At last, Atlanta United 2 will begin their regular season on Saturday when they take on New York Red Bulls II at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville. With no first team game on the weekend, thousands of fans are expected to come watch some of the club’s younger back-ups and reserve team talents try to take down one of the most successful clubs in USL’s modern era.
Throughout the preseason, both ATL UTD 2 head coach Scott Donnelly and technical director Carlos Bocanegra have repeated many of the same things when asked how this new club will be used. They want it to support and benefit the first team. They want it to be a place where first team reserves can get minutes and stay fit. They want to use it to incubate young talents and prepare them for the next level. It all sounds wonderful, but it leaves one vague, yet very important question: how?
Fortunately, Atlanta are not the first MLS club to start a USL team, and there’s a lot of data and experience to pull from. There are a total of nine MLS-owned and operated USL clubs currently in existence (one less than last year, actually), and as far as we can tell, there are three prevailing strategies that have been employed for how they go about achieving the goals outlined above. We’re here to tell you about them and how Atlanta can draw inspiration from them.
Winning Matters Most
While most of what we’ve heard about MLS reserve teams are that they do not prioritize winning games, that does not speak for all of them. In fact, it’s the strategy taken by one of the league’s clubs that has arguably the best reputation for giving it’s young players chances: Real Salt Lake. The club’s USL side Real Monarchs SLC cruised to the league’s regular season title, going 20-7-5 with a +28 goal difference.
The idea behind this actually makes a lot of sense for RSL. While they go ahead and give their very best academy players MLS homegrown contracts, they stock their USL team with proven professionals in their mid-20’s who could potentially add depth to the MLS team someday. Only one player, midfielder Nick Besler, was ultimately promoted to the first team following last year’s success, but the club has doubled down over the off-season, adding former Charleston Battery standouts Justin Portillo and Maikel Chang.
The sacrifice of running a team focused on winning games is generally a lack of minutes for young players. Real Monarchs only gave 359 minutes to under-20 players last season, with most of them going to first team players who were on loan. That was the third-lowest total in the entire league, and RSL appears to be taking some steps to implement more youth in their USL team. However, the commitment to winning games remains in Utah.
We’ve all heard the calls from across the country to give more professional chances to young players, and many teams use their USL clubs to do so. Some clubs, however, take this philosophy to another level. For the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC, USL is not just a place to develop their young players, it’s a place to run out large numbers of young players at once and see who stands out.
Last season, under-20 players played a whopping 54% of the total minutes for LA Galaxy II, spread among 21 different guys. Seattle Sounders 2 had 25 U-20’s appear for the club, and TFC II had 13. Many of these players are academy kids on amateur contracts, which allow them to play in USL while still preserving their college eligibility. For academy players at these clubs, USL minutes are seen as a reward as well as a tryout for a potential professional future at the club. The Portland Timbers also take a similar approach with playing large numbers of youngsters in their reserves, but most of those players are signed from outside of the club.
There are some issues with this approach, however. While many young players get minutes, few of them get very many minutes, so the benefit of professional experience is somewhat limited. Furthermore, all of these teams were very bad in 2017 and suffered some big losses, such as Galaxy II losing 9-0 to Reno and TFC II losing 6-1 in Charleston. While playing the kids is great, it’s less great when the kids get used to getting smacked.
Selective, but Committed
A few MLS 2 clubs have found sort of a happy medium between development and on-field success, namely the New York Red Bulls II and Sporting Kansas City’s affiliate Swope Park Rangers. Philadelphia Union’s reserve side Bethlehem Steel has existed for less time, but is developing a similar approach. These clubs are more hesitant to promote youth than some others, but once they bring a young player into the USL team, they’ll be in the squad just about every week.
The Red Bulls have had success bringing academy players into their USL team first, then into the first team, namely with Tyler Adams and, most recently, Ben Mines. The Union had similar success last season, giving big minutes to now-Homegrowns Auston Trusty, Matthew Real and Anthony Fontana. As a byproduct of this strategy, these clubs have also been able to bring guys that came from outside the club through the reserves and into the first team. Players like Aaron Long and Florian Valot have come from Red Bulls II to make an impact in both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League, while SKC has gotten contributions from former Swope Park standouts Kevin Oliveira, Kharlton Belmar, and Amir Didic.
These teams win games as well: The Steel made the playoffs in their second season, Red Bulls II won the USL title in 2016, and Swope Park have reached the final each of the last two years. However, with the depth of academy talent at these clubs, this selective approach to promoting youth has led to certain players escaping to Europe and elsewhere for free, such as former Red Bulls academy prodcut Chris Gloster joining Hannover 96 last month.
Finding the Right Balance
So, now that we’ve categorized the existing MLS 2 teams by the general strategies they take in benefiting their respective clubs, which one should Atlanta fall in line with? Unfortunately, there isn’t really a right answer, and there are good things to take from all three.
ATL UTD 2 is starting the season with only 12 players, and five of them are 20 years old or younger. Throw in homegrown signings like Lagos Kunga, George Bello and Chris Goslin, and already there’s a clear commitment to giving youth chances. However, many of these young players have come from outside the club, such as Newell’s Old Boys loanees Gaston Cardozo and Brian Gambarte as well as US youth international Diego Lopez. Giving those players time to nurture in the club’s system for awhile before promoting them to MLS seems like a smart decision.
Atlanta United’s youth academy is also a big part of this, and there’s quite a few kids knocking at the door for a professional chance. It will be important to give them opportunities to develop, make some mistakes, and learn the day-in-day-out routine of how to be a functioning professional. Winning matches has it’s place as well. High pressure situations like playoff games can be great learning opportunities, and while this first season will likely have it’s growing pains, it will be important for ATL UTD 2 to not develop a losing mentality.
When it comes to operating a successful reserve team, there are a lot of elements that must be finely balanced and come together in the right way. It will be up to Coach Donnelly and his staff, the soccer operations personnel, and the club’s front office to figure out the right combination that best serves Atlanta United, both this season and in the future.