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Atlanta United Regional Development Schools helping develop players at grassroots level

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A growing youth program is helping young soccer players across the metro area.

Casey Sykes/Atlanta United

With the successes of the likes of George Bello, George Campbell, and other players signing homegrown contracts and playing at the top level in the country, Atlanta United fans know the club’s commitment to its Academy. But what may be lesser known is all that Atlanta United is doing at the grassroots level to increase the quality of soccer across the metro-Atlanta area while helping young boys and girls accomplish more through their performance in the sport.

As casual followers of Atlanta United and Major League Soccer, it’s easy to think that the extent of Atlanta United’s involvement in youth soccer lies in its vast Academy system headed by Tony Annan. But underneath that structure lies the club’s Regional Development Schools (RDS) program, which aims to offer coaching and a connection to Atlanta United to boys and girls who are playing with their respective clubs across the state. In essence, the aim of the program, headed by Atlanta United Director of Coach Education and Development Dean Atkins, is to make more touch points to players in the development process and give them coaching that can elevate their play and opportunities.

“The RDS is a supplemental training program, so we’re not a youth club,” Atkins told Dirty South Soccer in an interview in March. “There’s loads of fantastic clubs locally. Let’s say your child plays for one of those clubs. The regional development school is supplemental training to what they’re getting in their club environment, so they can experience our philosophy and methodology from Atlanta United trained youth coaches.”

While Atlanta United’s Academy offers a very direct pipeline for male players to potentially secure a professional contract at either the USL or MLS level, the RDS program is much broader in who it targets and how it can help.

“The benefit of the program across the board for boys and girls is that it supports their development for whatever their goals are next,” explained Atkins. “We’ve got hundreds of players in the program, both boys and girls.

“While we hope that a number of players will go on from the RDS to make our Academy, there are only so many spots... So for the rest of those boys, we support their development for whatever comes next for them. And that’s no different for the girls. The idea of rolling out these programs from the very start, we wanted to make sure that we had a girls program and the boys program to support any child that is passionate about soccer.”

Players participate in one of two Regional Development School “showcases” held in March at the Franklin Gateway Sports Complex across the street from Atlanta United’s training ground. Players gained eligibility to participate in the showcase through nominations from RDS coaches. Said Atkins: “They can play against and experience an even higher caliber of play and against kids that maybe they haven’t seen or met before or networked with or played against before. That’s no different on the girls side than the boys. It really is to recognize those that have excelled in the program in the previous 12 months.”
Casey Sykes/Atlanta United

The emergence and and growth the of the RDS program is an exciting new component of grassroots cultivation of soccer in the Atlanta area. Soccer in the Streets, an Atlanta United partner, is a key element in the toolkit that helps ensure everyone in the community has a chance to engage with the sport.

“We’ve seen good things from Soccer in the Streets and what they’re doing in their communities. And our goal is no different. We want to try and serve and support communities around the state,” said Atkins. “We’re looking to support not only them, but all of the local youth clubs so that we can work hand-in-hand to raise the level of the game. It benefits not only [Atlanta United], but the region as a whole, for the game of soccer to continue to grow as it has done so far. We just want to be a part of that and, and see it flourish.”

The program is growing constantly. Atkins says the amount of total participants is already beyond one thousand, and the coverage areas are growing with it. The program has used fields across the Atlanta metro area, from The Home Depot Backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to fields in Alpharetta and Marietta. The next frontier for the club is to extend the RDS program in Dalton, Ga., a hotbed of soccer talent located in the northwest corner of the state.

As Atkins explained, the program is supplemental. Participants in the RDS program will receive coaching from qualified professionals that can help kids achieve whatever level to which they aspire. While the program is still in its infancy, it’s already helped six players enter into the Academy the hope is that it will similarly help countless other boys and girls improve their games to aid them in their futures.

“We continue to maintain great relationships so that we can continue to thrive,” said Atkins. “I think a lofty goal would be to see more men’s and women’s national team players coming out of Georgia. With us combined with local clubs, we’re working hand-in-hand to develop the game in the region, the market, to be the best we can be. We’re all in this together.”