A look inside Atlanta United’s first academy selections

In 6-10 years, there may be a player lining up for Atlanta United who was part of the club’s first under-12 academy team.

Should that happen, and it’s the sincere hope of team president Darren Eales and academy director Richard Money, then it is the clearest indication that the team’s academy is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. It means that the day spent on a recent rainy Friday afternoon watching the players pursuing their dreams was more than worth it.

“We’d love to be that Dallas-type club that is putting homegrown players in the first team,” Eales said. “That’s why we started the academy as early as we did because we genuinely believe that’s the way you build a club that can be successful in the long term.”

The team within the past few days sent invitations to its first academy class, 110 players that will compose the under 12 years old, under-13, under-14, under-16 and under-18 teams.

They are the future of Atlanta United.

After two tryouts, selecting the first Atlanta United academy players took several days and involved video reviews from the first tryouts and graded reviews from the second tryouts, as well as observations from practices and games of the players with their club teams.

The players’ homes range from as far north as Dalton to as far south as Macon, with most coming from the Metro Atlanta area. Twenty-six clubs are represented. Eales and Money said the work done and being done by those clubs is critical for Atlanta United, and that they hope to strengthen their relationships in the future.

The evidence of that is how difficult a time Money and his team had in picking the final players.

“We could have picked two teams at least, in every age group,” Money said. “The selection process was incredibly difficult.”

The first tryouts saw more than 500 boys across the U-12, U-13, U14, U-16 and U-18 age groups competing for the spots on the five teams.

Roughly 60 players were invited back for each age group for a final tryout at LakePoint park in Emerson. Rain gently fell, winds made people shiver and mists obscured the tops of the signs of the nearby fast-food restaurants and the hills that flanked the modern day Colosseum. The U-16 and U-18 final tryouts happened two days later.

Approximately 60 boys showed up for each group on the first day of the final tryouts. Around 20 were eventually selected for each team, though some teams will carry a few more when the squads start in August. Money said there were different expectations for the 12s compared to the 18s. The evaluators wanted to see from the 12s skill, compared with skill and tactical acumen that they wanted to see from the 18s.

Each boy wore the same black socks, same black shorts and same black shirt sent to them in a special package from the team. As each boy walked through the gates to play on one of the six turf fields, they were given a ticket to exchange for a pinnie with a color and number on the back specific to them, making it easier for the evaluators. One age group wore green pinnies, one pink and one gray.

Parents weren’t allowed into the area with the field. Instead, they lined the black fence, umbrellas in one hand and faces close to the rails as they watched their sons. There was no cheering, no shouted directions, no admonishments. There was just the spine-twisting mix of nerves, anticipation and excitement a parent must feel watching a 12-year-old take a step to fulfill a dream.

Despite the palpable energy, the sounds were of soccer balls hitting shoes – all colors of the rainbow were being worn – and the boys communicating with each other in soccer lingo: through, here, wide, space, good, press, open, shoot.

It was apparent that many of the boys have played with or against each other for various clubs and teams because names were thrown out as the boys deftly ran.

Evaluators for Atlanta United lined the fields, writing down notes in their books that they were trying to keep dry, not saying much to the boys during the scrimmages as they watched them play.

The skill level of the boys was impressive. Some of the players did Zidane spins, Cruyff turns and Ronaldo stepovers with instinct. But that was the flair. The fundamentals were just as solid. Before passes would arrive, most boys would have already taken one look around to see who was open or who was trying to close them down. The boys would receive the passes with the instep of either foot so that the ball would land between their feet, enabling them to go next in either direction. As soon as the ball was under control, the boy would take another look up and quickly make a decision. There was no panic when a boy had the ball, even when trying to play their way out of their own penalty box with opponents wearing another colored pinnie bearing down on them.

After making what they thought was a good play, sometimes a boy would sneak a glance at one of the evaluators to see if he was watching.

It was evident that some of the boys had a particular skill that was eye-catching, though it was impossible to tell if that skill impressed the evaluators.

One boy, surrounded by three players, did a dance with the ball that would have made Justin Timberlake proud, spun away and was up the field in less than a second.

Another received the ball with his back to a defender. A teammate of the defender screamed, “Don’t let him turn.” The warning was too late. The player turned and hit a fifth gear that most of the boys didn’t have, leaving behind his defender as if were a cardboard cutout, and burning up the field.

After two hours, the boys in each group and the parents were called over to receive a thank you and words of encouragement.

“The real thing for me is the buzz of the coaches speaking to them after the under-16, under-18 tryouts,” Eales said. “The sense of the excitement and the talent levels that we’ve got fills me with confidence that we are on to something really good here.”

Neither Eales nor Money, who will coach the U-18s, believe that they were able to find all of the region’s best players within the short window. Nor do they believe that every decision for the first class was correct. Players develop differently, particularly the younger ones. Some players may decide to focus on another sport. Some may move. And the competition for spots and playing time is ongoing. The team will stay in contact with the local clubs to try to make sure that no player is overlooked when it comes to filling spots on one of the teams.

So, the dreams aren’t dead for those players who weren’t selected for the first class. The teams will train at the headquarters in Atlanta. The first games will be in September.

Those who made the U-18s will get the first chance to make the first team. Opportunities abound because the team has signed just three players. Eales said there will never be a better chance for one of them to make the team.

Either way, for those who do eventually make it into the first team and to those who pursue chances at other clubs or other professions, Eales said he hopes that they will feel a fondness for the team.

“That’s what we want to get out of Atlanta United and that’s our responsibility to all of the youngsters,” Eales said.