Forged by Atlanta: The Homegrown George Campbell on his development through Atlanta United's system

ATL UTD defender George Campbell has grown immensely since he first played for the Academy team in 2016. As he jumped from the Academy to playing for ATL UTD 2 and now with his MLS debut behind him, Campbell has continued to learn and develop, taking lessons from his Academy days to The Proving Ground to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Under Tony Annan (the Academy Director), I played almost every position so a lot of the parts of my game got a lot better. When I got to the USL, Coach Glass helped a lot with some fundamentals and things I needed to nail down and little things that I needed to fix like body position during crosses,” Campbell explained. “Both of them, if they see something they’ll call me out on it even now. They really do help a lot and I have a good relationship with both of them. They’re really good teachers and coaches.”

Being around the same coaches and mentors helped Campbell as he quickly jumped from team to team. Campbell played for the Academy for two years before moving up to the USL team. He scored five goals during his time at the Academy and was a member of the U-16 squad which won the 2016-2017 National Championship.

“I made the team, and that first year for the Atlanta United U-16s was a tough year. I didn’t play a lot. I came in thinking I was in a good spot because I had played well the year before, but I didn’t really have a good year. I wasn’t performing well and didn’t get a lot of minutes,” Campbell admitted. “The following year, when I was a junior in high school, I played really well. The second half of that year is when I started training with the USL team.”

Soon after, Campbell signed with ATL UTD 2 and decided to forego college. His professional debut came on March 9, 2019 against Hartford Athletic where he was named Man of the Match. Almost a year to the day later, Campbell made his MLS debut at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on March 7, 2020 against FC Cincinnati. 

“Each jump, the speed of play is a lot faster as well as their intensity. Our Academy was great, but you find it’s not as intense. You’re not fighting for your families yet. The intensity was a lot higher once I jumped to the USL as well as the speed of play,” Campbell continued. “When I jumped up to the first team, it’s a whole lot more intense, more experienced guys getting on you in a good way or a bad way. They just show that frustration and intensity a lot more. The speed of play was a huge jump too.”

Blocking out the crowd noise at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is no easy task, but it’s what kept Campbell focused on the match as he made his MLS debut. With his family in the stands, Campbell did his best to make them proud and stay focused on his game.

“Obviously you’re going to have a little nerves. But don’t be rattled by the crowd and all that. Just play your game. That’s one thing I tried to do. You do have a tendency to play it safe. I tried the best I could to play my game,” Campbell stressed. “After the game though, both of my parents, one of my brothers and my mom’s best friend were there and they were really happy for me. It was a great experience, it was one of the best experiences of my life.” 

For Campbell, having his family close and being able to share his journey with them has meant everything. He and his two older brothers share a love for the game that has kept them connected, especially during quarantine.

“We were all really competitive when we were together, playing in the backyard. For me to be the youngest but the first professional player means a lot. They’re all really happy for me, and it wouldn’t be possible without them. So it’s important for me to try and show them that I can carry on the family name in the professional world,” Campbell emphasized. “They were the ones nagging at me during lockdown, telling me I have to stay on top if I want to sign a new contract at the end of it. They’re really encouraging and discouraging at the same time.”

From his brothers to his former coaches to his current teammates, there’s no shortage of mentors in Campbell’s life. Although they may approach it differently, all have one goal in mind—to help Campbell be the best he can be on and off the pitch. 

“I’ve talked to guys like Jeff [Larentowicz] and Brad [Guzan] and Kevin Kratz when he was here. I’ve talked to those guys a decent amount. It’s not always, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about it.’ A lot of the time it’s after a pause in training or even a pause in the game,” Campbell acknowledged. “In the heat of the game, Brad was yelling at me more than anything else, but he’s always trying to help and get the best out of me. I think that really helps in the long run.”

As he continues to improve on the pitch, his parents and fellow teammates have encouraged him to further his education off it. Campbell has been taking college courses online to set him up for the future. 

“There’s been a few players who also do dual enrollment at the same school, taking them online. And my parents also encouraged me to start while I’m young while the stress isn’t too much. For now, I’m taking one class at a time,” Campbell offered. “I guess you could call it a backup plan, but it’s good to be productive and have that education while you’re still playing. I think a lot of the guys who also take them were part of that encouragement to start.”

Campbell is ready to prove himself on the pitch. As the trip to Orlando approaches, he is confident all the hard work he put in during quarantine will pay off. For now, Campbell continues to develop and get touches on the ball. When his number is called in Orlando, he will be ready.