS academies and academies in other parts of the world, the club funds the youth team’s trips to compete around the country.
While the youth academy is designed to produce players for the first team, the club understands that not every player can reach that level. That’s why there is a strong emphasis on the importance of education and collegiate soccer. And for an academy of Atlanta’s caliber, players go down both pathways on a frequent basis. As the Academy’s director, identifying potential professional players is one of Tony Annan’s most important tasks.
“I wouldn’t say you could spot a pro before 16,” Annan said. “I’ll be honest with you, the earliest I’ve ever recognized a pro was at 15, and it was George Bello. He was kind of an anomaly to the rule.
“What we can’t make a mistake of is going in too early on a player [deeming him not good enough] and kind of taking away the opportunity to get his education and to play collegiate soccer.”
When Suzuki first joined the academy, college soccer was not an active pursuit. That changed after he played in the Generation Adidas Cup, a youth tournament that gives MLS U-17 academy sides a chance to showcase their game to scouts from around the country. After the tournament, a few scouts reached out to Suzuki.
“That’s when I realized I have an opportunity to go to college using soccer,” Suzuki said. “To see [Wake Forest alum and former Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst] make his way up, even to the Champions League, which is everyone’s dream, I think it’s really inspiring for everyone at Wake Forest.”
While he was in the Academy, Suzuki often scrimmaged against Atlanta United’s first team, which he says set him up well for his arrival in Winston-Salem.
“I think the biggest part of playing for the academy was to experience the intensity of professionals,” Suzuki said. “I wasn’t too overwhelmed [at Wake] because I’ve seen that level.”
Campbell also scrimmaged against the first team when he was in the academy, and the experience was crucial.
“I had played against the first team as an academy player a few times, and that’s kind of where you first realize how much you have to work to get there because it’s a completely different level,” Campbell said. “USL from academy is another level and then it’s another huge step to the first team.
“When you’re playing with the academy against the first team, you’re defending almost the whole time. And when you have the ball you have to think a lot faster. It’s eye opening when you get a chance to play against the first team, especially the starters.”
Campbell soon took those experiences and ran with them. Atlanta fans now know who he is, but Annan says there was a time where he wasn’t on track to the professional level straight out of the academy.
“George Campbell didn’t really emerge as a professional player until almost 18-years-old,” Annan said. “Some blossom earlier than others, there’s a process they have to go through.”
Having played alongside Campbell in the academy, Suzuki heard stories and witnessed Cambell’s development first hand.
“I think he was pretty exceptional,” Suzuki said of Campbell. “I don’t think people expected him to be a pro, not to be disrespectful or anything. When I joined the academy he was pretty amazing, but apparently he was not that good a few years back.
“The year before I joined the academy, they won the championship, but George wasn’t starting or anything. He was not seen as this guy who was going to have a breakout season and sign a professional contract, but he grew. His potential is out the ceiling.
“He’s like a workhorse, just getting better and better every day. In games, literally no one could get by him. He got so damn good in a matter of six months, and next thing you know he signed a professional contract, which he really deserves.”
Part of Campbell’s rapid development is due to a position change from midfield to center back.
“I already played midfield so naturally you get…more touches than a center back—under pressure at least,” Campbell said. “I had a good enough sense of the ball, dribbling. I was comfortable stepping in with the ball at center back so I think a lot of the defensive midfield attributes…just translated to center back, it just helped me become more of a comfortable ball playing center back. That position change really helped me.”
Before the sudden change in trajectory to signing a first team contract, Campbell committed to the University of Maryland during his junior year of high school.
“As the year got on, I just got better and better and kept working hard and eventually I started pretty much training with the USL team everyday,” Campbell said. “ I was playing well and I eventually played some games with them. That’s when the conversation between me, my parents, the club, and Maryland came up.”
For Annan, success in his role is ambiguous. While it can be empirically measured in some respects, there’s a less tangible aspect in just providing young players the best possible opportunity to succeed.
“First and foremost, players on the field in the first team [is] the number one metric of success for me personally and the academy,” Annan said. “How many players in the first team squad, how many players are progressing through to play minutes with the first team, and then eventually who do we move on to Europe from our first team for money. That’s basically the measure of success for the academy system.
“But if you go down a few different avenues of success on the way, collegiately putting kids in division one schools or very good schools that they want to go to and them having a great college career is also a success.
“We’re not going to sign 10 players a season, so we have to make sure they’re successful in life as well, which is probably up there with getting players signed to the 2’s and the first team.”
Or said another way—the Academy isn’t going to produce 10 George Campbells a season, but it can help produce seemingly unlimited opportunities for players like Suzuki.
“[Playing professionally] is my ultimate goal, definitely,” Suzuki said. “I also want to make sure I graduate from school and get degrees, hopefully in business. I think the academic aspect is just as important as the athletic aspect.”
In certain cases, when an academy graduate moves on to collegiate soccer, his journey with Atlanta United isn’t finished.
“We have a process internally that we look at before we sign a kid professionally,” Annan said. “There’s a lot of data we look at, a lot of games, a lot of scouting reports we put in. If they don’t hit the metrics, then we send them off to college and see how they develop from there.
“You take someone like Machop Chol…he’s very good and we like him a lot, but he wasn’t ready to sign a professional contract when he was 18. So we packed him up for college, we’ve been monitoring him, we’ve kept him coming in training with us. He’s approaching his senior year and we’ll be looking at him very closely whether we sign him as a professional going forward.”
The academy has played a role in producing an impressive nine players that have signed a professional contract with Atlanta United or Atlanta United 2 and 31 players (not including the upcoming graduating class) that have secured Division 1 college soccer scholarships.
“Even if you’re not one of the ones that they think may sign [a professional contract], they still give lots of opportunities and there’s tons of Division 1 college coaches who are always watching games,” Campbell said.
Before Atlanta United ever kicked a ball in MLS under the floodlights at Bobby Dodd Stadium, its youth academy was well underway after launching in 2016. A year later, it won the U-16 national championship. With two academy graduates poised to compete for first team minutes when MLS returns, Atlanta United fans can confidently predict its club and city will continue to produce considerable amounts of talent for years to come.