Atlanta United has bright future at centerback

Homegrown signees Cobb and Morales ‘are going on the right path’
Atlanta United 2 defender Noah Cobb #39 dribbles during the USL match against the Charleston Battery at Fifth-Third Bank Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Sunday March 27, 2022. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitch Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United 2 defender Noah Cobb #39 dribbles during the USL match against the Charleston Battery at Fifth-Third Bank Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Sunday March 27, 2022. (Photo by Mitch Martin/Atlanta United)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Atlanta United’s centerbacks of the future are making manager Gonzalo Pineda turn to his assistants to ask “how old are they again?”

Noah Cobb and Efrain Morales, all of 18 and 19 years old respectively, have performed well during the team’s first three friendlies, including Wednesday’s 2-1 victory against Montreal. Atlanta United will play Tampa Bay on Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.

“Both are going on the right path,” Pineda said. “I will say that Noah’s a little bit ahead at the moment. But both are doing very, very good.”

Atlanta United supporters may not know much about Morales, who signed a Homegrown contract in 2020 and an extension last season. He was one of the original Academy players with the Under-12 team in 2006. He went on trial with Manchester United in January 2020. And then he started to grow and grow to his present 6-foot-3, 183 pounds. As a result, injuries resulting from how quickly his body developed kept him off the field for most of the next two seasons. He came back and made 24 appearances with Atlanta United 2 in 2022 and 20 in 2023. This season was Morales’ first opportunity to work with the first team in the preseason.

Atlanta United's Efrain Morales.

Credit: MLS/Atlanta United

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Credit: MLS/Atlanta United

“I’m obviously getting some consistency now that I kind of grew in some of my body,” he said. “I’m obviously just starting to love soccer again. I mean, it was a bit difficult at the time, but I’m, I’m enjoying it every day.”

Morales likely will be loaned back to Atlanta United 2 for the season. He said his goal for the preseason is to get as many minutes as he can with the first team. He’s learning more about how to hold the defensive line to keep opponents offside and positional awareness.

Morales is good on the ball. He has attempted several passes to break lines in the friendlies. He has played all over the field as a youth, so he said he feels comfortable receiving the ball. He started in the academy as a midfielder and is learning still the nuances of centerback.

There was a moment in the Memphis friendly in which Morales almost got caught napping. A ball was cleared into Atlanta United’s half of the field. Morales turned and started jogging back to retrieve it. He didn’t see a Memphis player coming off his shoulder to try to get to the ball first. Morales found another gear and got to the ball first. Brad Guzan came up to talk to him during the game, and Morales spoke to the coaches about always being aware and his family about it after the match.

“In the moment, when it actually happens to you, obviously that’s when you’ve learned from your actual mistakes more than anything,” Morales said.

Cobb, whose Homegrown contract became effective in 2023, has looked during the preseason like a player who once was described by Vice President Carlos Bocanegra as having national-team potential.

Cobb, applying the experience of 18 matches with Atlanta United 2 and three with Atlanta United last season, won all of his one-on-one duels against Montreal on Wednesday. He has looked assured with his positioning and his passing.

Cobb, whose goal is to play for the U.S. Under 20s in the CONCACAF Champions Cup this summer, said he just wants to be ready any opportunity.

“I’m just hoping to just try to build on what I kind of accomplished last year,” Cobb said last week after the Memphis match. “I mean, I want to be getting consistent minutes, whether that’s first team or second team, just always, always playing games, and always making sure I’m ready that if I’m playing with the second team, I’m playing, I’m getting my minutes, I’m seeing the action. So that way, if I do get an opportunity with the first group, I’m ready to ready to play because I’ve been playing minutes.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 at Columbus, 2 p.m.

March 9 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m.

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., FOX

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., FOX

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.