Maturation part of process for Atlanta United, both with starters, academy

BY Jacob Stansell • June 16, 2017

ATLANTA -- The grind of a season can test a team's depth, but when it comes to a professional soccer club's youth academy, there's an incentive -- and a reality -- in not rushing the developmental players.

“As a 16-year-old, a player is closer to having his mother’s milk than debuting as a pro,” Atlanta United head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said.

AtlantaUnited’s youth academy is nearly as old as this newly established franchise, so there needs to be a sense of patience with the progress of some of these players. With the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in progress, there is this expectation for the club to test out the roster through the rotation of younger players. In addition, to giving players who normally don’t see the field as much their respective nods. This can be deemed true to an extent, however, Atlanta United’s squad is predominantly filled with youth as it is.

Nevertheless, the expectations remain unchanged.

Those players who aren’t necessarily first-team caliber just yet have the same obligation to compete, of course. Their minutes will come, but in order to get the most out of them the youth academy needs to contain a strong presence in effort of further developing said players and beyond.

“We always keep in mind the importance of getting young guys minutes,” Martino said. “It’s not normal not to have so many young guys debut in one season. It’s pretty rare to have that many young guys on a team.”

The matchup against Atlanta United affiliate and USL side Charleston Battery on Wednesday night at Kennesaw State served as a reminder as to how young this club really is, despite coming out on top with a 3-2 victory that was filled with defensive miscues and, at times, disorganization.

Defender Miles Robinson, a rookie out of Syracuse and No. 2 overall draftee in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, witnessed firsthand some defensive miscues such as a poor defensive effort that resulted in a header to give the Battery an early lead. On top of that, Robinson took a deflection as the ball bounced into the back of the net right after midfielder Kevin Kratz equalized.

Offensively, forward Brandon Vasquez received his first start against Charleston for Atlanta United and was able to collect a goal and an assist that resulted in forward Josef Martinez’s header.

Midfielder Andrew Carleton even made his debut earlier in the season in addition to others like 21-year-old midfielder Harrison Heath logging time of his own.

“It’s a process,” Martino said. “It’s been five months. The only one who hasn’t played is [midfielder Chris Goslin]. The most important thing is to have a solid first team and then get guys up into that first team.”

Goslin is a 17-year-old midfielder out of Locust Grove, Ga., who was expected to see some action against the Battery as he was listed among the substitutes. Unfortunately, his debut would have to wait another day since Martino was dissatisfied with the team’s overall performance against Charleston and elected to keep midfielder Miguel Almirón and forward Josef Martinez longer in the game than he desired.

There are some veterans sprinkled throughout the team with the likes of captain and defender Michael Parkhurst, midfielder Jeff Larentwoicz, midfielder Chris McCann and forward Kenwyne Jones to name a few. Furthermore, that’s not to say all the younger players on the team are inexperienced as most possess backgrounds in various youth academies overseas or even exposure to their respective national teams. However, this squad is still maturing and meshing altogether as a unit.

“Older players make mistakes too,” Martino said. “So it’s not a problem of mistakes, but what you have to remember is that the academy is less than a year old. Most teams have their first team set and the academy has been around for years. So the most important thing is to get the academy in place and functioning well. After that is setup then you can move players up into the first team.”

It doesn’t matter who the lineup consists of or what game is being played, Martino said he is putting the best team out there and Larentowicz echoed off the well-tenured gaffer.

“Part of the season is where you need to balance things out but every game has its importance,” Larentowicz said. “Whether you’re a regular starter or a guy coming off of the bench, we got to take care of it.”

Atlanta United possesses one of the more prolific and threatening offenses in the league. Obviously, shifts in the lineup will occur as the season moves forward and those players who perhaps may not play as much will be thrown into the mix. Above it all, the idea is to maintain that high intensity and level of consistency on offense no matter who is on the field.

“There’s a very high level that we’ve achieved,” Larentowicz said. “But there’s a difference between doing it at times and doing it all the time. I think that’s the level we’re hoping to get to.”

Sometimes players may have to make that quick jump of filling in the gaps sooner rather than later, especially when players go down due to injury or when bodies aren’t exactly top notch, as Parkhurst put it.

“Fresh bodies at 100 percent are sometimes better than the normal starting 11 when they’re at 80 percent,” Parkhurst said. “Our depth will be tested like most teams in the season and now we’re faced that situation and it’s a good opportunity for us.”

With the team being so young, the dictation of the game sometimes rests on the shoulders of players like Vasquez or Robinson, or even midfielder Julian Gressel and midfielder Mikey Ambrose who have already began to create names for themselves.

As much as one would like to see those players at the top of the game on a consistent basis, one must first build them up and that begins at the youth academy level below them.

“While it’s true they may have hired me some is to develop young players and it’s something that I enjoy doing,” Martino said, “I don’t think the stage of players where they’re going to see the most development is with me. It’s going to be with those youth teams.”



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