Ask George Bello which Atlanta United player he’s learned the most from, he’ll answer assuredly. (Brad Guzan.) Or what he thinks of Gonzalo Pineda. (“He’s a great coach.”) Or about his reflections on Atlanta United’s 2021 campaign. (“It was a hectic season, to say the least.”)
But how he feels about being a role model? That, he isn’t so sure.
“I don’t really like to look at myself as higher or above anyone,” he said.
But the truth is, Bello is a role model. He’s taken major strides in a short amount of time, going from Atlanta’s academy program to becoming a key piece of Atlanta United’s starting XI. And, at just 19 years old, he’s already reached the peak of his sport: representing his country in international competition.
So, after thinking on it a little further, Bello realizes the place he’s in, even if there’s a little reluctance on his end to take on that mantle.
“I can see there’s definitely people younger than me who can look up to me,” he said. “I always try to set an example through that and just know that you just have to be a role model to some people and step up to the plate. So, I hope I do that well and keep going.”
Perhaps no other player on Atlanta’s roster epitomizes the pathway to the pros more clearly than Bello. He started out at the base level of the development pyramid, playing youth soccer at the academy level, joining the club’s first academy class in 2016 when he was 14 years old. He competed with the U-15s that season and was named East Conference Player of the Year for the U15/U16 age group.
From there, Bello continued to move up the path. In 2017, during Atlanta United’s inaugural season, he signed a contract as a Homegrown player. He made 19 appearances for Atlanta United 2 over three seasons, most of his minutes coming in 2019. On Sept. 2, 2018, he made his MLS debut. And just a month later, he became the sixth-youngest player in MLS history to score a goal.
It only took four years for Bello to go from the base of the pyramid all the way to the point. His most consistent position is left wingback, where he can use his speed to fly up and down the flank to aid the attack as well as drop back to defend. And being left-footed makes him a valuable piece, allowing him to bring skill to the left side of the pitch.
“Going through the academy, playing with my friends that I’ve known since I was a little kid as well, and just moving up in the ranks is amazing, it’s what you dream of,” Bello said. “Being able to keep improving myself, being around special players is just so good. I’m blessed to even be where I am right now.”
And in 2021, Bello continued to improve. He started 26 matches and played the fifth-most minutes out of the entire squad. He scored a goal on Sept. 18 against D.C. United, putting away a cross from Marcelino Moreno. He recorded a career-high three assists, including one of the most memorable plays of the year when he used his back-heel to assist Ezequiel Barco on a goal against Columbus Crew on Aug. 7.
Then, Bello climbed even higher. This past year, he was called up to the U.S. men’s national team to compete in the Gold Cup and in the World Cup qualifiers.
In the Gold Cup Final against Mexico, Bello started and played 65 minutes.
“That was probably like a dream come true,” Bello said. “You dream about that kind of thing when you’re a kid, to play for your national team, in a tournament, in a final.”
Producing players like Bello that go through and grow within the system is an aspect of American soccer that is growing. Clubs in Europe have had development programs in place for decades. That’s why Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra has stressed the importance of developing players like Bello within the club system and how it's going to help Atlanta United achieve the goal of becoming a global brand.
“You see this next generation of players here playing in America who are going in and starting for their national teams,” said Bocanegra, who captained the U.S. men’s national team for six years and this year was inducted to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. “We’re really raising the bar here. Off the field, we’re definitely the leaders in the industry. So it’s more about how do we continue to develop that on-the-field product.”
For that on-the-field product to grow, it’ll be important to cultivate Homegrown players like Bello. The term “Homegrown” refers to players who are products of MLS academies who have been signed to the first team. Bello is part of a young class of Homegrown players who have appeared for Atlanta United that includes George Campbell, Machop Chol, Jackson Conway and Tyler Wolff.
These players have known each other and played with each other for years, forming a kind of camaraderie that can’t be easily replicated. Besides the Gold Cup Final, Bello recalled Campbell’s first career MLS goal against Orlando City as his favorite moment of 2021.
“We fight like brothers, we joke around like brothers,” Bello said. “We’re just all like a family, and that’s what I really love about it. And those boys always know that I’ve got their backs.”
Being a Homegrown player gives the Douglasville, Ga. native special pride. In fact, Bello attributes his experience at Atlanta United with helping him reach the stage of his career when he’s being called up to the U.S. men’s national team on a regular basis.
Bello is currently up for the Chipotle Young Male Player of the Year award for U.S. Soccer. And on Dec. 18, Bello will continue to represent Atlanta United on a global level when he joins the U.S. men’s national team in a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Just being able to play a lot of games here in Atlanta really helped me to even get there, so I’m thankful for that as well,” he said. “I’m just happy with that.”
Getting to play in the city where he’s from is special. Living in Atlanta is all he’s ever known. It’s where he was raised and brought up, where he played club ball before moving to Atlanta United. It’s the place where he’s been able to play in front of his family and friends for all of his career.
To Bello, that's a blessing -- and something he’s grateful for.
“Atlanta has my heart forever.”