It’s week one of year one and while all of the players are enduring Atlanta United preseason for the first time, there’s a handful that have never before experienced the intensity, the demand, and the grit of the professional lifestyle. Among them are seven players from the Atlanta United Academy who have been selected by the club to join the first team in its preseason training.
As merely teenagers, development opportunities of this caliber do not emerge often, but these players have continued to show promise both on and off the field and the club’s watchful eyes have taken notice.
The hand-picked group of prospects includes four names from the club’s U-16 team (Kendall Edwards, Dylan Gaither, James Brighton, Charlie Asensio) and three from the U-18 team (Lagos Kunga, Patrick Okonkwo, Michael Ille).
Ever since departing from Atlanta with the team on Monday, they have been immersed in the professional environment. Scheduled meals, mandatory meetings, intense training, gym workouts, recovery sessions, treatments and other responsibilities have dominated their agenda for the past week.
While the Academy program provides a pro-like atmosphere to prepare youth players for the next level, it’s not quite the same ball game. The Academy youngsters gave their insight on their major takeaways so far from their experience at preseason this week.
It seems spending a significant amount of time with the first team players off the pitch has been one of the most eye-opening parts of the journey.
“Learning their off-field habits, the way they eat, the way they recover, the way they treat themselves like pros – it’s very different than the youth level,” said Charlie Asensio, who plays for the U-16s and is a member of the U.S. U-17 Residency Program.
U-18 player and University of Clemson commit Michael Ille echoed that statement.
“What you put into your body, the amount of sleep you get, everything is at the highest level here and I’ll definitely take that back to the Academy.”
Regarding the on-field differences, U-16 players Dylan Gaither and James Brighton (2018 University of Clemson Commit) stressed the discrepancy of “intensity” from this week to their norm.
It’s a stage they’ve never ventured before. Players are paid, jobs are on the line. It’s strictly business and the competitiveness is real. While the Academy may not technically be professional, Gaither and Brighton hope to bring that pro, on-field intensity back to their team in Atlanta.
For the youth players, another benefit that can’t be overlooked is the chance to learn and thrive directly under the wing of Head Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his world-class, experienced staff.
“It’s been an incredible opportunity to be around professional players, and be coached from a former Barcelona manager,” said U-18 forward Patrick Okonkwo. “I’ve learned a lot and will definitely bring a new mentality back to the Academy.”
The youngest mind at the camp at just 15 years-old, U-16 player Kendall Edwards chimed in about Tata’s coaching style and the maturity of the professional players.
“Sometimes in our age group, if it’s not on, people panic and kick it forward,” he said. “But for them, there seems to always be an option. It’s always finding the next pass, always thinking two steps ahead.”
It’s undoubtedly been an enlightening preseason trip so far for the Academy players. The amount of knowledge and experience they’ve now absorbed with the first team has surpassed any level they have previously encountered.
A member of the U-18 squad and recently called up to U-19 USMNT camp (along with Ille), Lagos Kunga feels a certain level of responsibility.
“It’s been very demanding, but I know what it’s like to be here now,” said Kunga. “I think I can show the guys back home and act as a leader. I have to take that role.”
They may be Academy players for the time being, but the professional dream is well in their sights. The seven Atlanta United Academy members know that the road to get them to this point has not been easy and the path ahead will prove to be nothing short of challenging, but they’ve made it clear that this is an opportunity they will not take for granted.