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Opinion: A Vision of the Future of Atlanta United Player Development

Building Atlanta United’s Farm System to Expanded Player Development

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Soccer: 2020 Scotiabank Concacf Champions League - Quarterfinals-Atlanta United FC at Club America Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United has bold ambitions. The club wants to win domestic and international competitions, compete in the transfer market for top South American prospects, propel talented players to major European leagues, and build a domestic player identification and development system that churns out valuable contributors to the MLS team and for sale abroad. The club wants all of this while also building a brand that is renowned both domestically and abroad for winning and for producing waves of top talent. Unfortunately, the club may soon run out of room for all of those players.

As the academy infrastructure becomes more robust in its talent output and as our scouting network and ability to draw young talent from South America grows, the club may find itself with a real problem. The club may end up with more domestic talent output than can feasibly be fielded, risking stagnation in development.

The club already tried to solve these problems by launching Atlanta United 2, but the 2s were founded with conflicting mandates. The 2s were to provide valuable playing time for first-team reserves to keep them fresh, but they were also meant to provide, when possible, developmental minutes for young talents. This dual-purpose mission led to inconsistent play from ever-changing starting line-ups, and overall challenging conditions for players to develop any chemistry, rhythm, or meaningful experience.

2020 changed all of that. The pandemic disrupted the league, the roster rules, halting movement between MLS and USL rosters. Playing time for the team’s small number of USL signings would have to increase but the burden fell on the academy to fill out the roster. Academy Director Tony Annan took over coaching duties, and so the importance of the academy to the 2s grew significantly. In an interview Charles Boehm on, Annan explained how the club “took 14 academy kids between the ages of 15 and 18 and we said, ‘OK, these 14 are up there with the USL, training or playing depending on how they do, and that’s from the get-go.’”

Fans and media marveled at this young and scrappy group of academy players competing against much older veteran USL players. The kids were playing fun soccer and showed that they belonged. 2020 was an inspiration, but it also created a lot of questions for 2021 and beyond. With young Homegrown players and academy prospects featuring heavily in Gabriel Heinze’s preseason rotations, the club may need to find more opportunities for these players to get minutes.

Recently, Atlanta United 2 skipper and former interim head coach of Atlanta United Stephen Glass departed to lead the club’s overseas partner Aberdeen FC. Glass’s deep ties to both clubs could end up being a boon by providing Atlanta United with a vital development outlet for young players from the academy and from other leagues, but that will not solve the impending logjam of talent.

In order to maximize the potential of the various player pools Atlanta United has available to draw from for roster construction, the club should create a farm system. For those unfamiliar with American baseball, a farm system is a collection of lower-league teams that help develop and filter emerging young talent. Atlanta currently has its USL team and its academy, plus a growing community of former academy players spread across college soccer. What this article seeks to illustrate is how the addition of two teams to that system could open a new world of player development opportunities.

MLS Reserve League

Back in October, we learned that Major League Soccer was planning the revival of the MLS Reserve Leagues after shuttering the league in exchange for USL affiliates less than a decade ago. What was largely seen as a cost-saving measure at the time has now transformed into a bridge between MLS’s newly-founded MLS Next academy competition and the professional game.

Jeff Reuter of The Athletic was the first to break the news of a new league in American soccer. At the time, the announcement of the new league felt imminent but based on subsequent development, Reuter believes that 2022 is looking like the most likely launch date for the new league.

What will the new MLS Reserve League look like?

From what we have been able to gather so far, the league will be a U-23 league of players currently under team or academy control who will play a limited, development-oriented season intent on providing opportunities for current and future Homegrown players to hone their skills beyond the U-19 level. For players who are good enough to deserve Homegrown consideration from their parent clubs but are not yet ready to contribute on the professional level, this new league could take the place of college soccer as a viable developmental route.

Tyler Wolff, George Campbell, Efrain Morales, and Jackson Conway will all benefit from this new league where they and future Homegrown players will receive consistent playing time while remaining available to start or be on the bench for Atlanta United. The team could also take more chances with high-ceiling draft picks who may not be ready to earn regular minutes for the club yet, but could benefit from regularly training with MLS regulars.

USL Championship - Atlanta United 2

The USL will likely see some changes as a result of this new league. MLS clubs with lower budgets or those who perceive redundancy between the functions of a Reserve team and a USL Championship or League One team may choose to end their affiliation with the lower leagues. Other clubs may retain their USL affiliates, especially in the Championship, in order to maintain access to what may remain a higher level of competition than the Reserve League. Reuter already notes that Real Salt Lake, DC United, NY Red Bulls, and FC Dallas intend to retain their USL teams so it should be reasonable to speculate Atlanta may also remain.

What will the new 2s look like?

The future of the 2s will resemble something very similar to what we saw in 2020 and the 2s team that will likely take the field in the 2021 season. Top academy players will continue to garner high-level experience against older professional players, draft picks will develop in a lower pressure environment that ensures them opportunities to see the field, domestic talent will receive season-long trials for the club and foreign loanees will audition for the chance to play a larger role with Atlanta or their own club. The split demands of keeping first-team reserves fresh while developing young players will be eliminated so the team can focus its mandate of player development. Players like Jack Gurr, Ben Lundgaard, and Laurence Wyke will continue to build their careers in the USL while proving through the club’s mixed training sessions that they are ready to ascend to the MLS roster. Eventually, this shift for the USL could offer a viable alternative to the college game for many players and a more accessible on-ramp to top-division rosters for players developing outside of the MLS academy system.

USL League Two - Atlanta United U-23

For players who do go to college, they and their parent clubs are taking a gamble that their school of choice will be able to offer them the development they need on and off of the field. Some players are able to parlay a successful college season or two into a Homegrown contract or a high pick in the draft. Others are not so luck. Like in any sport, top in-coming prospects can fall from grace due to injury, a bad coach, or other factors out of their control.

Many college players choose to play for 4th-division semi-professional teams in the USL League Two or NPSL as a way to gain valuable playing time and potentially to catch the eye of their coach or of a professional club. This summer, a growing number of Atlanta United’s former academy players will be suiting up for Georgia Revolution and Appalachian FC for that very purpose.

With college soccer trending towards a two-season schedule, year-round instruction and competition will foster a new wave of emerging talent from the upper-tier colleges. Instead of relying on unaffiliated lower division clubs to guide the future of players that Atlanta United still retains the rights to, the club should join other MLS sides like the Red Bulls and Portland to offer structured summer training for college prospects. This would allow the club to keep a close watch on potential Homegrown or 2s signings, and to better assess college programs when aiding academy players in finding collegiate opportunities.

By creating this farm system, the club can continue to take chances on talented young players and can tap into unlikely talent pools more often to find our next stars and our next diamonds-in-the-rough. With this farm system, Atlanta United will create a sustainable and regenerative path to the pros that will make the club a preeminent destination for domestic and foreign talent.