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Atlanta United’s Academy paying dividends for first team, U.S. Men’s National Team in 2021

The Atlanta United Academy is fulfilling its role within the club by developing players ready to contribute quality minutes in MLS play.

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta United Academy has played a significant role within the club’s short history. In fact, the academy was representing the club between the lines even before the first team’s famous debut against New York Red Bulls in March 2017. But now the academy has grown, developed, and changed over the years, and the Five Stripes are finally starting to see the fruits of its labor.

Homegrown players start to shine for the first team

Signing a professional contract with Atlanta United was a journey for George Campbell. Joining the academy for the 2016-17 season, he’s been with the Five Stripes since the start. He worked his way up through the age groups and committed to the University of Maryland during his senior year of high school before he started earning minutes with Atlanta United 2. Eventually, Campbell decided against going to college and signed a professional contract instead.

The central defender played only 46 first team minutes in 2020, but he’s been racking up minutes in 2021. With six starts and 12 appearances this season, Campbell has taken on more responsibility within the team. He even notched his first MLS goal in September against Orlando City.

“I think it’s great that people like Bello [has] been getting playing time for a really long time, [Tyler Wolff] has got a lot of games, Jackson [Conway] had his first goal a while ago, [Machop] Chol and now me,” Campbell said. “It’s really an honor to have the coaches have confidence in you, as well as me having confidence in myself and having a bigger responsibility this year.”

George Bello is the most successful story to come out of the academy thus far, as most fans know by now. The homegrown left back went from making no first team appearances in 2019 to starting 19 games in 20 appearances for Atlanta in 2020. In 2021, Bello has seven caps for the United States Men’s National Team, has scored at the international level, and even started in the USMNT’s Gold Cup final win over Mexico this past summer.

For the academy, having players who have gone through the system and made appearances for the first team — and the senior national team — is a major positive for the academy program and gives coaches and players a reference point for how develop young players with goal of getting them to the professional level.

“It’s what you live for as a youth coach, to see these guys succeed at the highest level,” said Atlanta United youth academy director Matt Lawrey. “But the really internal piece of it that’s been really cool is now we have a bit of a blueprint. We know what we did with Jackson Conway when he was 15, 16, we know the extra sessions that we did with George Bello when he was 16. That’s exciting. So it’s fun for us to look back and say we now have a good analysis to look back on.”

While college soccer’s influence on MLS has dwindled in recent years, the Atlanta United academy also has a blueprint to move players onto the collegiate level. Atlanta United has also seen players who have come through the MLS Superdraft and made an impact on the first team (Julian Gressel and Miles Robinson, for example).

Machop Chol is a prime example of how Atlanta United has utilized college soccer to maximize opportunities for the academy players. After going through the academy and graduating high school, Chol attended Wake Forest to continue his development as a player before returning to Atlanta United and signing a homegrown deal with the club. In total, there have been 41 academy players who have gone on to play for DI NCAA teams. That’s a lot of free school.

Change at the leadership level

Atlanta United’s developmental programs have undergone a great deal of change at multiple levels within the organization. That includes the ATL UTD 2 head coach position and the youth Academy Director, positions that the club filled earlier this year.

Jack Collison, a former West Ham United player, joined Atlanta United as a youth coach in 2019. He earned his promotion to the ATL UTD 2 head coach position on June 3, 2021. One day later, Matt Lawrey replaced Tony Annan to become the second-ever Academy Director in the organization’s history.

Annan, the first Academy Director who led the program since its inception, left Atlanta United this year to coach at the University of South Carolina. Lawrey learned a considerable amount from Annan — who initially hired Lawrey back in 2016 as a U-12 coach — about working as the Academy Director over the years before the club promoted him.

“He taught me everything about what that role is, especially Atlanta, coming from a different state,” Lawrey said. “So then trying to take all those experiences as well as how Tony went about the job and adding in my own ideas and my own personality.”

One of Lawrey’s goals is to invite coaches and directors from smaller, local clubs around Georgia to visit the training grounds, watch training and talk with Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda. Lawrey wants the Atlanta United youth academy to provide youth coaches the chance to see how the most professional youth academy in Georgia operates, which is something he himself wishes he could have experienced prior to joining the youth academy in 2016.

Inviting youth coaches is something that the academy has done before, but Lawrey hopes to formalize the process, giving chances to clubs like Concord Fire and GSA the chance to take a behind-the-scenes look at how the academy functions.

Lawrey acknowledges that while the academy wants to maintain a sense of continuity in how it coaches and produces players, managerial changes can have a trickle down effect on how the academy approaches its role within Atlanta United. New conversations begin with every coach, and Pineda has immediately incorporated the academy into his thinking as the first team coach.

“He wants it to be one club, and he’s all about having that connection with the academy,” Lawrey said. “I’m invited to basically every first team training session. I’ll be in every session if I can when there’s an academy kid involved. He wants those conversations to flow, he wants academy guys to be out and around the sessions, and he wants to come into the academy as well and talk about his ideas, his game model and then we can kind of move together.”

How it all works together

The three major parts of the system — the academy, ATL UTD 2 and Atlanta United — work together with the goal of developing prospective youth players into first team caliber players. Player movement between the three levels requires considerable communication from mainly Lawrey and Collision, though Lawrey gives his coaches a great deal of autonomy when going through the process of moving players through the different academy levels and the USL level.

“I think that’s something that the director needs to have a really good relationship with and understanding of why we’re moving players up, if we’re putting the player back down with his age group or why we’re making those moves,” Lawrey said. “But it needs to be the coach’s decision, they’re the ones that are going to see the kid on a day to day basis.

“Tony definitely taught me to allow them to have that autonomy, but also you want to be the one to know what’s going on and to at least have that idea and to gain those opinions. So I think it’s a bit of balance of allowing the staff to be autonomous, but you are in charge. You want to have an idea of what’s going on.”