My colleague Joe Patrick wrote a piece in January about how a fan of ATL UTD 2 shouldn’t expect a USL championship any time soon, if ever.
I think he’s right: if the club takes its lumps in 2018 as an expansion member of the USL, that’s OK, even though that runs counter to the “win now or else” sports culture we live in.
So why ATL UTD 2?
First off, it’s a way to provide professional experience for guys already under the team’s control that didn’t see much time last year, i.e. Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu, Chris Goslin, Miles Robinson (hopefully Miles Robinson? I think?) and to some extent Andrew Carleton. It will also allow younger, up-and-coming players to grow and develop the Atlanta way, with the hope that a good chunk of the roster eventually competes for first-team minutes.
The ideal product should look a lot like that of the New York Red Bulls, which Sam Stejkal profiled on Thursday over at MLSSoccer.com. Ironically, it’s New York Red Bulls II that will be ATL UTD’s first-ever opponent on March 24 at Coolray Field.
Scott Donnelly, who was hired in January 2018 as the team’s head coach, was previously an assistant with the United States U-18 men’s national team and has a deep collegiate coaching background.
In other words, if Atlanta United were looking for a man that can connect and develop young players, it found a perfect person in Donnelly.
“All of the players are very motivated because they have this great opportunity to improve individually and to collectively be the inaugural team as ATL UTD 2,” Donnelly said during a training session last week. “They’ve also got the clear motivation of wanting to better themselves individually and collectively then wanting to show something to the first team staff. So it is a nice setup.”
With this being a young squad, you’ll need older players to help lead the way.
A guy like Mitch Hildebrandt provides that as the club’s “old man” at 29. But...he’s injured for 8-10 weeks, so you’ll likely see Nicolas Caraux in net until Hildebrandt is fit. (Caraux, by the way, is 27.) Jack Metcalf - another “old man” at 26, had 41 appearances with Charlotte in 2015 and 2016 and can mentor other midfielders like Yosef Samuel, the former Philadelphia Union academy product that saw time with Bethlehem Steel FC last year and is only 20. Shawn Nicklaw has plenty of second-division experience and is another veteran signing.
Other names to look for? A.J. Cochran, the former Houston Dynamo first-rounder, has a number of MLS appearances despite spending the bulk of his career in the USL, so he should spell Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst on the first team roster as needed when he’s not with ATL UTD 2. Diego Lopez, a U.S. boy’s national team member, could grow into his role with the proper seasoning. Laurent Kissiedou, an Atlanta United Academy alum, spent time with Charleston last year and is back under the club’s control. I’d also watch for Brandon Vazquez to get some USL time with Romario Williams as the second-choice striker behind Josef Martinez.
As far as lineups, I’m not going to take a crack because they’re likely to be somewhat fluid over the season and, well, the team hasn’t officially played together yet. I think the more stable spots will be at goalkeeper (Caraux until Hildebrandt returns), midfield (Metcalf), and defense (Jose Hernandez, Cochran and Nicklaw from left to right). You may see a lot of Robinson, Samuel and Oliver Shannon in the mix as well, along with homegrown players like Chris Goslin.
Side note: Tata Martino has mentioned that injured first-team players may see some minutes with ATL UTD 2 to rehab and regain fitness before working their way back to the big club. That’s something else to keep an eye on.
Games I’m looking forward to
Matchups against the Southern teams will be fun. Playing Nashville SC (home June 30 and July 25; away September 26) will be cool because a) Nashville will be in MLS in a few years and b) I expect the fans on either side will travel well. Plus, Nashville’s a nice city, and that’s a plus. The Charleston Battery (away April 24 and October 7, home August 11), Atlanta’s USL affiliate last year, have a great fanbase and will make for a nice trip down to the South Carolina coast. The Charlotte Independence (away March 31, home June 13) will make for nice Southern derby partners. I’m looking forward to 2019, when Birmingham enters the league. (I wrote more about it here.)
This season will be a success if...
...we see significant improvement from the entire team. I’m mainly focused on the younger players because they’re the priority here; if guys like Goslin, Kissedou, Robinson, Samuel or Shannon can get enough seasoning to grow closer to contributing to the first team, then that’s a win for this organization. The same’s true for the “older” group like Cochran, Metcalf and Nicklaw that are sort of on that fringe of being able to land in the 18 with the big club, but not there yet.
In closing, it should be a lot of fun to see things come together, not just in 2018, but beyond. Fans should be excited for the opportunity to watch potential future MLS players in suburban Atlanta.