Homegrown George Campbell gets chance on big stage

George Campbell dribbles the ball during the preseason match against the Philadelphia Union during preseason at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, on Friday January 24, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
George Campbell dribbles the ball during the preseason match against the Philadelphia Union during preseason at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, on Friday January 24, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: George Campbell

Credit: George Campbell

Injuries have hampered Atlanta United early in the 2020 season. As a result, young players, like defender George Campbell, have earned their first chances on the pitch for the club.

Campbell, an 18-year old from Atlanta, made his MLS debut Saturday in Atlanta United's 2-1 victory over FC Cincinnati. The centerback entered the game in the 44th minute for an injured Laurence Wyke, who bumped heads with Cincinnati's Jurgen Locadia.

“It was exciting,” Campbell said. “(It was) probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen, so, you know, I had to try to play my game and not get too nervous on the ball — stuff like that.”

Campbell fared well in his 46 minutes, making a single tackle and completing 83.7% of his passes. He contributed to an Atlanta United defense in the second half that held off a comeback effort by Cincinnati.

For manager Frank de Boer, youth and inexperience were non-factors when it came to using Campbell off the bench.

“He is very young, but when you are in the roster, you have to be ready,” de Boer said. “If you are not, I don’t have players just for fun in the roster. No, if you are on the roster and you are 17 years old, that doesn’t matter. You have to be ready. I think he looked a little bit nervous, but he can be proud of his debut tonight. Now, he has that debut, and he can look forward to a lot more appearances.”

Campbell is designated as a Homegrown Player, but not just because he’s from Atlanta. To receive that title from MLS, a player must sign a professional contract with a club after graduating from the team’s youth academy and spending at least one year living in the territory that the team occupies.

After Campbell played two productive seasons at the Atlanta United Academy, he earned a callup to Atlanta United 2, making his official professional debut last year on March 9. He showed plenty of promise, ranking among the team leaders in clearances and interceptions, while winning 71.8% of his tackles. His strong play earned him a spot in the 2019 MLS Homegrown game as a part of MLS’s All-Star Week.

He signed with Atlanta United on July 9, just two weeks and three days after his 18th birthday. Campbell is the club’s sixth Homegrown signing.

“Again, you know a young kid getting his debut and coming in and doing a job,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said of Campbell’s play. “I think in these moments it’s not always easy for him to come in a game like it was, how it was playing out. It’s another step of the learning process for him individually, and for us as a team you try and help them through these difficult times.”

Atlanta United’s back line has been decimated with early injuries, making Campbell’s appearance one of near necessity. Wyke is just the latest of a string of defenders that have gone down over the last few weeks. Franco Escobar left at halftime of last week’s match against Nashville with a muscular injury. Centerback Miles Robinson and fullback Edgar Castillo have yet to see time after preseason injuries.

That made Campbell one of very few options Saturday. The young defender realized quickly that he needed to establish a connection with experienced centerbacks Fernando Meza and Anton Walke. Their on-field relationship will require more development if Campbell is to be relied upon in upcoming matches.

“It’s just about trying to get into the game and stay connected with them,” Campbell said. “Obviously, Fernando (Meza) and Anton (Walkes) are more experienced, so listening to them was key, and just trying to learn as the game goes on to see how it goes.”

Although Edgar Castillo is close to returning to match fitness, Campbell looks to be an option for the immediate future. The club is set to travel to Mexico City and Estadio Azteca for a match Wednesday against Club America in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

But the first game jitters are through for Campbell. No matter the stage, he feels more prepared for his next appearance.

“Obviously, it’s a good jump for just getting the first game out of the way,” Campbell said “Obviously, that helps me with my nerves going into the next game whether I start or not. It’ll help me stay cool for the next game.”