Dedication. Development. Distance.
Those are three of the many paraphrased reasons that Atlanta United is launching a yet-to-be-named USL team that will play at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, according to Five Stripes Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra.
The team will play in soccer’s second division in North America with a focus on helping Atlanta United’s young or less-experienced players such as 17-year-old Andrew Carleton, 17-year-old Chris Goslin, George Bello, Lagos Kunga and Patrick Okonkwo move up what Bocanegra described as the “developmental pyramid” and become professionals who will eventually consistently push for spots in Atlanta United’s 18.
“We like to push youth and promote youth,” Bocanegra said.
Atlanta United previously had an affiliation with USL club Charleston where Atlanta United players such as Romario Williams either played entire seasons on loan, or Miles Robinson played occasionally. Though Bocanegra said Atlanta United was mostly satisfied with the partnership there were things that Atlanta United couldn’t control.
Distance – a 5 ½ hour car ride from Atlanta to Charleston – was one. If Atlanta United had a game on Sunday and it was decided that a player like the 20-year-old Robinson wasn’t going to be in the 18 – it could be difficult to get him to Charleston in time for the Battery’s game on Saturday.
Even if Robinson could get to Charleston for a road game, there was no guarantee that he was going to play because the Battery were in a playoff chase most of the season. The Battery, among the USL’s better teams last season, had its own needs and demands, including a playoff chase.
Now, with Atlanta United running its own team, distance is only a sometimes short trip up I-85 and decisions about rosters and playing time are completely within the team’s control.
“For us it creates a fantastic atmosphere because you get guys like Andrew and Chris and (George) Bello next year coming out of the academy, we need a place for these kids to play,” Bocanegra said. “If they aren’t breaking through and ready to play, can we get them 10-15 games in the USL where they are competing against men, guys who are putting food on the table for their families?”
Having a USL team where players can log valuable minutes isn’t a guarantee for development. While Williams thrived with the Battery, leading the team with 15 goals in 23 appearances last season, fellow loanee Jeffrey Otoo made just five appearances. The option on Otoo’s contract wasn’t renewed by Atlanta United; Williams’ was.
Goslin made just one appearance with Charleston and Carleton none because most of their 2017 was occupied with either training with Atlanta United or U.S. youth national teams.
But having as many opportunities as possible for the younger players is what’s important.
“Nothing’s given to these kids and we’ve got some darn good players playing in front of them right now,” Bocanegra said. “But it’s their job to challenge and push them.”
The team’s dedication to developing youth started with the selection of its first Academy players for its Under 12 years old, U13, U14, U16 and U18 teams more than six months before the senior team played its first game. Several of its players, including Carleton and Goslin, have already played for U.S. national teams at various levels. A mix of Atlanta United academy players captured the U-15/16 United States Soccer Developmental Academy national championship in July.
Bocanegra said Atlanta United didn’t start a USL team previously because they were focused on developing the MLS franchise, which took more than two years.
Now that the team finished what most would consider a successful inaugural season by becoming the first expansion squad since Seattle in 2009, Bocanegra said it was time to take the next step in keeping the team competitive year after year by developing the younger players. Atlanta United is one of more than 20 MLS teams that own a USL franchise or have an affiliation.
Bocanegra pointed to Toronto, which this season set an MLS record for points, as an example of a franchise that is developing its youth to maintain annual success.
“It’s good not only for us, but for the rest of the guys in the Academy,” Carleton said. “Young guys on the team, it gives them something to chase for between the Academy and the first team. It gives them a good place to get some good, competitive matches and it will be good for the club.”