Building for the future. Promoting from within. The Atlanta United Academy has been preparing young soccer players to move up within the Atlanta United system since its inception in 2016. In that time, eight players have signed Homegrown contracts with the first team after proving themselves in the Academy.
“I feel like the Academy does a great job at preparing players for the transition, and the staff that we have, they really care about individuals as well as the team which I feel is important,” Atlanta United defender George Bello explained. “On the first team, when you get to the highest level, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. In the Academy, they really are good at preparing you for that kind of stuff. Because of that, the transition is pretty smooth.”
Bello joins a long list of players who have thrived after playing with the Academy. This season, several players were able to make a significant impact with ATL UTD 2 and reach professional milestones such as their debut, first start and first goal. One Academy player also earned his first Man of the Match honor this season despite being the youngest player to ever debut with ATL UTD 2.
“It was a great feeling making my pro debut in the USL and getting my first start. The whole experience has been surreal,” Academy defender Caleb Wiley remembered about his first USL start. “Before the game, I was a little nervous since I was going to be on TV for the first time. But my teammates and coaches were and have been extremely supportive.”
This season, the Academy players who have moved up through the Atlanta United system were met with several familiar faces when they arrived. They trained under ATL UTD 2 and Interim Atlanta United Head Coach Stephen Glass, Interim Atlanta United Assistant Coach Henry Apaloo and Academy Director and Interim ATL UTD 2 Head Coach Tony Annan.
“Coach Tony is a coach that wants the best for us, and he does his best to get the best out of us. I feel like he’s able to do that in training sessions and through what he asks of us,” said Academy midfielder Ajani Fortune. “I’m enjoying having him as a coach. He always finds ways to try and motivate us and push us to be better and work hard.”
“Coach Glass is always trying to tweak something in my game that I didn’t see. Glassy and Tony, if they see something then they’ll call me out on it,” Atlanta United defender George Campbell said with a laugh. “They’ll probably never stop doing that as long as I’m near them. They really do help a lot and I have a good relationship with both of them. They’re really good teachers and coaches.”
For the coaches, seeing players develop and transition up is just as meaningful for them as it is for the players. The impact of scouting local kids and picking them to play for their hometown club is not lost on the coaches as they watch them improve. Each coach wants to see their players succeed, and for the Atlanta United staff, having a front row seat to their growth is one of the best parts of the job.
“It’s rewarding to see them doing so well at that level. Giving them the chance and the opportunity at the right time is very important,” Annan conveyed proudly. “It’s rewarding, and it’s given us a bit of hope that we’re doing some right things and giving these kids a chance to prove themselves.”
Playing with ATL UTD 2 is a key element in development as players prepare for their jump to the first team. Homegrown Efrain Morales is an example of how the development pipeline leads to growth. He made his professional debut with ATL UTD 2 and scored his first professional goal in the same night, two days after signing his Homegrown contract.
“I’ve never been the type of player to score goals. So when I entered the game, I was really focused on playing simple, keeping the ball and being aggressive. When I scored the goal, I personally didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe that I had scored,” Morales reminisced. “I saw Coach Tony’s face, and he was smiling and super happy. I’ve known him for a really long time, and he’s always been a really strict coach, so seeing him really happy made me really happy. I went over there and gave him a high-five. It was cool.”
Another Academy graduate making his mark with ATL UTD 2 is Jackson Conway. Conway first joined the Academy in 2016 and helped lead the U-16 team to the Development Academy National Championship. This season, Conway tied for first on the team in goals scored and credits the Academy for preparing him for his career.
“I started at the Academy pretty young, at the very beginning actually. I was playing pretty well which gave me the confidence to take that next step to the professional level. Physically, I was pretty built, a pretty big guy. But having that mentality that I could handle it,” Conway emphasized. “There were bigger guys, stronger guys, faster guys, but if I know that I can handle it then I should be alright. I think what’s helped me the most was that confidence, especially towards the end of last season. It starts in the Academy, being able to prove myself at any type of level. It’s kind of what you need.”
The Academy philosophy is to prepare its players for the transition up through the club by treating them as if they are professionals and teaching them the importance of the Atlanta United style. Then, as they are able to move up through the system, they know what to expect and can focus on their skills.
“I think they did a good job in preparing me for the transition. They really push to get you up there, so everything they do is preparing you to be where we are now [playing at the professional level],” said Academy midfielder David Mejia. “They treat the Academy like it’s a professional training and a professional team. It’s obviously not going to be at the same level, but it’s definitely coached like it is.”
“As players progress through the club, they’re all getting the same message, they know what the style of play is, they know what’s expected in terms of standards. As they move through the club, the only thing that gets harder is the standard and the speed of play,” Apaloo expounded. “But they do know what’s expected, and it’s the same throughout whether you’re on the U-15s in the Academy or if you’re pushing up into the first team. The collaboration between all the different club teams and the communication is fantastic and really helps set up an environment where these young players can succeed.”
This year, ATL UTD 2 featured two of its youngest Starting XIs ever with help from some Academy players. Although they were competing against adults, the young team excelled and were able to show what the Atlanta United style is all about.
“I love how young our team is this year. I think it’s given us a certain level of aggression and lack of complacency that I know Tony likes,” Academy midfielder Will Reilly confessed. “It’s much more fun to play in a team with that kind of attitude. Everything is new, everything is exciting, so I really appreciate that. And it’s easier to connect with guys that are my own age.”
“I think it’s a big adaptation for anyone. It’s a lot more fast-paced and you’re playing with grown men instead of kids, so you really have to adapt quickly to a completely different environment,” Academy forward Coleman Gannon noted. “But we play similar styles, so it’s not as hard to fit into our system as the competition being different.”
One way the Academy prepares its players for transitioning up is by having them play in older age groups to get them ready for playing at the professional level. The Academy instills a work ethic into its players so they will be prepared to compete when their number is called.
“They’ve always pushed me to play with older players. I would play with the 15s when I was 13,” Academy goalkeeper Vicente Reyes voiced. “They always pushed me to play with bigger, stronger and older players.”
“Just the work ethic they prepared me for, from always having to work hard no matter where you’re playing or who’s around you,” Academy defender Matt Edwards concluded. “That helped me going into this season, just working hard for every training session.”
For one Homegrown player, Atlanta means family, literally. Tyler Wolff started in the Academy before signing a first team contract and now gets to watch his brother Owen follow in his footsteps after playing together in the Academy.
“We both played together with the U-17s, and now that I moved up it’s been cool to see him develop and continue to develop from the 17s to the 19s to the USL,” Wolff confided. “I look forward to seeing where he will be.”
Despite the relative youth of the Academy players, their impact on the pitch this season cannot be overlooked. Academy graduates and current Academy players contributed 13 goals, 13 saves and 7,623 minutes played toward their professional development. As these players continue to develop within the Atlanta United system, their contributions will only increase thanks to the development experience they have gained.