While everything about Atlanta United seems brand new, its academy has roots that go back for two decades.
Atlanta United academy director Tony Annan moved to Atlanta from England 22 years ago and has been a mainstay in the city’s youth soccer scene ever since. His reputation in player development was well established by the time Atlanta United president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra came to town, and the nascent MLS club was in search of someone with his expertise.
“The initial talks were, ‘we want to be the best academy,” Annan said of his first meeting with Eales and Bocanegra. “We want to do it right. We want to put the investment into this and really bring through youth. I believed in what they were saying, and then when they showed me the plans and they asked me to present my plan, they aligned.”
To build Atlanta United’s academy from its inception was the opportunity of a lifetime for Annan. After developing youth for 20 years, many of which would reach higher levels, Annan would now control the growth of players directly for the first team of a professional club.
Not much of his philosophy needed to be changed. Annan’s style of teaching the game and ensuring player progression is what caught the eye of Atlanta United, but now his success would not be measured in wins. His performance would be based on the quality of his players and their ascension to the first team.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “I’m at the beginning of my career doing it. I’ve produced a lot of kids for college, and some that have gone on to play professional, but this is my first go around at the MLS level—the professional level of trying to produce kids straight from high school into the professional ranks.”
So far the academy has seen five players – Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, Lagos Kunga, Patrick Okonkwo and George Bello – sign professional Homegrown contracts with Atlanta United. In addition, several players from the academy train with the first team on a weekly basis.
Many players have also received recognition on the international stage as 22 academy products have represented their respective country’s national team since Atlanta United’s academy began.
Atlanta United's U-15/16 made history over the weekend winning the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national title, but the U-18's just wrapped up a successful season with a top-8 national seed in the playoffs themselves. With Atlanta’s Lagos Kunga representing the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup this summer and more academy players expected to participate in the U-17 World Cup in October, new heights for Annan and the academy are on the horizon.
“I never dreamt it would be this big and this magnificent,” Annan said. “It’s crazy to think that not even 12 months ago we had no players at all. It’s gone fast. The feeling of starting something and being on the ground floor and building something, I still have that feeling. I think the whole club does. It’s gone really well so far and we just need to keep working harder and try and outwork everybody else to be the best, which is what the ownership wants and what the management wants. It’s the best or nothing.”