With rumors swirling, we dig deeper into why this is the right move
On Tuesday, Kristian Dyer of Metro US dropped the news that Atlanta United was exploring starting a reserve team in USL as early as 2018. The report relies on information from an anonymous source within the league, who states that efforts for the Five Stripes to expand into USL for 2018 are moving “in a positive direction.” Dyer is generally one of the more trusted media voices around the league and is right about his reports more often than not, so there may well be fire behind this bit of smoke.
But why should this excite anyone? “MLS-2” clubs, as they’ve become known, presently make up about 35% of USL and have been an increasing point of contention around the league in recent months. After all, these teams generally aren’t very good, attract very few fans, and contribute to a “feeder league” label that USL is trying to get away from. Plus, Atlanta United have an existing affiliate relationship with Charleston Battery, one of the most storied clubs in the league, and have sent several players there on loan over the last two seasons. Would “Atlanta United 2” really be a better solution for the club than extending that relationship?
If we’re going to answer that question, we need to first look at how Charleston Battery is currently helping Atlanta United develop their young players, how it can be improved, and whether or not a reserve club would solve those issues.
Examining the Battery Relationship
One of the first things that the Atlanta United brain-trust did, way back in February of 2016, was make the Charleston Battery their USL affiliate. At the time, it was a very smart decision and provided places to play for some of the club’s first signings. In 2017, the Battery played a more robust role as an affiliate, with ten Atlanta United players spending time with the club over the course of the season. Some played big roles in the Battery’s 2017, most notably striker Romario Williams, who scored a team-high 15 goals, and goalkeeper Alex Tambakis.
However, the main function of a USL affiliate or reserve side is to give young players a chance to gain professional experience, and Williams and Tambakis aren’t exactly young at this point in their careers. Ideally, players 20 years old or younger would benefit the most from this kind of relationship, so we’ve drawn the line there. The Battery played seven players aged 20 or younger this season, six of them coming from Atlanta United (the other was Battery academy product Robbie Robinson, who only appeared for 2 minutes in an Open Cup match, strangely enough against Atlanta). Here’s how much playing time they saw this season.
That’s…not great, especially when you consider that none of these players played a single minute in MLS in 2017 (some of them aren’t on the first team yet, to be fair). To get a better picture, we ranked every USL team by the percentage of their total minutes on the season that went to U-20 players. The top nine in this ranking were all MLS reserve teams, and the Battery…well, see for yourself.
Atlanta can’t really blame Charleston for this, and that is the inherent problem with affiliate relationships. Charleston are their own club with their own aspirations. They’re here to win matches and compete for USL titles, not to develop another team’s youth for them. Atlanta can send them all the kids they want, but whether they ever see the field is completely up to the Battery.
What Reserve Teams Can Offer
So, if Atlanta United isn’t getting what they need from Charleston, how would a reserve team fix that? There are several positives that a reserve team would offer that an affiliate cannot. Some of them have nothing to do with playing time and more to do with logistics. Typically, MLS reserve teams train at the same facility as the first team, leading to easier player movement between the two squads. It also means that the first team coaching staff can keep a closer eye on who’s performing well and who’s potentially ready for a call-up.
The most obvious benefit to an MLS reserve team is creating a place to give young first-team players professional minutes early in their careers. For example, Patrick Okonkwo is a fine young striker, but he probably won’t be replacing Josef Martinez in the starting XI any time soon. The step up from academy soccer to the pros, even the lower divisions, is massive, and most players take time to adjust. A reserve team would provide a place for players like Okonkwo, Chris Goslin, George Bello, and others to get somewhat consistent minutes for a professional team, which would be hard to come by in Charleston.
However, it goes further than that. Reserve teams often sign players directly out of a club’s academy as an intermediate step between the Development Academy and MLS. This is a way to get some of the best young players at a club playing professionally before they graduate high school, but not give them an MLS contract until they are ready. It’s worked brilliantly in the past for players like soon-to-be full US international Tyler Adams, who signed his first professional contract with New York Red Bulls II in 2015. Also, as MLS academies draw more attention from the prying eyes of Europe and Mexico, signing a player to your reserve team helps guarantee compensation should that player leave in the future. This is exactly what LA Galaxy II did in August when they signed 15 year-old Mexican-American super-talent Efrain Alvarez.
Signings on these teams aren’t limited to academy players, either. Having an entire secondary roster at the club allows teams to take flyers on raw talents that may or may not develop into something. Often times these players come from abroad, especially from countries in Africa and Asia. It’s exactly how Seattle Sounders found their new starting left back, 20 year-old Cameroonian Nouhou Tolo.
The Amateur Contract Effect
At this point, we’ve established many ways that USL reserve sides help facilitate youth development for MLS clubs, but we haven’t mentioned one very important method.
USL has a rule which allows clubs to sign players to “academy contracts.” These are contracts that are specifically for players under the age of 21 that provide a place on the team without providing any actual payment. There is one obvious use for this rule, which is giving professional minutes to academy players without forgoing their NCAA eligibility.
Why exactly would a player want to sign one of these contracts? For starters, USL players do not get paid very well, and for many players, passing up on a college scholarship for a barely-livable is a very difficult decision. Academy contracts provide the best of both worlds. For clubs, academy contracts can be used to essentially “try out” young players on a professional level. If the player impresses, they usually give them a full pro contract, just as Sporting Kansas City’s reserve team Swope Park Rangers did this season with midfielder Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal.
USL rules only allow five academy contract players to be signed before they start counting against the 30-man roster, but that has not stopped many MLS clubs. Some, like the Sounders and Galaxy, have fewer than 18 players on their full time reserve roster and regularly call up academy players into the USL team. For U-19 and U-17 academy players at clubs like these, playing in USL is a very attainable goal. Even if they do not sign full time with the team, they can still go to college and, should they develop well, come back to the club in the future as a pro.
Is Atlanta Ready?
Having a USL reserve team brings a ton of benefits when it comes to developing young talent, but there’s still one question left to be answered. Just under 18 months after Atlanta United’s academy was started, does the club have the depth of young talent available to them where having a reserve team makes sense?
Not only is the answer to this question a resounding yes, they may already have more than just about anyone else. The Five Stripes already have five homegrown players, each 19 years old or younger, but the academy behind them is absolutely loaded as well. TopDrawerSoccer, a site devoted to all things youth and collegiate soccer in the US, ranks the top 150 players in each high school class nationwide, ranging from current seniors down to freshmen. Chris Goslin and Andrew Carleton obviously come in near the top of their rankings for the Class of 2018, but five academy players (Justin Garces, Charlie Asensio, Zyen Jones, Rayshaun McGann, and James Brighton) also are ranked in the top 60. Four more players make the top 60 in the Class of 2019 (Jackson Conway, Kendall Edwards, Dylan Gaither and Chad Letts). These are just some of the talented youngsters set to graduate from the academy in the next two years, and there are plenty more behind them.
Between first-teamers who need playing time, academy players who need to get their feet wet in professional soccer, and young talents from across the globe who need a chance to prove themselves, the necessary ingredients for adding a USL team to the Atlanta United system are already here in abundance. The time is right for Atlanta United to start their own USL team and complete their youth development pipeline; now we just have to wait and see whether or not it will happen.