Everyone’s rooting for Atlanta United’s Machop Chol

This is a photo of Machop Chol from 2016 when he was a member of Atlanta United's Academy.
This is a photo of Machop Chol from 2016 when he was a member of Atlanta United's Academy.

Credit: Atlanta United

Credit: Atlanta United

Machop Chol didn’t want to go.

He was nervous.

The new professional soccer team in Atlanta was holding tryouts to populate its first academy class.

It was a long drive from Tucker to LakePoint Park in Cartersville. It would be especially long if Chol, “Chop” to his friends and teammates from his YMCA teams, couldn’t compete against players from the select teams. But those who played with him thought Chol should try.

Four years later, that decision proved wise.

Chol did do well. He did join Atlanta United’s academy. He signed with Wake Forest. On Tuesday, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional soccer player by signing a Homegrown contract with Atlanta United.

“It opened so many doors for me,” Chol said.

Atlanta United Academy Director Tony Annan said the club knew of Chol because he was friends with Lagos Kunga, who they did really want, but didn’t really know Chol.

Chol stood out for a lot of reasons at the tryout. He was tall and lanky. But his smile, along with his skill, shone brightly.

“He was great,” Annan said. “He is what he is. Very direct. Very skilled.”

Chol received his invitation to the join the academy by telephone after his mother picked him up one day from Southwest DeKalb High School. Chol started to cry, turning his head toward the window so that his mother, who with his father immigrated from Sudan to the U.S. when Chol was 2 years old, wouldn’t see.

“It was a big step,” he said. “I don’t know if I was ready exactly.”

Joining the academy’s U18 team was an easy decision.

Then the work began.

Training five days a week in Marietta was much different than the two days he trained with his Decatur-DeKalb YMCA teams. But his family, friends and teammates went to work, and they figured out a way. Friends would drive. He would drive. Parents would drive. It was all new. It was part of the process, Chol said.

“Things like this take a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “There were a lot of sacrifices.”

Chol needed to get stronger. He needed more endurance.

Still, for the next year, Annan said Chol proved to be dangerous and at times a game-winner.

Plus, that smile.

“Infectious attitude,” Annan said.

Chol never really considered college soccer until recruiters started taking notice. His parents – his mom works at a high school and his dad works for a business in Gwinnett County – wanted him to continue his education.

Chol signed with Wake Forest. Until he visited, he didn’t know how big of a decision it was. Wake Forest is a long-time power in college soccer. It has produced standouts such as former Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst, whose face adorns a few things in the soccer areas of the athletic department, Chol said.

The work continued.

Machop Chol celebrates scoring for Wake Forest in an ACC soccer game. Machop Chol signed a Homegrown contract with Atlanta United.
Machop Chol celebrates scoring for Wake Forest in an ACC soccer game. Machop Chol signed a Homegrown contract with Atlanta United.

Credit: Wake Forest

Credit: Wake Forest

Chol didn’t play much his first season at Wake Forest. Deacons coach Bobby Muuss said that Chol was feeling his way into the program, learning what he needed to do. And Wake Forest was learning about Chol. His soccer looked different. It looked effortless. Chol didn’t look fast but could blow past defenders and still appear to be in second gear. He never fought the ball. He could go right or left, and to be so big, he could easily get out of tight spaces.

But he needed to gain strength. He needed to gain confidence.

Muuss said he and Chol would good-naturedly jab at each other during weight-lifting sessions, saying “You want some?” Chol would always say yes. He would always stay and do extra lifts, extra practice sessions to work on free kicks or his left foot. He would always do more.

“He would never say he was tired,” Muuss said. “He always wants to get better.”

Nutrition and weight training turned Chol from a 160-pound young man with big thighs but thin arms, shoulders and calves into a 175-pound man with noticeable muscle.

After his sophomore season, Chol trained with some of Atlanta United’s academy players in Marietta. He had man power, Annan said.

“A lot of the guys were still at the time were most of the players I grew up playing with,” Chol said. “When they saw how big I had gotten they teased me a little bit.”

Chol improved not only physically but tactically under Muuss. He proved he can play on the right, left or in the middle. His crossing improved. His shooting improved, punctuated by a 25-yard bomb against Clemson last season that he and Annan said was his best soccer moment so far. Tactically, he became much better, according to Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra.

As he grew physically, his confidence started to grow, and Muuss said when Chol is confident he plays his best.

The entire package showed when Chol once again came back to Atlanta, this time to train with the senior team in its practices ahead of the second leg of its Champions League series against Club America.

“He did a great job and held his own with players out there,” Bocanegra said.

Atlanta United’s front office began speaking with Chol and his agent about joining the club as a Homegrown.

Chol said his dream was to play for his hometown club.

“I was eager to get it finalized,” he said.

Chol isn’t guaranteed a spot on Atlanta United’s senior team. There have been a few Homegrowns, including Kunga, who signed but are no longer with the club.

Chol knows this. He knows he has to work on his left foot. He knows he needs to work on his decision-making. He knows that he needs to be more aggressive. It’s OK to try to take on a defender. That confidence is what separates the best players from the rest.

But Chol doesn’t stop working. He wants to keep making his parents proud. And Chol knows that there are a lot of people rooting for him.

Annan couldn’t come up with a favorite memory of Chol. He just kept saying, “He’s just a top, top human.” Muuss joked that he loves Chol so much he’s welcome to marry his daughter.

It’s Chol’s humbleness. It’s his positive attitude. It’s his desire to always be positive.

All of this from a trip to a tryout that Chol wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to.

But it changed his life.

Without it, Chol wouldn’t have joined the academy.

Without it, Muuss said he doubts Wake Forest would have known about him.

Without it, Chol wouldn’t now be a professional soccer player.

“It paved the way for me,” Chol said. “A blessing.”

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