MARIETTA, Ga. — George Campbell said he was “a bit surprised” when he was offered a Homegrown contract with Atlanta United. The 18-year-old academy product felt he “had been doing all the right things, working hard” with Atlanta United 2, but he knew good performances with the USL Championship side did not guarantee a spot on the first team.
Now that he is on a senior contract, Campbell’s next goal is to further embed with Frank de Boer’s squad.
“I still have to work to get a spot,” the center back said at Atlanta United 2’s season-ending media session Monday. “All that hard work, eventually, hopefully it pays off and I can get up there.”
Campbell came up with Georgia United and joined Atlanta United’s academy when it launched in 2016. He struggled as a forward and midfielder before getting a run at center back during a tournament in Mexico in 2018 and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Campbell stepped up to the 2s this year, making his professional debut March 9 against Hartford Athletic and executing a man-of-the-match performance. He appeared in 22 Championship games with 20 starts this season.
“I think he’s developed really well,” Atlanta United 2 head coach Stephen Glass said. “I think he’s taken a lot of hard lessons from the league, playing against good, experienced strikers. He’s doing it in training when he goes to train with the first team as well, which is good for his development.
“I don’t see any reason that doesn’t continue.”
Campbell had to make a choice between signing with Atlanta and taking a soccer scholarship at the University of Maryland. Both of his brothers played college soccer, but Campbell described the contract offer as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I felt like I had to take it.”
It is easy to make the Miles Robinson comparison with Campbell. Robinson was not part of Atlanta’s academy, but he was the club’s first MLS SuperDraft selection in 2017. He bided his time with the second team before breaking through this year. Robinson and Campbell play the same position and have similar builds, both checking in at 6-foot-2. Robinson is listed as 10 pounds heavier than Campbell. More time in a professional weight-training program for the youngster could close that gap.
But the two center backs bring different skill sets to the club. Robinson is an incredible one-v-one defender who has worked to improve his ability on the ball. Campbell is the opposite. His track record up top and in midfield means he is already comfortable on the ball, and he is working on his ability to defend.
Campbell said he speaks to Robinson “every now and then” and has been told to “keep your head down, keep working hard … and just learn as much as you can from the older players.” It is similar advice Campbell has taken from de Boer when he has participated in first-team training sessions.
A taste of the first team
“I remember one of the very first trainings with the first team, he was saying, ‘I know you’re a young guy training with some of the new guys here, but even if they’re first-team players, you always have to talk, talk, talk. Don’t be shy or scared to tell them, even if they’re higher up in the charts than you. Always try to communicate with your players.’” Campbell said. “That’s one of the biggest pieces that he’s expressed to me.”
De Boer speaks from experience. The manager was an iconic center back in his playing days with Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch national team. Instructing Campbell to be in constant conversation with his teammates is meant to build an important skill.
“Especially as a center back, communication is vital from my point of view,” de Boer said Tuesday. “If you do that, your job is already easier. But it’s so important to put the guys in front of you in the right position. Just a little bit to say ‘left, right, push forward, drop back.’ All those little things help you so much as a defender.
“He has to start with that from the beginning. If he’s already like 23 and then he starts [communicating], then it’s too late. He has to already do that and don’t be shy. I expect that from every center back, to talk. With some it happens naturally and others you have to push them a little bit more, but it’s so important.”
Taking part in first-team training sessions has shown Campbell “just how fast the ball moves” at the Major League Soccer level.
“I think it gets my brain working way faster, and it helps me improve basically where I want to play before I get to all that kind of stuff,” he said.
Campbell has seen a glimpse of first-team life outside the white lines too. When Atlanta hosted Mexican giant Club América in the Campeones Cup Aug. 14, de Boer brought Campbell and Luiz Fernando, who also signed a first-team contract recently, along to get a taste of the big show.
“The first think I got out of it was just walking out on the field, the atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz [Stadium],” Campbell said. “It really makes you realize how much you want to be there, so that part of it made me really want to get to the first team as soon as possible. And also I guess seeing the first-team players’ routines, how they warm up, the calm before the game, it was a good moment to learn on, not so much as a tactical or game-play standpoint, but just seeing what it’s like to be up there.”
‘A very complete center back’
Not every professional soccer player enjoys the sport outside of their job. Los Angeles FC star Carlos Vela, for instance, prefers to watch the NBA. Campbell is a fan of the beautiful game. “I try to watch as much as I can, keeping all the alerts of what games are coming on my phone,” he said.
Campbell likes to watch his own games to analyze what needs work. Going into his first professional offseason, and with his first-team contract kicking in Jan. 1, he plans to learn as much as possible ahead of the 2020 season.
“Every game I play in, I always watch,” Campbell said. “This offseason, I’m going to try to watch some games over back again, see where I can improve to start the next year.”
As a ball-playing center back with good size, Campbell obviously has a future if he continues to develop. De Boer has high hopes for the young American.
“I think that’s always an advantage so he’s comfortable on the ball,” the manager said. “With the type of football we play, you need to be comfortable on the ball at the back because we want to build up from behind. I think both feet are also quite good. He has his length, his height with him. He’s quite fast, also. I think he can be a very complete center back. Of course he has to learn a lot still, but he has the weapons to be a good center back.”