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Staying on Track: Atlanta United’s Homegrowns have stepped up in absence of experienced starters 

Staying on Track MARTA 16X9v2

When Noah Cobb was subbed off in Atlanta United’s match against Nashville SC on May 18, the young defender didn’t want to come off the pitch. He started the match, battled through a physical contest, answered the call to mark Hany Mukhtar and injured his ankle.

After all that, Cobb still didn’t want to come off the pitch.

For head coach Gonzalo Pineda, the moment reflected a mentality he’s been wanting to see out of his team:

“He’s limping, he’s in some pain, but I’m a bit moved today because the kid, 18 years old, you can see it doesn’t look good and the kid is upset because he’s had to come out and he’s saying, ‘Coach, leave me some time. I might be coming back.’ It just shows the passion and the willingness of this team to try and win and try to compete and to help the team.”

Cobb is one of several young players who’ve been called upon during the first third of Atlanta United’s season to play significant time. Five Atlanta United Homegrowns, or club-developed players, have logged minutes in MLS play this season – Cobb, Caleb Wiley, Efraín Morales, Jay Fortune and Tyler Wolff. Five ranks fifth in MLS.

Together, this group has lifted Atlanta United to eighth in MLS in minutes played by club-developed players in 2024 (2724.5 minutes).

The most minutes have been accumulated by Wiley, who’s become a regular starter since making his MLS debut for Pineda at the beginning of the 2022 season. The 19-year-old has logged 1075 minutes in MLS this season and has started every match he’s appeared in.

The average of these five players is just under 20 years old. It may not be ideal to have that many young players see action for the club, but injuries to several starters have created a need for Pineda to look further down his bench. Norwegian international Stian Gregersen missed nearly six weeks due to meniscus surgery. Thiago Almada has been out with a calf injury. Xande Silva missed some time too due to injury, which created opportunity for Tyler Wolff.

Along with Gregersen, the team is still without the other center back that began the season. Derrick Williams is working his way back from a calf injury. So for a good portion of the season, Atlanta United has been without their main center back pairing.

These two injuries opened up two defensive positions, filled in by Cobb and Efraín Morales. Morales started the match against Chicago Fire on the road on April 27, which signified his MLS debut.

As we learned with Noah Cobb a few weeks ago, minutes played is one of the most positive indicators of success for young players. (For reference Cobb ranks among the top-15 in the world in minutes played for center backs age 19 or under.)

So while it’s not preferred for Atlanta United to rely so heavily on its youth this early in the season – ideally, Gregersen, Williams along with Luis Abram would get the majority of the starts at center back – the club has had options in their absence. And those options have been players who came up through the club’s pathway to the pros.

And their youthful energy and passion to get on the pitch has helped the mentality of the team during a stretch of underperforming results:

“Number one, I think the best response I get is what Efrain Morales told us after his debut is he loves Atlanta and he will do whatever he needs or he can to make Atlanta successful. And I think that’s what the kids bring. Normally, in any club, the academy kids and kids from the second team, they bring that passion, that energy, that playing for the heart and all these things. That’s very important always to remember. It doesn’t matter of how many years you have as a professional, you have to have that kind of passion. That’s what they bring.”

Atlanta United's Data Scientist & Analyst Arjun Balaraman and data engineer Akshay Easwaran contributed to this story. Video by Khoury Kennedy, Atlanta United's Motion Graphics Producer and Video Editor.

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