When Atlanta United appointed Jack Collison head coach of Atlanta Untied 2, it was evident that he’d bring a wealth of experience to the job, despite this being his first test at the professional level.
As a product of West Ham’s youth system, Collison crossed paths with some of the best players of his generation, and during the peak of his professional career, the Welsh international was certainly counted among them.
Collison made his debut for West Ham at 19 and would go on to score 14 goals in 121 appearances for the Hammers between 2008-14. His playing career was cut short due to the lingering effects of a knee injury, and he transitioned to coaching soon after.
Four years removed from his retirement, Collison, 33, completed his first season as head coach of Atlanta United 2.
In that first year, navigating the sometimes precarious position of a second team coach, he learned to manage a number of different personalities—including one that he was already quite familiar with.
“Robbie Mertz reminds me a lot of myself,” Collison said following the conclusion of the season.
Mertz, 25, signed with Atlanta United 2 in January 2021 after spending two seasons with fellow USL Championship club Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, Mertz quickly earned a starting role in what was formerly Tony Annan’s squad until Jack Collison took over in June. Mertz led the team with five assists in 28 appearances.
“He’s a wonderful player, first and foremost, and I feel very lucky I got to use him in my team last season,” Collison said.
His energy and mentality, however, also made Mertz indispensable on matchday, especially in the aggressive system that defined Atlanta United 2 last year.
“You can see it in the matches,” Collison said. “He’s always the furthest distance, most high intensity, most tackles, most regains, and that’s before we even talk about his quality with the ball, which is probably the best part of his game.”
Those are the statistics that don’t show up on the match report but make all of the difference on the result.
“Obviously that’s a bonus,” Collison said. “But his mentality and the way he carries himself and, I suppose, just the way he cares about the game…you tell him stuff and he wants to know why, and for me as a coach that’s great, because I get to explain things in more detail.”
With the youthful composition of Atlanta United 2’s roster, which often features a handful of academy players, Collison relied on Mertz to set the tone, giving him the captain’s armband on eight occasions.
That trust comes naturally when the man tasked with leading the team can see the prototype of what he wants in one of his players.
The skill, work rate and eagerness to get on the ball are traits that defined Collison’s career. But the fundamental ingredient, a desperate itch to win, is what Collison sees as the common denominator between himself and Mertz.
“Probably the biggest thing that stands out to me about Robbie is whenever he loses in training, you can’t talk to him for at least 15, 20 minutes,” Collison said. “And that competitiveness just reminds me of how I was as a player.”
Mertz re-signed for a second season with Atlanta United 2 in December.
With this being his fourth season in the USL Championship, Collison will again look to Mertz to lead this young squad. And Mertz will continue to make strides in his development as he looks to take the next step.