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MLS Jun 09, 2016

Atlanta United up the ante with Andrew Carleton Homegrown signing

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In Major League Soccer circles, “the Seattle model” is often cited as the gold standard for new clubs, a nod to the Sounders’ ambitious and successful approach upon entering the league in 2009.

More and more, it appears in danger of being replaced by “the Atlanta model.”

On Thursday Atlanta United FC marked another milestone on their impressive ramp-up from expansion concept to instant contenders, announcing the signing of U.S. youth national team prodigy and Power Springs, Georgia product Andrew Carleton, age 15, to a Homegrown player contract.

+READ: Atlanta United sign U.S. U-17 phenom

“He’s a very creative attacking player. He has the field of vision to give the final pass, but he can also create and score some goals for himself. He’s exciting, he’s got some flair,” Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra said in a one-on-one conversation with on Thursday morning.

“He’s still young, so we don’t want to over-hype him and put him under too much pressure right away, but we think he has something special and that’s why we’ve signed him to a Homegrown contract … Hopefully he’s out there playing in front of big crowds sooner than later.”

The signing snares a talented youth international before he’s lured to Europe like so many of his counterparts. Carleton (pictured above, at right) has already shown enough skill and swagger to set scouts and talent watchers buzzing, both at home and abroad. (He’s also already signed an endorsement deal with Nike.)

Now he’ll progress through a customized development program that includes time with ATL UTD’s academy teams, their USL affiliate club the Charleston Battery, the U-17 U.S. Men’s National Team and eventually, United FC’s senior squad for their first-ever preseason training camps next spring.

“We’ve sat down with him, his parents, spoken with [U.S. U-17s coach] John Hackworth down at residency, and our USL affiliate, really just making sure that he’s getting in the best environment, best situation, while also being able to continue to play the international games,” said Bocanegra. “Because I think those are some of the most important games for these young kids – getting exposed to different styles of play, different cultures, just different everything that you play in the international game that you might not get playing in the academy here in America.

Carlos Bocanegra“As far as Andrew’s situation goes, it’s been a work in progress for probably a little bit over six months. We’ve been speaking to him and we identified him quite early. He’s been a special young talent with the youth national teams. Speaking with the family, they chose to continue his development here in America, and in Atlanta specifically. We see some big potential in the kid, so we wanted to accelerate his growth.”

ATL UTD’s home stadium is under construction and won’t be completed for a year. They won’t make their MLS debut until March. Yet when they do, they are likely to have a local player in uniform who’s already earned the league’s “HGP” status despite the club having been in the youth soccer space for less than two years.

United FC quietly crafted a head-turning partnership with local youth powerhouse Georgia United last summer, taking over the program’s U.S. Soccer Development Academy sides in order to get a jump on youth development ahead of their 2017 entry into MLS. Carleton marks the first perk of the deal.

It’s only the second time in history (Orlando’s Tommy Redding was the first, in 2014) that a team has signed a Homegrown before their first MLS game. Bocanegra sounds confident that it will become a trend.

“That might happen a few times now, with the new expansion clubs coming in,” the former U.S. Men’s National Team captain predicted. “Look, it was one of our big things, starting our academy early. Last year we came in with Georgia United and took over their [Under-]16s, 18s and 14s. And this year we’re going to be adding two more teams to that, the 12s and the 13s. So we’re pretty excited about that whole process.”

Carleton’s signing has already prompted confusion and anger from fans in other MLS markets who note the murky and seemingly contradictory rules by which teams are allowed to designate and sign “Homegrowns.” There are cases of players – the Philadelphia Union’s talented rookie Keegan Rosenberry is the latest – being denied this designation behind closed doors, forcing the player into the league’s draft process and thus giving other clubs a crack at them.

Carleton, who is currently in U.S. Soccer’s Bradenton Residency Program in preparations for next year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup, has actually not yet reached the minimum number of “training units” required for a player to earn Homegrown status. It’s likely to foster further accusations of ATL UTD owner Arthur Blank and his club receiving special treatment from the league’s leadership.

“Arthur [made] the investment last year, coming in early and getting into the academy a year ahead. Now adding two more teams, we were able to do this,” said Bocanegra. “But [Carleton’s] contract is still subject to him completing his Homegrown hours, which he will hit before 2017. That was just something we worked out with the league and they were OK with us announcing this ahead of time.

“We think he’s a great young talent, but he’s still growing. He turns 16 in a couple weeks, so we know he has a long way to go. We’re not just throwing him into the deep end. We need to bring his development along little by little.”

+READ: MLS Homegrown system still murky as signings stymied by backroom battles

MLS expansion teams that are created from scratch tend to struggle early on compared to those who are promoted from the lower divisions. However, buoyed by the enormous wealth and myriad connections of Blank – the Home Depot scion who also owns their NFL sister club, the Atlanta Falcons – Atlanta United are determined to get everything right, right from the start.

“It’s been great from Arthur up top, that he sees the investment, and he sees just how important the academy is to the future of soccer here in MLS and for the national team,” said Bocanegra.

“I hope so!” he said when asked about Atlanta’s comparisons to the Sounders. “Seattle has done very well on the field as well, so we need to play some games first. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but honestly, I can’t speak enough about the ownership here – Arthur, and Darren’s leadership as the president of the club. It’s been a great environment to work in. they’ve allowed us to go see places like Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Toronto, Dallas, LA Galaxy, places that are very forward-thinking. … We were able to go over and visit quite a few clubs overseas, in South America, here in America, and we’re trying to take the best from what all these clubs do around the world, and implement that into our academy, into our first team and into our culture of our club.

“We’re trying to learn and we’re trying to get a step ahead, do the best job from day one.”

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