ATL rising: Talent-rich Atlanta United academy turning heads across MLS

Atlanta United academy manager Tony Annan talks to his team

CHESTER, Pa. – The precipitation had picked up from a light mist to a steady drizzle on this steely gray day on the Delaware River. But Tony Annan wore neither hat nor hood as the rain dripped down his face and onto his black Atlanta United FC jacket.

It was almost 60 degrees out, after all — a far cry from what's considered truly inclement conditions in Newcastle, where he grew up. And things were going quite well for his ATL UTD squad in Generation adidas Cup Eastern regional qualifying, held at the Philadelphia Union's Power Training Complex grounds over the weekend.

Annan was speaking to minutes after his team's comeback victory over D.C. United on Oct. 8, the second of three victories in Atlanta's undefeated start to their first year of full involvement in the GA Cup, MLS' premier youth competition. They'd swept aside the host club Philadelphia Union 4-1 the day before, and would cap a very impressive weekend with a PK shootout victory over the vaunted New York Red Bulls on Columbus Day.

“It's good to get the challenge from the teams, it's good to be here and play against the best,” said Annan, ATL's academy manager and head coach of their entry in the GA Cup, which is an Under-17 competition. “You don't always get that in your DA [U.S. Soccer Development Academy] league. But this is why this tournament is so important to us.

“You can really see that the clubs are just moving along so fast – tactically, technically, it's a way better level and that's where we want our kids. We've got to play more games like this if we want our kids to progress. And this facility's fantastic, a great environment. Hopefully we can keep on doing well.”

The Englishman admitted that thanks to the hectic work of launching their first season of existence, he and his players didn't know all that much about the GA Cup, which culminates in a finals event featuring several top academy sides from overseas in Frisco, Texas in April. But their MLS counterparts are certainly taking notice of them.

“They are a force to be reckoned with,” one academy official from another club said of Atlanta.

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Conventional wisdom says that new MLS clubs struggle as they begin their climb up the steep expansion learning curve, especially on complex matters like youth development. But ATL UTD are thus far making light of that theory, having already signed two Homegrown Players before their senior squad even hits the training field for the first time. The club has made hefty investments of care, expertise and resources in their youth system, and it's already showing.

With a metro-area population of some 5.6 million and growing – rapidly – greater Atlanta has long been the second-largest US market without an MLS team (behind only Miami). Those numbers don't just represent huge swathes of soccer fans, but also players, and the region is a well-established hotbed for young talent. Five of the 22 players called into the US U-17 national team's August training camp hail from the Atlanta area, including United's 16-year-old HGPs Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin. All five of them are now under the ATL UTD umbrella.

Insiders are quick to point out that other MLS academies have been scouting Atlanta for talent – and spiriting it away – for some time now, a practice brought to an end by United FC's birth and subsequent merger with Georgia United, the area's existing Development Academy program. The job of Annan, academy director Richard Money and their staff is to build a productive pro pipeline out of all those prospects. It's hard to imagine how they could've had a better start.

“I always knew Atlanta had a good pool of players,” said Annan. “It was just a matter of getting them together and putting them in the right environment, with the right resources. I'm really pleased with how we've started, but a long way to go, early days, all those cliches. We've just got to keep our feet on the ground and keep working as hard as we can, make things as best we can in Atlanta, keep producing kids.”

Goslin completed his Homegrown signing last Thursday and was in uniform for ATL UTD's GA Cup team over the weekend. Ranging from box to box menacingly, the midfielder scored the equalizer vs. D.C. with a dipping free kick over the wall and into the top corner of the net from 20 yards, triggering a late flurry from the Georgia side that turned a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 romp.

“Fantastic player. He's a real prospect for us, we're really happy that he's signed with us,” said Annan. “He's got something different – he's got almost what I would call the whole package. But again, he's got a lot to learn, he's a young guy, we've got to be patient with him as well. But it's good to have him in with the guys, it's almost like a role model on the pitch, you know?”

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Carleton is already in a full-time professional environment on loan at the USL's Charleston Battery. Both Homegrowns are slated to take part in most or all of the Atlanta United senior team's 2017 preseason activities under newly named head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino.

“The plan is to have them two and a few others from the [U-]18s who are prospects, join the first team for preseason and get a taste, and let Tata see what we've got in the pipeline,” said Annan, who alluded to Martino's history of showing faith in young players as one of several promising signs that the academy will be well-integrated with the first team.

“We all had a chance to meet with him and talk to him, a really good meeting, and he wants us all to work as a team,” said Annan of Martino. “He wants the coaching staff of the academy to be very involved and close to his staff, so I think together we can really put something nice together where our younger coaches are learning from his coaches and we're all working in the same way. He really stressed that.”

ATL UTD's top two DA teams (U-17/18s and U-15/16s) are both undefeated six games into their league season. The older team's home opener even drew a four-figure crowd of United fans hungry to watch their club's colors in action and drawn by an ambitious promotional campaign.

“We were really surprised. We expected a couple hundred to come out and support it and there was 1,200 on the day,” said Annan. “The marketing department and our social media department have been massive to support us and have really, really made the academy the story until the first team starts.

“There is a passion for soccer in Atlanta. Some people say it's not a sports town but there is a real, real passion for soccer in Atlanta and it's showed by a thousand people at a youth game, an Under-18 game. It was really good to see and it was really exciting for the lads and the teams.”

History suggests that Atlanta will struggle mightily in their debut MLS season. But their authoritative start on the youth front may well be the first sign that something unprecedented is taking root in the ATL.