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How Atlanta United Is Solving the American Soccer Crisis

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13 years ago, Germany was knocked out of the group stage of the 2004 UEFA Euro Tournament. In typical German fashion, the sport’s leaders from across the country gathered to devise a “10 year plan” that would make Joseph Stalin crap his pants. The decision was simple for Germany’s manager, Joachim Loew, who said “We decided we had to invest more in education. We need to produce players who were technically better”.

From then on Germany put an emphasis on developing a youth system that rewarded skill and passing, mirroring Spanish “tikki-takka”, but with a unique German efficiency. By the 2014 World Cup, Germany had a squad that was locked and loaded for success.

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Photo credit: FIFA

As I’m sure you all know, last Tuesday, the US Men’s National Team dropped 3 points and a bid to the World Cup, begging the question: What needs to change? I’ve already asked, Germany’s not selling rights to their 10 year plan, and I’m not a soccer wizard. Lucky for us, Atlanta United is uniquely positioned to potentially change the face of US soccer. Yes, presumptuous indeed, but after Tuesday night, I’d say just about anything is on the table. So please, leave your prejudice at the door, and join me on a speculative ride through the rebranding of American soccer, both on the international stage and in domestic competition.

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As it has been preached throughout the media following Tuesday’s debacle, change comes from the bottom up. Nothing new here. For years and years, US soccer’s pay-to-play model has been criticized for its political nature and lack of production. Travel, club fees, and time exclude lower-income talent from soccer nourishment, resulting in a 5% participation rate for players coming from families with incomes below $25,000. For those not familiar with how things are done across the pond, youth players play for free and are judged on raw ability, not the range of daddy’s wallet. For example, imagine Arsenal spots some tantalizing youth talent on a soggy pitch in Manchester. After consulting the top brass, the player is then offered a spot in the coveted Arsenal youth system. From then on, fees are covered by the club, and the youngster is left to become the best player he can be. In exchange, Arsenal can keep a close eye on the player as he develops, but after the age of 16, bigger clubs have free reign to swoop in and sign the player.   

Atlanta United has already taken steps in this direction. First, they place acclaimed Georgia youth soccer coach, Tony Annan, at the helm of the academy. Having played at Norcross Soccer Association (one of Annan’s former clubs), I’ve witnessed his intensity first hand. He is a winner in its purest sense, constantly trying to make himself and those around him better. Annan has been a recognizable figure in Georgia youth soccer for years, credited with the creation of Georgia United, a one of a kind academy that focused on bringing the best players in Georgia together to compete around the world.

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Photo credit: Major League Soccer

With all of that in mind, Annan was an easy choice for United, as he already had a strong grasp of pre-existing talent across the state. Coach and Director at Decatur-Dekalb YMCA Soccer Club, Jeff Newbury, said, “When I first sat down with Carlos (Bocanegra) and Tony Annan they were really adamant about creating a European-style format. I know everyone says that, but it appears they actually did it.”.

As a result of United’s attention to detail, the club was rewarded with its first trophy after the U-15/16 Academy beat defending champions, FC Dallas, in the US Soccer Developmental Final. Andrew Carleton played out of his mind, scoring goals and creating chances as easy as you like. Carleton is one of many talented youth players that is making a big splash, most recently bagging a goal and generating two assists in the U-17 World Cup knockout stage match against Paraguay.

United has arrived on the scene and immediately set the precedent for how youth systems should be run in the MLS. Iron sharpens iron, and as Atlanta United continues to set the youth soccer bar, MLS teams have no other choice but to follow suit. The youth talent pool in the US is endless, it’s merely a matter of building a system that takes advantage of that fact and develops it in the most efficient way possible.

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Photo credit: Major League Soccer

As transfer interest grows for Miguel Almiron and others, Atlanta United has a very important decision to make in the coming months. In my eyes, there are two options, the first being they accept transfers bids, sell their talented youngsters, and use the leftover money to sign more youth promise. I have nothing against this approach; in fact, teams like Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto, and Dortmund have made a living doing just that. Whether it be intentional or unintentional, these clubs have been cycling and selling youth talent for a while, producing players like Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Nani, Quaresma, and Hulk, to name but a few. I’m all for bringing in new young talent, but why strengthen the clubs we’re trying to emulate by letting our players leave? Which leads me to option number two.

Instead of feeding the voracious European beast, we nurture our existing talent and build a squad that can compete internationally. If we have any hope of ever being able to challenge the likes of Europe and South America, the culture within MLS must change. Of course, a lot of this is dependent on money. Big time players don’t want to play in the states because MLS simply isn’t shelling out the cash.

Enter Uncle Arthur.

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Photo credit: ESPN

Atlanta United’s affluent owner Arthur Blank is sitting on a net worth of around $3.9 billion according to a recent Forbes article. This places him 7th among current owners in the Premier League, surpassing the likes of Manchester United’s Glazer Family ($3.3 billion) and Liverpool’s John W. Henry ($1.49 billion). That’s not to say that just because your owner is rich you can buy expensive players, but it certainly helps. Blank has been on board from the get-go, pledging to make United’s inaugural season a success. $15 million was spent on player transfers and $60 million on a state of the art training facility. That doesn’t even include Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the multi-million dollar expansion fee, but you get the picture: the man is loaded. MLS rules on allocation money and transfer spending are about as easy to understand as Lou Holtz with a mouth full of marbles, yet if Man U can field a dream team, we should be able to keep our star players while still foraging for new talent.

Blank has demonstrated his dedication to Atlanta United and, in turn, been rewarded with a record-breaking inaugural season. If success continues, I find it hard to believe Blank will play it stingy. He is an incredible businessman, and making bad deals simply isn’t in his DNA.

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Yes, money is indeed the motivator when attracting big talent, but so is the environment itself. United’s record-breaking crowds, attendance, and participation has become the closest thing the MLS has to a European soccer experience. Minus the grass pitch and a few less belligerent Brits, we have it all.

Although the tradition that exists within European clubs is unmatched, to discredit what’s happening in Atlanta would be foolish. The burgeoning city has answered its haters and proved to the rest of the country that it is capable of being a “sports town”. In turn, United has set the bar for what a fanbase should look like, yet another attractive piece of the puzzle when coaxing desirable young transfers from around the world.

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Photo credit: Goal.com

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Europe and South America produce the best players in the world. They also have some of the most competitive club systems in the world. Do you think that’s a random coincidence? Me neither, because 20 out of 20 World Cup Champions coming from these two continents isn’t coincidence, it’s procedure. If our hopeful dreams of soccer legitimacy are to come to fruition, we must first be students of the game. We must learn from the best in order to become the best, and it all starts at home.

Let’s say Arthur Blank digs deep and decides to really fund this team. We take the next step and hold on to the big three (Tito, Miggy, and Josef), and add a few more pieces, making United a legitimate international contender. Obviously, the hope is that other MLS teams adapt in response, formatting their clubs in a similar European manner, ultimately resulting in a sweeping change of a US soccer system and culture that is in dire need of something fresh.    

Perhaps this article is speculation at its finest, but after our hearts were ripped from our chests Tuesday night…why not speculate? Regardless of what you think, something special is happening in Atlanta. The front office at United is working hard to develop and maintain a magnetic futbol culture that could change the face of soccer in the States. In the words of native Atlanta rapper, Quavo:

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