September 2, 2018 will live on as a significant day for 16-year-old George Bello.
The Nigerian-born left back - who moved to Douglasville, Ga., as a child and became part of Atlanta United’s second homegrown class - stepped onto the pitch at Audi Field for his first appearance as an MLS player. Sure, it was during a 3-1 loss to D.C. United, but it was undoubtedbly an unforgettable moment for the teenager.
“There was always going to be a little butterflies,” he told me afterwards when I asked him if there were any nerves beforehand. “But once I got on the field, it was all gone.”
Maybe those butterflies were gone for good.
Four weeks later, Bello put in a remarkable 73-minute shift in his first career start for Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Real Salt Lake. It was tough to point to a situation where he put a foot wrong during the club’s 2-0 win - completing 100% of his passes as part of a backline that kept RSL off the scoreboard.
“I think that he has all the tools,” Jeff Larentowicz told the media in attendance following the match. “I think if you threw the age out the window, and you just looked at him as a player, you would say he’s absolutely ready. I think that the amazing thing for Atlanta United fans and for the team is that he is 16. Hopefully, there’s many years to come.”
Oh, by the way, that RSL match was played with the stadium at full capacity - in front of 72,017, the third-most attended regular season match in MLS history. But Bello may have outdone himself two weeks later during a second start in the team’s 2-1 win against the New England Revolution.
Other than that, George Bello is your everyday, Fortnite-playing teenager. He just happens to be a professional soccer player.
On Tuesday, Atlanta United sent a message that they’re planning to go all-in on their left back of the future. Gone was Greg Garza, headed to expansion club FC Cincinnati in exchange for $250,000 of TAM and $200,000 of GAM. For his part, the veteran Garza, just shy of ten years Bello’s senior, was a cornerstone of Atlanta during its first season and a key part of an MLS Cup-winning side in 2018; injuries kept him off the team sheet, which played a role in the team trading him.
The return - and upside - for Bello projects to be greater. There’s been reports that overseas clubs are keeping tabs on him and watching his development over time, and they aren’t just any clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City, and Roma are some of the names that have been floated around. Looking to prove that Bello’s worth the investment? Get him minutes between now and his eighteenth birthday in January 2020, when he can be transferred to a European club without needing a European passport. You don’t think Darren Eales and co. saw Alphonso Davies’ development with Vancouver turn into USD$22 million and feel that a similar scenario - albeit probably not as much - wasn’t possible with Bello? (I hear Gregg Berhalter and the USSF could have a use for some left backs in the next several years, too.)
And while the door is open for a large role for Bello in 2019, the team has, and will have, plenty of voices to help him come into his own. Some much-needed seasoning with ATL UTD 2 to allow Bello to stretch his wings in professional soccer did him some good. Bello mentioned in an interview with our own Joe Patrick in August that he would lean on Garza frequently for advice, and mentioned after the RSL match that he consulted with Julian Gressel on different tendencies for wingbacks. There’s also fellow left backs Mikey Ambrose and Chris McCann, who have a number of years of professional experience between them and are sure to push him in training camp, one that will have much more meaning with a new coach at the helm.
Yes, in the end, maybe that doesn’t mean Bello will start every single match in 2019, but he’ll be given every opportunity to prove himself. And if all goes well, he may not be long for a spot with a bigger, more high-profile club.