KENNESAW, Ga. — Watching Will Vint roam around the midfield, Atlanta United 2’s May 4 home game versus Nashville SC could be mistaken for a high-school matchup in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. Vint sports the floppy hair of an early-aughts 17-year-old, not the high-maintenance fade worn by so many professionals at all levels of the game. The hairstyle is fitting, because Vint is a 17-year-old. He is no high-schooler, though.
Vint fell into Atlanta United’s lap. The Arizona native and alumnus of the Real Colorado youth organization was good enough in a trial last year to earn a contract with Manchester United’s academy, which is known for producing a quality player or two. Vint traveled with Man U’s under-18s for a preseason camp last July, but his place with the squad fell through in August because of a Visa issue.
Vint’s father had worked as the academy director at Everton, and after he left that position, his work permit in England expired. FIFA rules stipulate foreign players younger than 18 who do not reside within the European Union are allowed to sign contracts only if accompanied by a parent who is in the country for a reason other than their child’s career. The lost opportunity made headlines in the United States and left Vint to continue his career in his home country.
Any Major League Soccer team that values development would have been thrilled to sign a young American with the quality to make it at Manchester United. Vint trialed with Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union, according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, before choosing to sign an academy contract with Atlanta in September. Upon securing Vint’s signature, Tony Annan, the club’s academy director, said pushing the player up to Atlanta United 2 as quickly as possible was his priority. “Based on his ability and the environment he’s come from, he should be tested,” Annan told Carlisle.
The deep-lying playmaker
Vint made the first 11 for the Nashville game, one of his five starts in 10 appearances for Atlanta United 2 this season. He typically sits in a holding midfield role, acting more as a shuttling playmaker than a destroyer. During his brief stay with Manchester United, one of Vint’s assignments was to study a well-known professional and create a development plan based on that player. He picked Toni Kroos, the German and Real Madrid superstar.
“Yeah, I could see that, for sure,” said Jason Longshore, the Atlanta United and Atlanta United 2 color commentator. Longshore and his play-by-play partner Jon Nelson have enjoyed a firsthand look at Vint’s development this season. Discussing his attributes ahead of the 2s’ matchup with Nashville, Longshore and Nelson were bullish the young player’s skill set.
“I think it was one of the first matches of the season that we had here at home, there was that 60-yard-long, big-switch bomb that he dropped,” Nelson said, enthusiastically gesticulating out toward the Fifth Third Bank Stadium turf from a cramped radio booth. “You sit there and you go, ‘That was cool!’ I mean, out of the blocks to have that kind of confidence and show that, I thought that was really good.”
Will Vint is an intriguing player. Had to leave Manchester United and is now with Atlanta United 2. Has started off the season well and had a fantastic game last night. He completed 20 (!) long balls last night:pic.twitter.com/WgW46IbOQo
— USMNT Videos (@USMNTvideos) April 14, 2019
Listening to Longshore and Nelson, it is obvious, even for anyone who has never seen Vint, that his vision is special. He does not dally in possession and can break lines in the middle of the field with crisp passes on the ground or with long diagonal balls to the flank. He averages 56 passes per 90 minutes and connects on 83 percent. On long balls, Vint is successful at a 62 percent clip.
Asked to compare Vint to another American-born player — because is it really fair to liken an adolescent from Arizona to Toni Kroos? — Longshore mentioned Wil Trapp, the Columbus Crew holding midfielder who has seen his United States men’s national team stock rise under Gregg Berhalter. Even closer to home, Longshore pointed to Darlington Nagbe because of both players’ abilities to keep and advance possession for their teams, Nagbe playing with an attacking tilt and Vint seeing things from more of a defensive perspective.
“I think he can be anywhere between that deep-lying playmaker type of holding midfielder, but more an more as we’re seeing him … if he’s paired with somebody who is going to sit more, he can go, and he can be more of that box-to-box, full-field, controlling a match,” Longshore said.
USL Championship is not the top division in American soccer, but it does offer Vint his first chance to compete against adults week in and out. He has held up well against full-grown opponents so far. Atlanta United 2 head coach Stephen Glass said Vint still is “adding a little bit of steel into his game,” and Vint himself admits he is working on his physical nature. Once he becomes comfortable making assertive challenges, he should have no problem. Vint is listed as 6-foot-1 and 172 pounds, and up close, he looks every bit of it. (These measurements are almost identical to Kroos, who checks in at 6 feet and 172 pounds.)
A professional off the field
For a young player, learning the mental part of soccer is as important as technique and conditioning. Making good decisions off the field can be a challenge after gaining some notoriety between the white lines. Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United’s most famous teenage player to date, has struggled in this regard.
So far, Vint has displayed a professional attitude.
“Will Vint is probably a role model right now for the young guys, the under-17s, the 15s and down,” Glass said. “They see a lad that can still play academy — occasionally does, much less so now that he’s proven himself where he’s playing — but I think his demeanor, the way he carries himself, the way he behaves off the field has been first class.
“I didn’t doubt it, but young lads get some success, measures of success, and they start doing some things differently. Will Vint doesn’t. He’s doing what it takes to be a professional footballer, and he’s giving himself the best opportunity, which is all we can ask.”
Will Vint vs Tampa Bay Rowdies
There are still some rough moments, but his passing ability and calmness under pressure are immense. pic.twitter.com/cOT3oCPqa9
— USMNT Videos (@USMNTvideos) April 28, 2019
And on the field, a young player must be able to cope with mistakes. Vint received a stern lesson against Nashville. Four minutes in, he overhit a back pass to goalkeeper Brendan Moore for an own goal. Vint picked up a yellow card on an awkward challenge in the 18th minute. Nevertheless, he continued to call for the ball and attempt the same sort of passes Longshore and Nelson have become accustomed to seeing.
Vint subbed off after 45 minutes. Glass said he made that decision because Nashville’s more experienced players were attempting to goad a youngster into a second yellow, and he felt the referee might be quick to reach for his pocket.
“It’s a case of me protecting a young player, it’s a case of the young player being brave enough to keep playing the ball, which he was,” Glass said after the game. “Immediately he wants the ball as soon as he can, try to play his passes, try to do what he’s good at. He made a mistake. Everybody in the stadium could see it. Will doesn’t need to be told he made a mistake. So it’s a learning curve, like we said. A little mistake last week, one this week, but he’s good enough and he’s brave enough to keep going and learn from it and become the player we hope he’s going to be.”
‘I actually enjoy it here’
In Vint’s first meeting with local media, he explained the difference between academy life in England and the USL Championship.
“The environment there is just really quick,” Vint said. “There’s a lot of creativity in the young players and here, like in the USL, you don’t really see as much of those players really just trying to humiliate kids. Here, it’s a lot more managing the game and knowing how to actually play and win games. There, it’s just like, do everything — just make it look cool.”
— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) May 2, 2019
For Vint, the biggest disappointment in departing Manchester was missing a chance to improve as a player with one of the world’s biggest clubs. But, moving to Atlanta has been better than he expected. Vint cited the club’s “beautiful” training facilities and the individuals who make up the organization as the factors that convinced him to sign with the academy.
“Coming here, I’m so thankful for the people that are here and all my teammates,” he said. “They made it like a new home for me. It’s really not that bad. I actually enjoy it here.”
Vint turns 18 in October. Then, he will be eligible to make his way back to Europe as he pleases, should the opportunity arise. He is not ruling out an extended stay in Atlanta.
“It depends on what comes my way here,” Vint said. “My goal, right now, is to earn a professional contract here. I’d be happy to stay here. … I honestly have no complaints about being here, but it really just depends on what comes my way. There’s a lot of things up in the air right now.”