Usually when we celebrate important milestones, we tend to celebrate the end. In high school and college, we cap off our journeys with homecomings, proms and graduations. But at Atlanta United, and for the ATL UTD Academy especially, it’s important to celebrate the beginning.
At the start of every Academy season, the organization pulls together for one night and invites all Academy players, new and returning, and their friends and families to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a celebratory dinner honoring them and their commitment to Atlanta United.
“We gather every year at this stadium to celebrate what might come this year," Academy director Matt Lawrey said. “We celebrate our beginnings. I think that’s right in sport.”
As all the players and their families started arriving at the stadium, they made their way to the Delta Club, where they could take photos in the first team's locker room and with the 2018 MLS Cup before going through the same player tunnel used on matchdays onto the pitch.
There, the players were gifted a black bag filled with goodies and got their very own golden spike that they could sign their name on. The older ones eagerly began taking photos with their parents and teammates alike on the famous MBS pitch, while their younger counterparts just couldn’t hold in their excitement and immediately began playing small-sided soccer games with the mini-goals that were up along one side of the stadium.
2022 Academy Dinner
After some time of mingling, the dinner commenced and out came the hosts of the night, the same ones who serve as the voices of the 5-Stripes on 92.9 The Game, Mike Conti and Jason Longshore. The ceremony began with a video message from Arthur Blank. Uncle Arthur offered his sincerest apologies to the crowd for not being able to be there with them that night but thanked the players and parents alike for their commitment to the club. Then, some of the organization’s biggest figures took the stage to speak highly about the Academy and the pathway it provides individual players.
“The Academy is the heartbeat of our club,” Atlanta United Vice President & Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “This is where we start our culture. This is where we drive our values through the organization. This is where we develop our style of play. We’re trying to build something really special here.”
Indeed, the Academy pipeline is something Atlanta United is very proud of, and 2022 was a benchmark year for the program going into its seventh season.
17-year-old first team regular Caleb Wiley as well as ATL UTD 2 starters Justin Garces, Noah Cobb and Ajani Fortune all signed Homegrown deals with the club this past year and spent the bulk of their teenage years in the Academy. This year also saw the Academy reach new heights, as George Bello and Tyler Wolff got big moves to play European football, becoming the first two Homegrowns to make the leap abroad.
Several speakers throughout the night reminisced about Wiley scoring on his MLS debut earlier this season on that same pitch. Then Mike Conti asked the crowd, “Who’s going to be the next Caleb Wiley?”
“For me as a head coach, it’s very important to have Homegrowns,” Atlanta United first team head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “Here we have a lot of potential players that could play here at this stadium in the future. This is what I love about (this path). No one loves the jersey of Atlanta United more than a Homegrown.”
The Homegrowns were in attendance at the dinner, front and center at a table that included Wiley, Jackson Conway, Machop Chol, Bryce Washington and George Campbell.
Something all of those players, and every Homegrown that has been signed to Atlanta United have in common is ATL UTD 2. Head coach Jack Collison was present to talk about coaching all of those guys on their way to first-team contracts. Collison was in the Academy himself as U-17 head coach for two years.
Collison, a former Welsh international and West Ham United player, shared some stories from his playing days like his friendship with Teddy Sheringham. He and Sheringham, one of England and Manchester United’s finest during the 90s and early 2000s, crossed paths at the twilight of Sheringham’s career with the Irons.
“Enjoy the journey,” Collison recalled Sheringham telling him. “Enjoy the ups, the wins, the good moments, but also learn to love the tough times. And it’s during these difficult moments where you truly develop, not only as a footballer, but also as a person.”
Before the night came to a close, Lawrey took the stage once more to make an announcement, and with that, start a new tradition at the Academy Dinner from 2023 onwards. He reminded the players the three cultural elements within the Academy: humility, commitment, and teamwork.
There was one very special player who represented all three of these things and whose Academy career was tragically cut short earlier this year, Christian Carrillo.
Lawrey announced that starting next year at every Academy Dinner, one player would be chosen and celebrated by the Academy staff who represented everything Carrillo stood for.
“Christian was the best of us, and in this way, we will always celebrate him,” Lawrey said. “It won’t always be the most talented player. There won’t be any accolades or money, but you will always be remembered as the player that represented Christian Carrillo to the rest of us: an amazing teammate, unbelievably humble and committed."