Established names and overseas arrivals have dominated the conversation around Atlanta United this winter. That’s likely to continue as the Five Stripes open their 2021 campaign with a tricky Concacaf Champions League visit to Costa Rican powers Alajuelense on Tuesday night (8 pm ET | FS1).
Argentine legend Gabriel Heinze is their new head coach, called on to reverse the club’s 2020 drift and return them to the MLS elite. International signings like Santiago Sosa, Ronald Hernandez and Lisandro Lopez have arrived. Attack alpha Josef Martinez is regaining full fitness after his torn ACL a year ago and the mercurial Ezequiel Barco aims to get back on track in year four in MLS.
The focus on a quick turnaround is understandable given the expectations that have been set both inside the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground and among the fanbase. What’s flown under the radar a bit – but might prove just as influential long-term – is the player development project that’s been quietly ticking along even as the first team crashed to the lowest ebb of its short existence last summer.
“We went from darlings of MLS to now having a bumpy road for the first time in our history, which is a very short history. But it was a change,” ATLUTD academy director Tony Annan told MLSsoccer.com. “And you see the best and worst of people at these times, right? I think as a club, it's a good test. It's a good test of our character, test of our resolve to see where we go from here.
“Even though it's turbulent at the top, where everybody sees from the outside, underneath the continuity and the coaching and the development pyramid that we've got set up is still continuing along the same path.”
The Five Stripes cranked up their academy a year before they took the pitch in MLS, and over the winter Atlanta made winger Machop Chol their 10th Homegrown player; he’s the sixth HGP on their current roster and the fourth such signing since July. Many have cut their teeth with ATLUTD 2, the club’s USL Championship side, and the second team has also become a laboratory for prospects from across the continent and around the world, including recent arrivals from the Manchester United and River Plate systems.
Last summer’s one-two punch of the COVID-19 pandemic and the dismissal of first-team boss Frank de Boer after a woeful display at the MLS is Back Tournament left Annan and his colleagues with some choices to make. Meanwhile, De Boer’s departure led to ATLUD 2 coach Stephen Glass stepping into that post on an interim basis, so Annan did the same in kind for his place with the 2s.
In a setup built around the fluid interchange of players between the first and second teams and the academy below them, COVID protocols effectively required that the MLS and USL groups be firewalled in order to reduce transmission risks. Youngsters and reserves on the cusp of one team or the other could no longer float back and forth to maximize their training environments and match exposure.
“We took 14 academy kids between the ages of 15 and 18 and we said, ‘OK, these 14 are up there with the USL, training or playing depending on how they do, and that's from the get-go,’” explained Annan.
“We got a lot of kids a lot of opportunities that they may not have gotten if the first-team guys were dropping in and the numbers were able to move around. So it was a challenge, there were a lot of hoops to jump through as far as protocols and making sure everyone was safe. But on the back side, it was a major step forward for us as far as development.”
Unsurprisingly, the second team’s results suffered in the USL Championship. Teeming with teenagers competing against grown professionals, they finished 15th of 17 in that league’s Eastern Conference with a 3W-10L-3D record. It wasn’t pretty on paper – Annan joked that he’s fortunate his résumé and reputation don’t hinge on those results – but amid that baptism by fire, several made significant strides.
Homegrown Jackson Conway co-led the second team in scoring and was signed to an MLS contract in December, just before he scored Atlanta’s consolation goal in their CCL quarterfinal second leg vs. Club America off a delivery from fellow HGP George Bello. Will Reilly, Coleman Gannon and Ajani Fortune also showed well given the scale of the learning curve, the latter even earning a call-up to Trinidad & Tobago’s full national team in January.
GOAL: Jackson Conway, Atlanta United - 82nd minute
Center back George Campbell went with the first team and thus missed out on the USL minutes he would’ve otherwise logged, while striker Tyler Wolff (son of Austin FC coach Josh Wolff) wound up playing in more MLS games than the USL Championship. But they too will be in the first-team mix this season and beyond. Defender Efrain Morales earned his Homegrown deal at 16, while his fellow US youth international Caleb Wiley held his own at the tender age of 15 and looks to be Bello’s long-range successor should the latter eventually move to Europe as expected.
“It's really important that a Caleb Wiley, who was 15 years old, plays 15 games against these guys who are established pros in the USL,” said Annan, reeling off the names of the attackers his young charge had to face week in, week out, “who are very athletic, very strong. And Caleb has to work it out. And sometimes he got burned. But sometimes he did really, really well and you see that, yes, we've got something here.”
As it turned out, the situation also provided a launching pad for coaches. After the unenviable task of caretaking in De Boer’s wake, Glass returned to his native Scotland last month to become manager of Aberdeen, Atlanta’s partner club in the Scottish Premiership, his reputation enhanced by his spell in the United States.
“I think the greatest tool we’ve got is the direct evidence that if guys are good enough and work hard enough, that we give them an opportunity,” Glass told MLSsoccer.com before his departure.
“They [the players] can see the pathway, and they are being given the trust to do the right things on a football pitch,” he added. “So you're able to tell the younger ones, if we do happen to take a defeat, listen, this happened to Miles Robinson when he was in the team, George Bello played in the team, this happened. They've all taken their knocks. … being individually competitive, learning how to play in a team, what sort of mistakes cost you games, what sort of successful things make you win games, I think are all part of the learning curve.”
The pathway grows steeper at first-team level, where the likes of Josef, Barco and Robinson stand in the way of sustained MLS minutes. And it’s not yet clear how much trust Heinze will place in the kids he inherits in Atlanta. He’s known to be intense and his high-tempo philosophy will demand both physical output and tactical sophistication; that could challenge the youngsters, or it might require squad rotation across the compacted 2021 schedule.
But Heinze should have raw material to work with, thanks to the pipeline founded in the Gerardo “Tata” Martino era and built out through all that’s transpired since.
“From the outside looking in, fans could turn around and go well, ‘A2 doesn't win games, A2 doesn't represent the Atlanta way because they don't win everything,’” said Annan. “But at the end of the day, if we can produce two or three professional players from those experiences of playing 30, 40 games in the Championship, then the job's done. It's achieving everything we set out for it to be.
“We knew where we wanted to go at the very beginning and we're on track right now.”