Usually when we celebrate milestones, we tend to celebrate the end. In high school and college, we end our journeys with homecomings, proms, and graduations. But at Atlanta United, and for the ATL UTD Academy in particular, it’s important to celebrate the start.
At the start of each Academy season, the organization meets for one night and invites all Academy players, new and old, and their friends and families to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a celebratory dinner in their honor and their commitment to Atlanta United.
“We come together at this stadium every year to celebrate what could happen this year,” Academy Director Matt Lawrey said. “We are celebrating our debut. I think it’s good in sport.”
As all the players and their families began to arrive at the stadium, they headed to the Delta Club, where they were able to take photos first in the first team locker room and with the 2018 MLS Cup before passing through the same player tunnel used on match days on the pitch.
There, players were given a black bag full of goodies and were given their own golden spike that they could sign their name on. The older ones eagerly started snapping photos with their parents and teammates at the famous MBS pitch, while their younger counterparts just couldn’t hold back their excitement and immediately started playing football matches at small scale with the mini-goals that were along one side of the stadium.
After a while of socializing, dinner began and the hosts of the evening came out, the same ones who serve as the voices of the 5 bands on 92.9 The Game, Mike Conti and Jason Longshore. The ceremony began with a video message from Arthur Blank. Uncle Arthur offered his sincere apologies to the crowd for not being able to be there with them that night, but thanked the players and parents for their commitment to the club. Afterwards, some of the biggest names in the organization took to the stage to praise the Academy and the path it provides for individual players.
“The Academy is the heart of our club,” said Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. “That’s where we start our culture. That’s where we drive our values through the organization. That’s where we develop our style of play. We’re trying to build something really special here.
Indeed, the Academy pipeline is something Atlanta United are very proud of, and 2022 has been a landmark year for the program as it enters its seventh season.
First-team regular Caleb Wiley, 17, along with ATL UTD 2 starters Justin Garces, Noah Cobb and Ajani Fortune, all signed homegrown deals with the club last year and have spent most of their adolescence at the Academy. This year has also seen the Academy reach new heights, as George Bello and Tyler Wolff took big steps towards playing European football, becoming the first two Homegrowns to make the leap overseas.
Several speakers throughout the night recalled Wiley scoring on his MLS debut earlier this season on this same ground. Then Mike Conti asked the crowd, “Who will be the next Caleb Wiley?
“For me as a head coach, it’s very important to have Homegrowns,” Atlanta United first-team head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “Here we have a lot of potential players who could play here in this stadium in the future. That’s what I like (this path). No one likes the Atlanta United shirt more than a Homegrown.
The Homegrowns were present at the dinner, front and center of a table that included Wiley, Jackson Conway, Machop Chol, Bryce Washington and George Campbell.
Something that all of these players and all of the Homegrown people who have been signed to Atlanta United have in common is ATL UTD 2. Head Coach Jack Collison was on hand to talk about coaching all of these guys on their way to contracts with the first team. Collison was at the Academy himself as U-17 head coach for two years.
Collison, a former Wales international and West Ham United player, has shared some stories from his playing days like his friendship with Teddy Sheringham. He and Sheringham, one of England and Manchester United’s best in the 90s and early 2000s, crossed paths in the twilight of Sheringham’s career with the Irons.
“Enjoy the trip,” Collison recalled Sheringham telling him. “Enjoy the ups, the wins, the good times, but also learn to love the hard times. And it’s during those tough times that you really grow, not just as a footballer, but as a person.
Before the evening was over, Lawrey took to the stage to make an announcement, and with that, begin a new tradition at the Academy dinner from 2023. He reminded players of the three cultural elements within the Academy: humility, commitment and teamwork.
There was one very special player who represented all three of those things and whose Academy career was tragically cut short earlier this year, Christian Carrillo.
Lawrey announced that beginning next year, at each Academy dinner, a player would be chosen and celebrated by Academy staff who represented what Carrillo stood for.
“Christian was the best of us, and that way we will always celebrate him,” Lawrey said. “It will not always be the most talented player. There won’t be any accolades or money, but you will always be remembered as the player who represented Christian Carrillo for the rest of us: an incredible, incredibly humble and committed teammate.