There may not be a player on Atlanta United’s young roster more referential than Aiden McFadden.
The defender’s quick wit is exemplified well in the “What’s In A Box” video the club produced to celebrate Halloween. The set was spooky -- cobwebs, orange lighting and the random spine-chilling scream. McFadden stuck his hands in a box without seeing what’s inside. Using just the sense of touch, his task was to guess what Halloween-themed object was in the box. In this case, it was an oversized (fake) spider.
“A sapphire sculpture of Pablo Sanchez winning the Little League World Series?” McFadden suggests dryly. “Or it’s a spider. One of those two.”
When finding the words to describe Atlanta United’s 2022 season, McFadden’s answers aren’t as far-out or funny. He describes the season as “disappointing” and “up and down.” These are words many of his teammates use too. However, for McFadden there are positive personal takeaways from the 2022 season.
“Disappointment is a hard thing to have to go through, but it’s also a very powerful thing because you don’t want it to happen again,” he says. “So, that’s kind of where we’re at right now. We’re already looking forward to the 2023 season.”
McFadden’s journey to 2022 differs slightly from a lot of his teammates. Entering the year, the 24-year-old categorized himself as “promising.” He signed with Atlanta United 2 in April 2021 after being selected in the MLS SuperDraft out of Notre Dame. Last year, he was a regular for the 2s, finishing with eight goals and three assists in 29 USL appearances.
He trained with the first team during preseason as a player likely a year or two away from competing for a roster spot. So, after the trip Mexico, McFadden returned to Atlanta United 2 where he expected to remain for the rest of the season. For Atlanta United’s season opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 27, McFadden asked for a stadium ticket. He and his Atlanta United 2 teammates were in the stands among the 70,000 supporters in the building to watch the 5-Stripes kick off the season with a 3-1 victory.
But McFadden didn’t stay in the stands for long. For Atlanta United’s next match on March 5 at Colorado Rapids, he was called up to the first team on a short-term agreement. In snowy Commerce City, Colo., McFadden made his first career MLS appearance. He came on as a second-half substitute in a match where Atlanta United trailed and was eventually shut out 3-0 in their first away trip of the season.
“That’s a moment I dreamed of personally, to go on and get my first minutes in MLS, and it’s 3-nil down and we’re playing with 10 men. That wasn’t really how I pictured it,” he says. “But it was still an important step for me personally and something to grow from. Having had that experience with the team, having played with them throughout preseason, it helped for when Toronto came and all of a sudden, I was playing significant minutes for the team.”
After Colorado, McFadden returned to Atlanta United 2. He logged minutes in 13 matches for the USL side, continuing his role as one of the leaders and mainstays of the squad.
In June, McFadden was called up once again to the first team, filling in a roster spot temporarily vacant. He expected this run to be like the Colorado match earlier in the season – temporary. But on June 25, the outlook of McFadden’s season flipped.
During warm-ups at BMO Field, McFadden was on the bench minutes before kickoff. He was telling teammate Alex De John how excited he was to be there, getting a chance to travel with the team on their three-match road trip. McFadden was in the mindset of soaking in the experience and learning. He wasn’t expecting to play – but that quickly changed.
“I just remember having fun in warm-ups, then Brooks [Lennon] slips and then it’s ‘Hey you’re starting,’” McFadden recalls. “It’s crazy, but it didn’t feel crazy. It just seems like, looking back, that was the moment when I was like ‘I’m going to play soccer.’”
Suddenly, McFadden found himself on the pitch for Atlanta United. Not only was he playing on the first team, but he was also starting on the road at a tough venue. He went on to play 81 minutes in the team’s 2-1 loss to Toronto FC. Being thrown into a starting spot in such an abrupt way changed McFadden’s perspective. He focused on how he could help the team win games, not just stay in them – and he took that on as his personal challenge moving forward.
“I don’t think, at first, anyone was really expecting me to contribute, other than probably myself or maybe some guys on the 2s,” he says. “I think after Toronto some perceptions changed… I think it showed I was ready to contribute.”
The young defender proved to be indispensable for Atlanta United and filled in at a position during a time of great need. Lennon was one of three veteran fullbacks out due to injury, joining Andrew Gutman and Ronald Hernández. McFadden, along with 17-year-old Caleb Wiley, were suddenly asked to help fill in. Together, the two started a significant stretch. Wiley appeared in 26 matches during the season and played nearly 1500 minutes. McFadden started eight matches, seven consecutive, for Atlanta United and finished the season with 11 MLS appearances.
For two guys with hardly any MLS experience, it was a lot to ask.
“Especially for Caleb and Aiden, it was a lot for them to be thrust into the starting lineup,” defender Andrew Gutman says. “For two guys that probably didn’t expect to play as much as they did that season, I think it’s tough for them. But I have to give them a lot of credit. I thought both of them were fantastic… for what the club asked them to do, I think they exceeded expectations.”
“For Aiden, someone that’s primarily with the second team, also came into MLS, and the nine or 10 games he played, I thought he can be a guy that can play in this league for many years,” Gutman continues.
Although the increase in playing time at MLS level was physically demanding, McFadden wasn’t fazed. The fitness required was the part of the game he actually felt most comfortable with. He credits Atlanta United 2 for preparing him to play in MLS. With the 2s, he was used to playing a full 90 minutes, sometimes two or three times a week. In fact, McFadden says the most physically demanding moment of the season was when he wasn’t playing soccer.
The biggest adjustment for McFadden came with the speed of the game. On the MLS level, the margin for error is much smaller than in USL or college. He learned how a yard or two, here or there, could be the difference. It could give a teammate a half-second more so they in turn can make the right pass.
“The timing of it is so much quicker that these little details that people have been nailing into you since you were kid, and you might not have really bought into, they matter,” McFadden says.
While Atlanta United fell short of expectations in 2022, McFadden gained meaningful experience – perhaps earlier in his career than he expected. He says that if someone were to tell him at the start of the season that he'd start eight games for Atlanta United, that’d absolutely be something he’d want to do – and something he’d embrace.
“It was all over the place, up and down,” he says of the season. “Within myself, I’ve had expectations for myself that maybe others haven’t before or their expectations of me will change. I’m just trying to get better everyday and make the most of my opportunities as they come.”
McFadden certainly wants more. He wants to continue to get better and build off the experience he gained in 2022. The positive perspective, and hunger for more, is what drives him this offseason. While the young defender is determined to be the best soccer player he can be, he also wants to get better so he can help the club be successful:
“It’s something that motivates you. It’s going to drive me through this offseason, it’s what’s driving me right now through the lifts, through the training sessions. I want to get back out there. I want to play. I want to be part of the team. I want to be part of the starting lineup. I want to win trophies. And I want to help us do that.”