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.
The system works like this: Beginning around age 8, Atlanta United has a program where kids who have shown some potential will come in once a week from their regular clubs. Then at age 12, it starts to get serious among the city’s best 24 or so kids among that age group who train at the academy four days a week after school, play games against the highest-level competition available in the U.S. and take advantage of all the sports science methods the MLS club uses.
In theory, the longer this system is in place and the earlier they get kids in-house, the more likely it is they will turn out better players regardless of whether the ceiling for their talent level is playing in the NCAA or going on to a pro career.
“Our talent pool is getting better and better,” Annan said. “If you look at our 12s, 13s, 14s, 15s now, our players who started at 12, there’s more accountability, discipline, belief and we’ve changed the characteristic of the player.”
And because all the costs are paid for by the MLS team, the pay-to-play barrier that has long discouraged top athletes and their families from choosing soccer over other sports doesn’t exist.
For the MLS club, the return on that investment is, potentially, the opportunity to sign a so-called homegrown player, which is advantageous both in terms of salary cap allocation and potential marketing. Then if you really hit it big with a player, you could end up recouping millions in a transfer fee as Vancouver’s MLS team recently agreed to for 18-year-old Canadian Alphonso Davies, who is soon headed to Bayern Munich for $14 million.
Atlanta has signed five homegrowns from the Academy, with Bello and 18-year-old Andrew Carleton having already debuted for the first team. Annan indicated several others in the younger age groups could be on the way.
“At this stage what we want to do is develop talent for our first team, and if the right offer comes from the right club at the right time, it’s something we will do because it’s proof of concept,” Eales said. “It’s showing the youngster who signs with us that if you put the work in, you can get in the first team. Then, if you work your socks off and don’t take things for granted, you can go to a top European club. Of course, our hope is one day to say you don’t need to go to Barcelona because you can play for Atlanta United. But we’re not there yet.”
In reality, the MLS may never get there. It’s also not necessary to validate why it’s important for someone like Bello, or another player from the Atlanta United Academy, to make it big on the world stage.
Because while Atlanta United has obviously been a successful MLS team, playing for a championship in its second season, it is also a cultural phenomenon. In a city where enthusiasm for pro sports has often been characterized as tepid, Atlanta United has resonated across the city’s diverse sectors from the young and transient to suburban families to the urban core, often drawing crowds of more than 70,000.
“The growth is crazy,” Bello said. “It’s become like a culture, I’d say. There’s a lot of people behind it and now everyone’s cheering for you, having your back. It’s become a great scene.”
And that potential is particularly interesting for the athlete development business, where Atlanta has long been a factor nationally but particularly in the last 15 years after the population and economic boom that followed the 1996 Olympics.
‘Tons of athletic kids’
In football, the state of Georgia now produces more Power Five recruits per capita than any state in the country according to a study last year by The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.), including nine of the top 50 recruits in this year’s signing class, according to 247 Sports. Meanwhile, there are 20 current NBA players who went to high school close to Atlanta, including two of the top 10 draft picks in 2018.
Though there are plenty of barriers to the notion that the U.S. could become a soccer power if some of our best athletes chose the sport over football and basketball, it stands to reason that in a talent-rich market like Atlanta, a popular, highly-visible team with the correct infrastructure can siphon some of those athletes.
And though it’s still too early to evaluate the impact, there are some indicators that the plan is working. Beyond Bello, there’s Zyen Jones, who was part of the Atlanta United academy but chose to sign with the German club Schalke earlier this year when he turned 18. Meanwhile, at a recent development showcase for top 14-year-olds from the various MLS academies, Annan said national team personnel submitted inquiries on their players 28 times in a game — 10 more than the next-best team.
“If you ask any MLS academy around the country and said tell us about Atlanta United, the first thing they’d say is, ‘Oh they’re so athletic,’” Annan said. “That’s what we get called — athletic. I wish they’d say, ‘Oh, they’re really intelligent.’ But that’s our profile. We have tons of athletic kids, powerful kids.”
That profile cuts across various groups, including players from white suburban families and first-generation Americans from Hispanic, European, Caribbean and African backgrounds. So far, pulling from inner-city Atlanta has been more of a challenge, but that could be a longer-term play.
Atlanta United has built pitches around the mass transit stations at Five Points and West End, right in the middle of heavily African-American communities, and plans an entire network of 10 or more soccer fields at MARTA train stops around the city.
Merging awareness of soccer with that kind of accessibility is important, but it’s just a small step in the process in a sport where the European advantage is technique, not athleticism.
“The development window closes pretty quickly,” Annan said. “Unless you get them between 4 and 8, it’s challenging.”
But at least now the pipeline is in place with a potential star to be the face of it.
Though becoming the sixth-youngest player to score an MLS goal has been the highlight of Bello’s young career — “I think about it basically every day,” he said — it’s not hard to envision him playing in that same stadium for a 2026 World Cup game when he’s 24 and in the prime of his career.
There’s a long time between now and then, of course, and it’s possible his development may slow or others will pass him. But it’s just as likely that, largely due to the impact of the MLS here, he’s not Atlanta’s only influence.
“We didn’t come and invent soccer, but what we were able to do is build the top of the pyramid,” Eales said. “Now there’s a pathway to a professional team and those youngsters have something to aspire to. So you take that great talent pool you already have that may get dispersed among other sports, and maybe we have a chance to take the Julio Jones who never even thought about soccer. It’s just a matter of time.”