With MLS team thriving, could talent-rich Atlanta fuel an American soccer boom?

ATLANTA — On a Saturday in early October, in a town where college football has long been king, more than 45,000 people in Mercedes-Benz Stadium were witnesses to a soccer earthquake. Just 17 minutes into a game against the New England Revolution, a first-year player for the Atlanta United named George Bello went sprinting down the left side of the field on a free kick, touching the pass across his defender and then slamming it between the near post and the goalkeeper as pandemonium erupted. 

For all the firsts that have been part of Atlanta United’s unprecedented success as an MLS start-up, that moment was unique in the club’s history because Bello, an attacking-style left back who scored the goal, grew up in the Atlanta metro area. 

He also happens to be 16. 

Though Atlanta United is poised to win its first championship on Saturday when it hosts Portland in the MLS Cup, that moment from the regular season was one of the club’s proudest and perhaps most presaging for how the city of Atlanta could help transform the fortunes of U.S. soccer at the highest levels. 

In a city that ranks among the most talent-rich in the country for athletes in football and basketball, the sensation that is Atlanta United — and the massive infrastructure the club is building in the youth ranks — could very well have a ripple effect that goes all the way to the U.S. men’s national team by the time the World Cup comes to North America in 2026.

“It used to be Texas, So Cal, New Jersey to a point; those were the three major hotbeds of youth soccer back in the 1990s,” said Tony Annan, an Englishman who has been around the Atlanta soccer scene for more than 20 years and now directs the youth academy under the Atlanta United’s umbrella. “What the club have done to the city have put us on a bit of a pedestal, and now our youth have been placed there with them. If we have one (on the 2026 USMNT), it would be great. I think there’s a possibility to have more than one.”

Bello, the current focus of those lofty expectations, has been well known on the national soccer circuit and as the best youth player in Atlanta for quite some time. 

The son of Nigerian immigrants who brought him to the U.S. as an infant, Bello has also been — and will likely remain — on the radar of top European Champions League clubs. 

“Two years ago I took him to England and we played the Liverpool boys, we played Aston Villa and immediately, I’m telling you, Manchester City scouts are telling me they’re interested,” said David Eristavi, his former coach with the Alpharetta Ambush. “I took him to Everton to train two years ago and they wanted him immediately. They’re saying, ‘oh my God, we need Georgie.’”  

Instead, Annan recruited Bello to the Atlanta United Academy and soon after the club signed him to a five-year contract that essentially made him a professional athlete at age 15. 

Unlike the American system, where athletics prodigies are wedged into a system that allows universities to make millions of dollars off their ability, the setup with Atlanta United has allowed Bello to focus on his athletic career while putting his formal education to the side (he earned his GED last summer and plans to take some online college courses in the future). 

And there’s good reason for that singular focus. If Bello continues on his current development trajectory, he will be a more regular contributor for the United perhaps as early as next season while still living with his parents, an MLS star soon after that and perhaps someone who is bought (the soccer term is transferred) by a top European club for millions of dollars in a few years.

“It’s crazy being this young and being able to play professional sports, but I feel like I’ve matured myself both on and off the field, and I think it’s been great for my improvement,” Bello said. “The academy’s main goal is to make pros. I came in here wanting to be a pro, so I tried my best to see where the work took me and eventually it paid off.”

Building the talent pool

Bello’s success is important because, in a sense, it validates the emphasis Atlanta United has put on its youth academy, which Annan said costs more than $1 million annually to maintain at a high level with three full-time scouts in Atlanta and another one coming on board to look for talent in the Carolinas, not to mention the costs associated with training, nutrition and travel. 

While every MLS club has a youth academy attached to it that exists to theoretically develop and funnel soccer talent to their first team just like in Europe, they have been hit-or-miss in terms of funding, effectiveness and cooperation with the big club. 

Arthur Blank, who owns both the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United and whose son played youth soccer in the city, didn’t want to do it that way. Understanding the potential of an academy that could bring in Atlanta’s most talented kids and give them world-class training for no cost, he spared no expense getting it up and running a year before the pro team made its debut. 

“The sooner you start the process, the sooner you can start the conveyor belt going,” team president Darren Eales said. 

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