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After rehab start, Atlanta United won’t rush George Bello back to first team

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The 17-year-old started and played 45 minutes in ATL UTD 2’s win over Loudoun United on Friday.

MLS: New England Revolution at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of ATL UTD 2’s win over Loudoun United - ending a 14-match winless streak - and a three-goal performance by Bienvenue Kanakimana, the lede of another storyline may have been buried just a bit.

George Bello hadn’t played in a professional soccer match since starting the second division side’s 2-0 season-opening win against Hartford Athletic on March 9 before coming off after 67 minutes due to a flare up of an injury suffered during Atlanta United’s 3-1 loss at Herediano in Concacaf Champions League. After zero appearances with both the first and second team, the club announced in May that the 17-year-old had sustained a training-ground injury to the adductor in his right leg and would be out until August, at the latest.

But the Douglasville native was back at it on Friday night and by all accounts looked strong in his 45 minutes of action, becoming increasingly involved in the game as it progressed and even involving himself in Kanakimana’s second goal of the evening.

“I feel really good. I actually wanted to stay on for a couple more minutes,” Bello said after the match. “Just getting those minutes was really good for me, and I’m hoping to just keep on moving forward and keep on improving.”

Of course, coming on the field after missing a good chunk of time meant that Bello would get used to things.

“You’re always going to be rusty after four months,” he said. “But I started finding my groove, started getting into the attack which is my strong suit, and started feeling really good.”

“(He) was good, very positive going forward, worked hard defensively,” said ATL UTD 2 head coach Stephen Glass. “He looked a little bit tired, which is to be expected since he’s a really young guy. But you can see the quality George has got. He’s a young player, but you can see he’s got something special.”

While having Bello back on the field should excite Atlanta United fans, the organization clearly understands that taking its time with the young left back is the best option. After his brief first professional appearance against D.C. United last year, all eyes were on him when he started and played 73 strong minutes in place for now-former Atlanta man Greg Garza in a win against Real Salt Lake on September 22. His stock rose even more after his 17th-minute goal during a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution on October 6, making him the sixth-youngest goalscorer in league history.

And it also means that Bello’s trajectory stands in contrast to the organization’s other homegrown players. Andrew Carleton, who was surrounded by heavy optimism prior to and soon after his signing, has struggled to truly affect the first team due to inconsistency and off-the-field concerns. Chris Goslin has played just twice with ATL UTD 2 in 2019 and has otherwise become a forgotten man, while Lagos Kunga was loaned to Memphis 901 FC in May. The jury is still somewhat out on Patrick Okonkwo, who was loaned to Charleston last year and scored 5 times in 23 appearances, but has only played 9 games and has yet to score in 2019 in his return to Atlanta’s USL team.

In Bello’s case, though, the technical staff understands how important he can be to the first team’s back line and is taking a cautious approach to getting him back into the lineup. ATL UTD 2 have a match on Sunday at Louisville City before returning home to host Swope Park Rangers on August 16. With the first team playing at Orlando City tomorrow in an Open Cup semifinal, hosting NYCFC on Sunday, América in Campeones Cup next Wednesday and traveling to Portland on August 18, a best-case scenario could see Bello perhaps back with the first team as it returns to Orlando City for a league match on August 23.

Don’t expect Glass or Frank de Boer to show their respective hands, though.

“I know people are going to ask when he’s going to be with the first team and all that stuff,” Glass said. “I think the important thing is George Bello’s going to get healthy and is going to be to affect the first team when he’s ready. We will not rush him and Frank won’t rush him because we’ve got something special with George.”

“However long it takes, however little it takes, (de Boer) just tells me to take my time, don’t rush anything and make sure that I’m ready,” Bello said. “Hopefully I’ll be back with the first team soon.”