Scenes from the 2023 Atlanta United Academy team dinner at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Tuesday, August 29, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta United)

It’s not unusual for Atlanta United supporters to line up outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on weekday evenings or for them to be anxious to get inside and see the action down on the manicured pitch. This was the scene downtown last Tuesday, only this time, they weren’t just your typical Atlanta fans, and they weren’t wearing jerseys and scarves.

Atlanta United Academy players and their families, dressed up in their nicest evening attire, attended their annual celebratory dinner to kick off the 2023 season. The night honored the start of the Academy’s eighth season since its launch in 2016.

“Eight years has gone by really fast,” Academy director Matt Lawrey said, “but I think it’s really important in our eighth year to reflect on the history that we’ve built, reflect on some of the traditions that we’ve built.”

One of the dinner traditions that they continued Tuesday night was in the Delta Club inside the stadium, where players and families took photos with the 2018 MLS Cup before heading through the tunnel and onto the field just as the first team does on matchdays.

From there, the attendees dispersed to all corners of the MBS pitch. After the players signed their own golden spikes, some gathered to take group pictures at the photo booth while others grabbed a ball to play a small-sided game with the mini-goals that were set up. Once everyone filled their plates and took their seats, the dinner commenced.

The hosts for the night were none other than Mike Conti and Jason Longshore, who cover Atlanta United matchdays on 92.9 The Game. After a brief intro, they called up to the stage the first speaker of the night, Atlanta United president and CEO Garth Lagerwey.

“This is the best possible time to be a young soccer player,” Lagerwey said. “There will be more attention and more hype and more noise around soccer and the growth of soccer, not just in this country, but specifically in Atlanta. So, we couldn’t be more excited to have you join our organization and be a part of that and grow with us.”

An example of growth from the Academy is seen in the Homegrown players, many of whom have gone up through the ranks and onto the first team roster. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda continued the feeling of reflection and reminisced on some great moments from a few Homegrowns.

“I remember incredible moments,” Pineda said. “The debut here from Luke Brennan a couple games ago against New York City, a couple goals from Tyler Wolff in that goal right there. I cannot forget the goal Caleb Wiley scored right there in his first game. Those moments make me so proud of all the hard work that the staff and coaches are doing with the Academy, so I’m just grateful to be a part of it.”

Attending his first dinner since signing with the team in February, Atlanta United 2 head coach Steve Cooke took the podium next. Cooke took a minute to reflect on the championships won by the club and specifically recognized Kevin Kratz, who won the MLS Cup with Atlanta United in 2018 and added another trophy to the case this past summer when the U-16 team won the MLS NEXT Cup.

“It’s really important that you not only work hard for yourself, but you work hard for your team, and ultimately work hard for Atlanta United,” Cooke said. “It’s a privilege for us all to be in a place like this, in a club like this and surrounded by such great people.”

Another key piece of Atlanta’s 2018 championship team was Michael Parkhurst, who was next to take the stage. He spoke to the players about his professional career and encouraged them to cherish where they are now but continue to work hard for their futures.

“You don’t just get lucky to win championships,” he said. “It’s not luck. It takes a lot of hard work, hard work that you guys are going through right now in preseason, hard work that you’ll continue to go through not only this year, but the years ahead. It’s a grind for sure... but it was worth it because that’s what it took to be successful. And that’s what it takes to be successful in anything.”

The key speaker of the night was Lawrey, who reflected on three previous players and how they represented the three core values of the Academy: commitment, humility and teamwork. The stories highlighted players that embarked on three different pathways after leaving the Academy—a professional player, a coach and a college athlete—and Lawrey explained how they all utilized the three pillars to reach those milestones.

“I want every young man in this stadium to really understand that when you have a challenge, when you’re suffering, when it is tough, when it is impossible... keep going,” he said. “Be committed to what you do, be humble in what you do. Don't be scared of work. Work harder. And be a good teammate. Support the guys around you.”

Lawrey followed up that speech by recognizing a player who epitomized commitment, humility and teamwork: Christian Carrillo, an Academy goalkeeper who passed away in 2022. To honor his legacy, the club created the Christian Carrillo award, which will recognize a current Academy player who represents those values that Carillo lived out so well. This year’s dinner was the first time the award has been given. The inaugural recipient was U-17 player and Carrillo’s former teammate, Dillion Griner.

“It’s obviously an honor to receive this award and to be the first recipient,” Griner said. “Although I’m the one receiving it, I would not be up here if it weren’t for my teammates, my friends and my family pushing me, and especially Christian’s family and Christian himself supporting me every step of the way. I want to extend this thanks to everyone that has been there for me and supported me through my journey.”

Atlanta United Academy announced this week the coaching staff and competitions each team will play for the upcoming season. The MLS NEXT teams will kick off their 2023-24 campaign on Sept. 10.

Best photos: 2023 Atlanta United Academy Dinner
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