Atlanta United officially kicked off the 2021-22 Academy season on Tuesday night with its annual Academy Dinner at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
After one of the club’s most coveted traditions was put on hold due to the pandemic, Atlanta United was eager and pleased to invite players, families and coaches back home to celebrate their perseverance through the many challenges that the previous year brought.
The dinner, which was hosted by Atlanta United play-by-play voice Kevin Egan, began with words from Atlanta United owner and chairman Arthur Blank. First and foremost, he expressed gratitude for the sacrifices that the parents have made for our players.
“It’s a major commitment,” Blank said, “and I want to commend and thank all of the parents here tonight...One of the reasons that you can be here tonight, one of the reasons that you can have a soccer career and be as committed as you are, is because your parents make that commitment.”
Lawrey, a member of the Academy staff since 2016, was announced as Academy Director in June, succeeding Tony Annan. Lawrey is set to enter his first full season as Director and he set the tone of his tenure with three challenges for the young men in the room.
“Be humble in what you do, be humble in your work rate. Be committed, don’t just be motivated. And be a good teammate, it’s a team sport,” Lawrey advised the boys.
While these were challenges set for those still looking to break through from the Academy to the next level, it was also a reminder to the Homegrown players sitting in front of the stage.
“The third challenge is maybe different than what many think this place is, but be a good teammate,” Lawrey said. “We’re going to celebrate the Homegrowns, we’re going to talk about the kids who did more, that put in a lot of work, and get to play at this beautiful stadium in front of 70,000 people,” he said. “Of course, we’re going to celebrate that, but it’s a team sport.”
With the signings of Bryce Washington and Machop Chol in 2021, Atlanta United has produced 11 Homegrown players as it enters its sixth Academy season. Beyond that, a total of 10 Academy players have played for Atlanta United 2 during the 2021 USL Championship season under head coach Jack Collison, who before taking the helm with the second team served as the coach for the U-17 team for two seasons.
The pipeline of players who have traveled Atlanta United’s Player Development Pathway to collegiate and professional soccer speaks to the culture that the club has developed over the course of its short history.
It is something Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said attracted him to the organization and something he said he’s already experienced, even before his first match in charge.
“I’m really happy to be here in a club that cares about, not just playing good football, but also to impact the community. That’s something that for me was very important when I first talked about joining Atlanta United,” the former Mexico international said.
“Just being here now, seeing more than 150 kids and newcomers here to the Atlanta United Academy, means a lot for me because this doesn’t happen very often in football,” he said. “I’ve been in many, many clubs and I can tell you that this doesn’t happen very often, so I can see that the words and the values and all of that are also actions and I love that. I’ve been here for only two days and I can see for myself that that is true.”
Pineda, 38, was announced as Head Coach on August 12, after five seasons as a member of the Seattle Sounders, both as a player and assistant coach. He said the foundation that the Academy has already laid will make his transition that much easier.
“We have obviously a few of the Academy players in our first team,” he said. “I can see the talent, but most importantly, I can see that the values that they have from the Academy, they are translated to the first team and that helps to build the culture that will help me build the love for the jersey and the love for the city. And that’s something that is priceless for me.”
On Wednesday, the Academy announced the staff and competitions for the 2021-22 season, with seven teams set to compete in three separate leagues. The Academy’s U-13s through U-17s will compete in MLS Next for the second consecutive year, with the U-12s competing in the Southeastern Clubs Champions League (SCCL) and the U-19s competing in the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL).
The three challenges that Academy Director Matt Lawrey posed, along with the expectation to carry on the culture that attracted Gonzalo Pineda to the club, will be the backdrop to the 2021-22 season for Atlanta United’s Academy.