Last June, George Bello, Lagos Kunga and Patrick Okonkwo walked to the center of the pitch in front of the raving Atlanta faithful to be recognized as the next ATL UTD Homegrowns to join the first team in 2018. Fast forward seven months, and their professional career in the ATL has officially commenced.
“Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve dreamed of being a professional soccer player,” said 16-year-old Bello, “so now that it’s actually happening and I’m living the dream, it’s truly an honor. To be able to play with such a great group of players and a great group of talent, it’s just making me better on and off the field and making me grow into the player and the person that I am.”
Like Bello mentioned, it’s been a dream for all three of the teenagers, but making the adjustment from the youth academy to the professional ranks in less than a year presents a new challenge in itself.
“The most difficult part of the transition was definitely the speed of play,” said Kunga. “It’s a whole different ball game. There are a lot of things you can get away with in Academy that you can’t get away with here.”
While the learning curve has been challenge, it’s also been exponential and the new Homegrowns are developing quickly in their new roles as pros.
“What I’ve learned the most is that every single day, you have to give complete effort,” admitted Bello, “every day is going to be intense, so I can never give 90%, it always has to be 100% no matter what or how I’m feeling.”
With the first Atlanta Homegrowns, Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin, already integrated in the squad from the 2017 season, they’ve acted as guides for the new additions to learn the ropes – especially as players who have grown up through the Georgia youth soccer system together.
Bello says, “They’re like my big brothers. I’ve known them for a long time… They’ve helped me out a lot, been with me through thick and thin.”
Carleton made one MLS appearance last season while Goslin still awaits his debut, but with the launch of the club’s USL side Atlanta United 2, game action will increase for all the Homegrowns old and new.
“It gives us a platform to get a lot of minutes to develop,” said Kunga.
As pros they strive to play at the highest level, but as youngsters they know it’s much harder to break into the first team. Clocking minutes at the professional level is essential for development, and if that’s at the USL level in 2018, they will embrace it.
“Even though you may not be on the first team, the USL team is a close second. So, if you do well in USL, you have the opportunity to come up and play with the first team. So it’s a great opportunity for everyone as well as myself,” added Bello.
“I just want to play and I want to help either team the best way I can,” said Kunga. “I just want to get a lot of games under my belt because when I signed last year there was a big period where I wasn’t playing. So I want to get my confidence back, and once I get my game confidence back, I think I will help the team a lot on whichever team I get put on.”
Regardless of where they find themselves on the field this season, Kunga and the rest of the young players will continue to try and grow into the player they want to be. Part of that process is finding a role model on the first team, a player that you can learn from, and someone that can help you take the next step toward personal success.
“The person I most look up to is Miguel because he’s a similar player to me,” said Kunga, “both left-footed, both love to attack, and we both have speed, so I watch his movement and see how he plays and try to mimic that the best way I can.”
Living up to their idols and earning first team playing time is the ultimate dream for the Atlanta Homegrowns. But for 2018, the goal is simple, and the youngest of them all – Bello – said it best, “I hope to bring to the field passion for the way I play and just being able to show the fans and everyone else and my teammates that I really love this club and I will give my all whatever the situation may be.”