Looking more like he was 26 years old than 16, Douglasville's George Bello became the eighth youngest player to start a MLS match in Atlanta United's 2-0 win against Real Salt Lake on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Bello, one of the jewels in the U.S. national system, held his own throughout the night, tying for the team-high in tackles (four), winning six of seven duels and putting in a few good crosses to help Atlanta United win its third consecutive match. It was Bello’s second appearance this season.
“I think I did pretty good for a first MLS start,” Bello said. “A few things I can tweak here and there, but it’s only the beginning here. I just need to learn from the mistakes and just keep going and improving myself.”
Bello found out he was going to start on Friday. He said he felt jittery and was shaking until he got a good night’s rest. Bello said that Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino gave him some simple advice: just have fun.
“You have to remember that he is only 16 years old,” Martino said. “But he has to be brave to come in and step into that spot.”
Before the game, Bello watched film of Real Salt Lake’s Jefferson Savarino and peppered teammate Julian Gressel with questions about playing wingback. He said Gressel’s best piece of advice was to try to stay calm.
“I thought he had a great game,” Gressel said. “He was clean on the ball, you know. He didn’t really seem to be too nervous, which I’m sure he was because he seemed like that in the locker room, but on the field, it didn’t seem like it. There’s many more starts for him to come in his professional career.”
Bello almost scored his first goal when his shot from a tough angle was cleared off the line by a Real Salt lake defender early in the first half.
Later in the half, Savarino tried to pressure Bello into making a mistake. With the ball at his feet and facing his own goal, Bello calmly played the ball back to Brad Guzan in the 25th minute. It was a mature play.
“George is, honestly, (it) seems like he’s been ready for a while,” Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said. “I think that he has all the tools. I think if you threw the age out the window, and you just looked at him as a player, you would say he’s absolutely ready. I think that it’s true, when he got on the field, he did really well for the team. I think that the amazing thing for Atlanta United fans and for the team is that he is 16 (years old). Hopefully, there’s many years to come.”
Bello’s crosses weren’t as accurate as the rest of his passing, but it was also the first time that he had played extended minutes with the typical starters. Chemistry is still developing.
In the second half, Miguel Almiron played Bello down the wing and was expecting a return pass. Bello instead played it across the box. Miguel Almiron began pointing to the space in front of him, a signal that is where Bello should have played the ball.
It wasn’t a mistake, per se. Just one of several things that Bello said he can work on should he get another start this season. Bello said his teammates offered support and encouragement during the game, one he will always remember.
“It means a lot because not everyone gets to make their MLS debut at the age of 16, so it is just really a blessing, and I just thank him for the opportunity as well.”
Eight youngest starters in MLS history
Freddy Adu, D.C. United, 14 years, 334 days
Alphonso Davies, Whitecaps FC, 15 years, 327 days
Gianluca Busio, Sporting KC, 16 years, 68 days
Nikolas Besagno, RSL, 16 years, 201 days
Diego Fagundez, NE Revolution, 16 years, 229 days
Eddie Gaven, MetroStars, 16 years, 232 days
Santino Quaranta, D.C. United, 16 years, 242 days
George Bello,Atlanta United, 16 years, 243 days