Stats Stories

Staying on Track: Cementing Atlanta United’s commitment to youth development  

Staying on Track MARTA 16X9

As Atlanta United, and MLS, develops deeper knowledge and use of data analytics, we’ll be taking a look behind the curtain at some of the specific stats the club values. In our new weekly content series, we examine one metric provided by StatsBomb that may not stand out on a first watch, but upon closer evaluation, is a useful tool to measure the team’s performance. This is Staying on Track presented by MARTA.

Atlanta United has always been committed to player development since the foundation of the club. As a matter of fact, the Atlanta United Academy started playing matches months before the first team ever had a player or even a head coach.

This week on Staying on Track presented by MARTA we’re focusing on Weighted Average Outfield Player Age, a stat that looks at all players on the pitch (excluding the goalkeeper) and considers the Matches Played and Minutes Played per Match. A weighted average presents a more accurate data set than a simple average, because a weighted average assigns weight that determine in advance the relative importance of each data point, in this case the age of soccer players.

This stat provides the relevancy needed when looking at how many minutes young players are playing, compared to just being in the squad but potentially sitting on the bench and providing an average team age without generating any impact. The calculation is then taken into account to look at the young players’ contributions on the pitch. Atlanta United currently ranks 23rd in MLS in Weighted Average Outfield Player Age, which means that the team is the sixth youngest in the League.

Atlanta United, first team to ever field five homegrowns at the same time

This season, there have been five matches in which an MLS team has played five club-developed homegrown players, but only one of those featured all five players on the pitch at the same time. That was Atlanta United’s away 1-0 win vs D.C. United last week.

When Luke Brennan came in as a substitute for Xande Silva in the 81st minute, Atlanta was already fielding four homegrown players, Noah Cobb, Caleb Wiley, Efraín Morales, and Ajani Fortune – the first time any MLS team has done that in 2024. Not only it was the first time an MLS team fielded five homegrowns this season, but it also was the first time a team won a a match with five club-developed players on the pitch at the same time.

When digging further into the impact the five homegrowns had in that match, Fortune was the only other player who didn’t start, substituting Dax McCarty in the 65th minute, but his impact was immediate by providing more depth in the midfield and constantly combining with the attack. In fact, Fortune assisted Almada in the goal that gave Atlanta the victory over D.C. It was his second assist of the season, the first one coming just two matches before at home vs. Charlotte.

The midfielder’s performance in the Nation’s capital earned him his second start of the Regular Season at St. Louis CITY SC, the first time this season Atlanta United has fielded four homegrown players from the start. In that match, Fortune registered the second highest accurate pass percentage among the other homegrowns who played the full 90 minutes.

“He was big. He’s always nipping at the other players’ heels and that’s the best thing about the team we have, because we want [internal] competition,” said interim head coach Rob Valentino about Fortune following the St. Louis match. “These guys know that this kid is right there and he deserves an opportunity. He pushes really hard Jay knows he can step up.”

Defender Noah Cobb had the highest accurate pass percentage of any player (min. played 5 minutes played) on the field from both teams in the match, with 94.1%. Cobb played the full 90 for the third consecutive match, and ninth overall time this Regular Season, making it the most minutes he’s logged of his professional career.

Cobb has had to step up this season given the absences by injury from veteran center backs in the team, Derrick Williams and Stian Gregersen. Another center back who’s entered the scene and provided depth when the team has needed it is Efraín Morales.

Morales started the last two matches last week, against D.C. and St. Louis, and it’s already earning the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates. Together with Williams, he was crucial to hold D.C. United’s forward Cristian Benteke back and get a clean sheet for the team.

“These young guys show up and it’s a testament to the club because they feel they’re part of it. Efraín has been with the club since he was a kid,” said Valentino following the match against D.C. last Wednesday. “He feels pride in putting the jersey on and being able to defend someone like [Benteke]."

In the attack, Luke Brennan was also a protagonist in the last two matches, after having played 72 minutes the week before at home vs Houston Dynamo. This is the first time in Brennan’s career to have played in three consecutive MLS Regular Season matches, and despite the short amount of minutes, he’s already registered a 0.36 xG (expected goals) this season.

The most veteran homegrown in terms of minutes played out of the five who saw the field in St. Louis was Caleb Wiley, who’s already logged more than 5,000 minutes in MLS and has established himself as the starting left back of the team for three consecutive seasons. Wiley, who’s expected to make the Olympic roster for the U-23 U.S. Men’s National Team, has constantly contributed in both defense and the attack, as needed.

Atlanta United has emphasized the importance of player development since the inception of the club and continues to keep its homegrown players at its core. Those five players together with Tyler Wolff, have been brought up the club’s development system, starting with the Academy over the past three seasons, and the team’s commitment to their growth continues under interim head coach Rob Valentino, who has been with the organization since 2018.

This week, Valentino added Matt Lawrey to his coaching staff, who previously served as the club’s Academy Director from 2021 to April 2024, and more recently as an individual development coach.

Atlanta United comes back home this Saturday, June 29 when they host Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Atlanta United's Data Scientist & Analyst Arjun Balaraman contributed to this story along with Data Engineer Akshay Easwaran.

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