Matt Lawrey explains vision for Atlanta United’s academy

The age groups for Atlanta United’s academy are under 12 years old, under 13, under 14, under 16 and under 18. (Kyle Hess)
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The age groups for Atlanta United’s academy are under 12 years old, under 13, under 14, under 16 and under 18. (Kyle Hess)

Matt Lawrey, promoted to Atlanta United’s academy director Friday, said he wants to continue the fine work done by Tony Annan.

Under Annan, who was in charge of the academy for most of the past five years, the academy produced more than 10 Homegrown signings and more than 30 Division I players who signed scholarships. Annan resigned in April to become South Carolina’s men’s coach.

Lawrey said the broader goals are to continue the growth of the academy, which includes identifying how the club can help the youth soccer organizations around the state. The youth organizations are the primary source of Atlanta United’s academy talent.

“We want to be the big star in the city, the big star in the state,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we are challenging players coming out of this state. The youth clubs and organizations are really important to us. There are some amazing players out of this state. We want to support them and help them.

“As youth soccer in Georgia grows, the Atlanta United academy grows and therefore Atlanta United grows.”

Once the players are in the academy, the goal remains the same as when the academy started in 2016: develop the players to one day appear for Atlanta United 2 in Kennesaw, as many of the Homegrowns have done; or for Atlanta United in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, like George Bello; or to play collegiately, like Machop Chol, who later signed with the club as Homegrown.

“A cool thing about being in youth development is we can’t see the product in front of us,” he said. “We have to see it in five, 10 years, which is difficult. Key is the player’s mentality. How do we find players who are intrinsically motivated? Does he have ability to push, grind, train on his own. Bello is a great example of that.”

Lawrey worked under Annan since joining the club in July 2016 as the U12 coach. He moved to the U15s and then the U19s. Lawrey also served as academy manager, working with and learning from Annan as they developed curricula and managed day-to-day operations. The academy has seven teams ranging from U12 through U19.

Lawrey said the playing style of the academy teams will remain as it has been for the first team: aggressive and pressing.

A challenge of the job that he said he and Annan began to notice and try to solve is making sure that all of the academy players feel like they are part of one larger club. A competitor for a position on an U16 team really is a teammate. A U16 player could get called up to the U17 team for a match, so they need to know those players as well.

“Really making sure that the culture is extremely strong,” he said. “That will come over time. Exciting about filling in that communal club culture as well as challenging individuals.”

Lawrey thanked President Darren Eales and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra for the opportunity, but came back many times during the interview to Annan and his mentorship. Lawrey credited Annan with helping him stretch and grow and challenging him in positive ways. As an example, like Annan, Lawrey completed the Elite Formation Coaching License, a 52-week labor-intensive French course introduced in North America by the French Football Federation and MLS. Lawrey said Annan would never say “do things this way” as he went through the course. Instead, Annan would instead ask Lawrey questions.

“Able to let me stretch, grow, challenge me and push me, and now I feel really ready,” Lawrey said.