Unlike several past MLS expansion clubs, Atlanta United have taken a low-profile approach to building their team in the 26 months since it was announced that they would join the league in 2017.
With season ticket deposits through the roof for their expansion season, Atlanta have not felt any pressure to bring in a global superstar to garner a bit of buzz. Instead, they’ve signed young, relatively anonymous players and focused on developing their academy.
That focus came to a head on Thursday, when Atlanta announced the signing of 15-year-old US youth national team midfielder Andrew Carleton to a Homegrown Player contract.
A creative attacking player, Carleton is a major talent. He’s performed very well for the US U-15 and U-17 national teams at international tournaments in recent years and attracted the attention of quite a few foreign clubs prior to signing with Atlanta on Thursday.
Knowing Carleton does not need the extra pressure of outsized expectations, Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra was understandably hesitant to talk up his newest player too much in an interview on Thursday. Still, the former US national team captain did not deny that landing the Powder Springs, Georgia, native was an important moment for the fledgling club.
“It’s a big moment for us; it’s the first Homegrown signing in club history,” Bocanegra told MLSsoccer.com over the phone. “Andrew grew up here, played his youth soccer in Georgia and we’re pretty excited to have him on board. He’s a great young talent, he’s a special player for his age and, for us, it was the right time to sign him and try to accelerate his development.”
But just how was this move possible? How is a club whose own academy teams won’t begin play until September allowed to sign a Homegrown Player?
The answer? With a good deal of foresight and a solid partner.
Atlanta started laying the groundwork for Thursday’s move last October, when the club announced a broad partnership with local youth power Georgia United Soccer Alliance, Carleton’s youth team.
Under the partnership, Atlanta United assumed technical control of Georgia United’s U-18, U-16 and U-14 teams for the 2015-16 US Soccer Developmental Academy season. They aren’t wearing the crest, but all of Georgia United’s players are under the Atlanta United umbrella. The hours they spend training with Georgia United this season count toward the minimum MLS requirement needed to achieve Homegrown Player status with Atlanta.
That arrangement cleared the way for Carleton’s signing. The midfielder, who has been with the US U-17 residency program in Florida since January, still has to bank more training hours with Atlanta before he can officially be added to their 2017 roster, but Bocanegra said he will be able to fulfill the requirement easily by the time the club kick off their inaugural preseason next January.
Until then, Carleton will work through an individual development plan designed by Atlanta. He’ll split his time between Georgia, the US U-17s, who are preparing for next year’s World Cup, and the Charleston Battery, Atlanta’s USL affiliate.
Bocanegra is hoping Carleton will take a bit out of each environment and continue to develop his creative attacking game.
“In the time that I’ve watched him, and I’ve watched him quite a few times – been on a few trips with him, actually, with the national team – he just has something a little bit special about him,” Bocanegra said. “He can see the final pass, he can wiggle himself out of trouble, but he can also create and score goals for himself. He’s still got some room to grow – obviously, he’s quite young – but we think now was the time for him to put him in more challenging environments and keep pushing and see how far he could go.”
Carleton might not be the only Homegrown signing Atlanta makes this year. As Top Drawer Soccer’s Will Parchman noted in his informative look at the club a couple of months ago, Georgia United sent four players – the most of any team – to the US U-17 camp in April. There’s talent in their system, and many of those players will end up in Atlanta’s academy. Bocanegra should have some options.
But whether or not Atlanta, who Bocanegra said hopes to announce a head coach “in the next few months,” sign any more Homegrown Players in the near future is a bit beside the point.
The important thing is that the club already have an academy structure in place. They have an accomplished staff running things on the youth level, a marvelous training facility under construction and have already selected players for their teams that will compete in next year's academy season. Carleton may or may not pan out, but as long as Atlanta continue on the current path, their academy should produce first-team-caliber players in relatively short order.
Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank, club president Darren Eaves and Bocanegra haven't signed any big names yet, but they have built a framework for their club’s future. That might not generate as much buzz as a splashy signing, but it does make Atlanta stand out.
“It was a great vision by Arthur to be able to say, ‘Look, this is how important the academy is, we want to build it out,’” Bocanegra said. “We’ve got a great crop of players here in Georgia that a lot of other clubs … in and around Atlanta have done a good job of developing. Now hopefully we can take them to the next level.”