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Atlanta United 2 plays the kids

Atlanta United 2 added an 18-year old Paraguayan forward in Erik Lopez before starting their youngest-ever XI in club history

Dakota Williams/Atlanta United

The big news of the weekend was Atlanta United’s impending signing of the young Paraguayan striker Erik Lopez and his assignment to their 2nd division reserve squad. For many, the young Paraguayan represents a beacon of hope amidst an otherwise dismal downturn in an already tempestuous year. When Lopez will arrive and how he will feature for the 2’s is yet to be seen but that conversation seemed to be the dominant thread ahead of Atlanta United 2’s Saturday night fixture against Memphis 901 FC. Before the match, some fans were joking about how the real show in town this year may not be our beloved Five Stripes, but maybe their little brothers up the road in Kennesaw. The match that followed showed how right those fans might be but not for the reason they thought.

Lopez joins a young squad, so young, in fact, that the mean age of the starting lineup for Saturday night was 19.6 years old with the eldest being the captain, Mo Jadama (26), and the goalkeeper, Ben Lundgaard (24).

The lineup also featured another remarkable first for both the club and the organization. On Saturday night, Atlanta United 2 started six academy players and an academy graduate on his first professional deal. On the bench, David Mejia (M) and Vincente Reyes (GK) await their first professional minutes. For the majority of these players, this is only their first or second match above the youth level and they are about to take on a Memphis team full of seasoned USL veteran players.

A key absence from this lineup is midfielder Amir Bashti. In the previous match against Tamp Bay, Bashti was sent off for a reckless challenge at the top of the box. With Bashti’s suspension, Atlanta United 2 skipper Stephen Glass turned to 17 year old Trinidadian youth international Ajani Fortune to anchor the midfield with his academy teammate, Will Reilly. Ahead of them, Glass called on the 18 year old Atlanta United 2 veteran Jackson Conway to attempt to repeat his golazo-producing performance of the previous week with the support of Coleman Gannon and Phillip Goodrum on the wings. At the back, Wake Forest-bound Garrison Tubbs lined up with Mo Jadama and recent U-17 Matthew Edwards, flanked by Caleb Wiley and Jack Gurr. This extremely young squad is the vision of the future.

It only took 20 minutes for that vision to start to bear fruit.

Atlanta United’s third round pick in the 2020 MLS Superdraft, Phillip Goodrum, slides a beautiful ball into the middle of the box for Jackson Conway to bury it past the diving Memphis keeper. Ajani Fortune gets the hockey assist off of the throw-in by Caleb Wiley.

Memphis clawed a goal back on a set piece thanks to a point-blank header that could have been called off for obstruction of the goalkeeper, but the goal stood and the 2’s went to the half tied at 1. Considering the young and inexperience of the Atlanta side and their results last season, they had to feel happy about carrying that scoreline into the first stoppage.

In the second half, the match was largely quiet until the 56th minute when Jadama saw a crease up the center of the Memphis defense and made a run LGP would have been proud of to find a flashing Coleman Gannon. Jadama broke through a compressed 2 or 3 lines of Memphis players with his pass to free Gannon to an open run on the left side of the box for his first professional goal.

As you can barely see at the bottom of the frame, Conway does an excellent job dragging Rece Buckmaster off of the backline to keep Gannon on-side for his run. Conway then runs off of the ball to open space for Gannon and provide a central option if Gannon chose not to shoot.

Minutes later, Gannon gets another brilliant run down the left flank but decides to cut inside to set up a long range blast from Goodrum that forced a strong save by the Memphis keeper. We were seeing a young player full of confidence making dangerous runs with the ball at his feet.

In the 80th minute, 17 year old midfielder, David Mejia came in for Matthew Edwards as Atlanta sought to clog the midfield with another body. While this was a big moment for Mejia, who had also made the bench the previous week, it represented an even bigger moment for the organization. In just over two seasons, Atlanta United has featured 28 players with their USL squad, and that number is likely to grow this season.

The match finished tied at two goals but the team has to feel good about the promising performances of so many young players. In his third season with Atlanta United 2, Jackson Conway has cemented himself as a pro with plenty of potential to continue growing. The big question for him is whether Eales and Bocanegra feel the same way and whether they believe a loan to Aberdeen would be more valuable for his growth than promotion to the MLS squad. Time will tell.

Gannon and Edwards looked like they belonged and Fortune and Reilly did enough to continue seeing valuable minutes in the midfield for this team. Gannon is currently committed to play for collegiate soccer powerhouse Indiana University in 2021 as is Will Reilly for Stanford University. With a full season in the USL in 2020 and a partial season in 2021 ahead of them, it seems more likely that these young players will receive professional contracts rather than collegiate scholarships.

So, we return to the question in the lead of the article. Where will Lopez play? With Jackson’s run of form, it is hard to see Glass sitting Jackson for Lopez, so it will likely be Gannon or Goodrum taking a seat. As the fifth most expensive signing in club history, Lopez will play, it is just a question of whether a talented academy player or a third-round draft pick is sacrificed to get him minutes.

In his first interview with American press after his signing, Lopez shares that he feels most comfortable as a second striker where he has primarily played for most of his career. He likes to have the ball so he can facilitate and create space for his teammates and score goals. He believes his greatest strengths are his vision and technique, so he wants to have the ball and create dangerous opportunities with the ball at his feet. With a larger center forward like Conway who has developed good touch and good spacial awareness, adding a second striker like Lopez would create a dynamic young duo, but that would likely force a formation shift. He says he is also fine with playing on the wing so he could start there with us if we are tied to the 3-man front approach.

This writer, for one, is excited to see Lopez join the youth movement in Kennesaw and to see the chemistry he can build with the club’s next generation of players. Despite this being such a disrupted season, the model of starting talented but raw U-21 rising stars with promising academy players and draft picks seems to be the future for Atlanta United 2 and that future is bright.

In other news, Atlanta United homegrown Andrew Carleton put on another good show for the Indy Eleven. This loan seems to have been exactly what Carleton needed. This was Indy’s third victory this year and tenth home victory in a row. Now playing as a facilitator from the left wing, Carleton delivered some immaculate service from midfield and from set pieces to set up his teammates Tyler Pasher and Paddy Barrett for the team’s winning goals. He combines well with his partners in the front three with crisp and quick passing, often dropping into the midfield to bring the ball up from deeper positions to spring forwards running off of the opposing centerbacks.

Like Jackson Conway, Andrew Carleton is trying to force the Atlanta United bosses into making a difficult decision this winter about his future. He is playing like he deserves another shot and is still just 20 years old. The question is whether he will get it with us.

You can catch the remaining Atlanta United 2 season along with all other USL matches on ESPN+ for a very reasonable monthly subscription fee. Considering this may be the only Atlanta United football we will get to watch in 2020 after our match with Columbus, that may be the best deal in town.