George Bello, Caleb Wiley create paths for Atlanta United’s young players

Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley celebrates after scoring a goal against Orlando City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, July 15, 2023.  (Photo by Kathryn Skeean/Atlanta United)

Credit: Kathryn Skeean/Atlanta United

Credit: Kathryn Skeean/Atlanta United

Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley celebrates after scoring a goal against Orlando City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, July 15, 2023. (Photo by Kathryn Skeean/Atlanta United)

Caleb Wiley’s pending transfer to Premier League-power Chelsea has a deeper purpose than a 19-year-old fulfilling a dream of signing with a club known around the world.

It shows a pathway for Atlanta United’s other Homegrown players perhaps to one day sign with the biggest clubs in Europe.

As popular as Atlanta United is in the city and around the league, it’s not the end-all, be-all in soccer. It wants to be that one day, but it isn’t right now. Young players such as Wiley and former Atlanta United player Thiago Almada want to challenge themselves against the world’s best players. Most of those players are playing for clubs in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France.

The Homegrowns, players who sign professional contracts after playing in the team’s academy, are a group on the first team that includes Wiley (for now), Efrain Morales, Adyn Torres, Noah Cobb, Jay Fortune, Matt Edwards, Tyler Wolff and Luke Brennan. They are rooting for each other.

“I think I think it starts with the people that have brought us up, the coaches Matt (Lawrey), Rob (Valentino), they’ve kind of been around us helping us make that jump,” Wiley said. “They’ve made it so easy for us. They’ve taught us so much. We all have this tight relationship. And when we’re around each other, we’re able to just play free and have fun. It kind of translates into the game, and I think it’s awesome to see so many Homegrowns in Atlanta coming up and making their debut. It’s definitely an awesome feeling.”

Wiley follows a path blazed by George Bello, the team’s first Homegrown to sign with a club in Europe when was transferred to Armenia Bielefeld in Germany before the 2022 season. Bello now is with LASK in Austria. Wiley moved into the left back spot that Bello played and went on to make more than 80 appearances with the first team. He likely played his last match for Atlanta United in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Indy Eleven in the U.S. Open Cup. Atlanta United’s supporters serenaded him when he was subbed off in the second half.

Bello also was the first player from the inaugural group of Homegrowns to become an impactful first-team player. The remaining players from that group are playing in the USL or are out of professional soccer for now.

The second group, headlined by Wiley, has been much more successful. Atlanta United earlier this season are believed to be the first MLS team this season to start four Homegrowns when Morales, Cobb, Wiley and Fortune did so at St. Louis on June 22. They became the first in MLS to field five when they did so in a win against D.C. United on June 28. The Homegrowns have totaled 4,264 minutes in league matches.

“We see young guys getting in and make an impact, and it only helps the morale for the young guys to want to push each other and help each other,” Wolff said.

Homegrowns are important to development of MLS clubs for several reasons. First, the players are known quantities on and off the field. They come up through the academies, typically coached to play how the first-team plays so that if they do sign with the first team, tactically they have better ideas what to do. Wiley and Morales were on the team’s inaugural Under-12 team. Second, they are much less expensive for a team if they are good enough to play for the first team than having to go out and pay a transfer fee and higher salary to bring a player in. Third, should they develop, as have Wiley and Bello, and they want to go to another league, Atlanta United can generate revenues by selling them. Atlanta United sold Bello for $2 million and will sell Wiley for $11 million.

The downsides are it can be hard on the supporters, who can become attached to the players they have watched grow up and develop, and sometimes a player’s inexperience impacts the results for the team compared with using a more-experienced, polished player.

There are more Homegrowns coming. Edwards, a fullback, signed a first-team contract in June and will compete for more playing time with the first team next season. Midfielder Cooper Sanchez signed a contract that will see him join the first team in 2026.

Cobb, a centerback, seems the most likely to be the next Homegrown to get looks from clubs in Europe. Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra once said that Cobb has future national-team potential. Cobb has played more than 1,200 minutes this season. Additionally, he likely will play for the U.S. Under-20s in the coming CONCACAF championships, which can be a showcase for clubs looking for talent.

Bello, and Wiley, have opened that door.

“It’s nice to see that pathway, and then when they get rewarded on the biggest stage it’s fulfilling, I think, for everyone involved,” Bocanegra said.

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 0

April 6 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

April 14 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

April 20 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

April 27 Atlanta United 1, Chicago 1

May 4 Minnesota 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte Independence 0 in U.S. Open Cup

May 11 D.C. United 3, Atlanta United 2

May 15 Cincinnati 1, Atlanta United 0

May 18 Atlanta United 1, Nashville 1

May 21 Atlanta United 0 (5), Charleston 0 (4) in U.S. Open Cup

May 25 LAFC 1, Atlanta United 0

May 29 Atlanta United 3, Miami 1

June 2 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 2

June 15 Atlanta United 2, Houston 2

June 19 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

June 22 Atlanta United 1, St. Louis 1

June 29 Atlanta United 2, Toronto 1

July 3 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 6 Real Salt Lake 5, Atlanta United 2

July 9 vs. Indy Eleven 2, Atlanta United 1

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

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

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

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 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.