Atlanta United’s Bocanegra thrilled with Academy prospects

Atlanta United defender George Bello (21) prepares to pass while being defended by New York Red Bulls defender Tim Parker (26) during the second half Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Branden Camp/For the AJC)
Atlanta United defender George Bello (21) prepares to pass while being defended by New York Red Bulls defender Tim Parker (26) during the second half Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Branden Camp/For the AJC)

Though just one of the team’s first five Homegrown signings is still with the club, Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra said Tuesday that he is thrilled with the work being done by its Academy.

The team announced on Tuesday that it declined contract options on Andrew Carleton, its first Homegrown signing ahead of the 2017 season, and Lagos Kunga, who was part of a group of three signed before the 2018 season. The other Homegrowns signed in that first group of five were Patrick Okonkwo and Chris Goslin, who were let go after the 2019 season with neither having appeared for the senior team in a league game.

The success story is George Bello, who made 20 appearances this season as a left fullback and was one of the team’s bright spots.

Academies are the lifeblood of soccer teams because through them can come quality players who can sign professional contracts and help the senior team, and then be sold for sometimes enormous profits to other clubs. Teams such as Dallas and Philadelphia are very adept at producing pros from their academies. The Union are selling Brendan Aaronson to Red Bull Salzburg in Germany for a reported fee of as much as $9 million. Dallas sold two former Academy players to Bayern Munich and had several in its lineup in Sunday’s win over Portland in the MLS playoffs.

“We’re just entering our fifth season now,” Bocanegra said. “We are extremely young in our Academy.”

Atlanta United started its academy in 2016. It is currently led by Tony Annan, a longtime fixture in Georgia soccer and one of the most respected developers of youth soccer in the country.

Efrain Morales, one of the players from the inaugural class on the under-12 team, will sign a Homegrown contract in January. He will get to train with the senior team and then will likely go to Atlanta United 2 to gain experience as a professional. If he succeeds, he will probably move up to the first team at some point. If he succeeds for the first team, who knows? Manchester United already had Morales at its training center earlier this year to get to know him.

Players don’t have to join Atlanta United’s academy as youngsters to find a path to the first team. Other players who have joined Atlanta United’s academy deeper into their youth careers and who signed Homegrown contracts are centerback George Campbell, who made his debut this year, and striker Tyler Wolff, who also made his debut. Campbell was once a member of Philadelphia’s academy. Wolff was once a member of Columbus’ academy.

“The kids are young and have to earn their place but we are really excited what the future holds,” Bocanegra said.

In Other News