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Atlanta United’s USL affiliate provides unique opportunities for first-team players

Sep 16, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Mikey Ambrose (22) takes a selfie with fans following their 3-3 draw against the Orlando City SC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 16, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Mikey Ambrose (22) takes a selfie with fans following their 3-3 draw against the Orlando City SC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Mikey Ambrose doesn’t typically take free kicks. He says he doesn’t practice them and he hasn’t scored on one in years.

In the pros, he said, free kicks are typically reserved for the exceptionally talented forwards and midfielders, not defenders like Ambrose.

But there he was Wednesday night at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, Ga., playing in a United Soccer League game for ATL UTD 2 when in the 5th minute, Romario Williams was dragged down just yards away from the right edge of the box.

As other players debated about who would take the free kick against Toronto FC II, Ambrose stepped up and said, “Why not? Let me go have a hit at it.”

It was a chance Ambrose would not have had at the Major League Soccer level. When he’s playing with Atlanta United FC, he’s far down the depth chart in set piece takers, way behind Kevin Kratz, Miguel Almiron and Ezequiel Barco.

But Wednesday, the 5-foot-9 Ambrose waited a few feet from the spot with his hands on his hips. The whistle blew and he jogged up to the ball before planting his right foot and violently swinging his left leg. When his left foot connected, the ball curved around a defender’s head and then sailed out of reach of TFC II’s diving goalkeeper.

The ball settled in the back of the net, hugging the near post and giving Ambrose his first professional score since 2015.

Perhaps more impressive than Ambrose’s first unlikely goal, was that he nearly perfectly replicated the shot just minutes later.

In the 40th minute, Ambrose stepped up again for a free kick from the right side of the box. This time the ball was a little closer to the edge and and he kicked it over a defender’s head instead of around it. The ball landed just a bit higher, but the shot was still out of the keeper’s grasp and plunged into the net.

Nine goals were scored Wednesday night in the clash between two MLS affiliates – which ended in a 5-4 ATL UTD 2 victory – but none were better than Ambrose’s pair of free kicks, which stood out as an example of what the USL side can provide for Atlanta’s first-team players.

“Very weird, you never see Mikey get on the score sheet, much less grab two (goals), but they were two very well taken free kicks,” Williams said. “He almost looked like Kevin Kratz for a second.”

This is the first season of play for ATL UTD 2. Last season, the Five Stripes partnered with the Charleston Battery as an affiliate, but having a USL club just a few miles away in Gwinnett County has made moving players up and down much easier.

And because of that, ATL UTD 2 is giving first-team players opportunities they wouldn’t have had a year ago. Players like Ambrose and Williams can be swapped back and forth between the MLS and USL levels, allowing them to maximizing real competitive playing time on the pitch.

Ambrose, for instance, floated a bit between Atlanta and Charleston last year, playing three games with the Battery and seven with the Five Stripes. This season he’s training with the first team every day, but also getting plenty of playing time at the USL level, making five starts so far for ATL UTD 2.

Williams, a Jamaican striker, has been a supersub of sorts for the Five Stripes this season, playing 44 minutes over six matches. The 23-year-old has scored once for the MLS side, but he also relished the opportunity to start with ATL UTD 2.

Williams said his coaches informed him after Atlanta’s 2-1 win over Orlando City SC on Sunday that he’d be playing Wednesday with the USL side. He played 11 MLS minutes Sunday, then more than 90 minutes Wednesday.

“It felt good, it was good to get out there and get some match fitness underneath me, it has been a while since the last time I have done it,” Williams said. “It was definitely tough and I had to grind through it, but it felt good to come out with the three points and to get on the score sheet.”

Williams scored in the 27th minute after 19-year-old Laurent Kissiedou put the juke stick on two defenders and played a ball to Jon Gallagher down the right side, who then lofted the ball into the box, allowing Williams to smash home a volley.

Gallagher is another first-team player starring for ATL UTD 2 this season. A 22-year-old forward selected 14th overall in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft out of Notre Dame, Gallagher leads the 2s in scoring with five goals in eight games, tied for second in all of USL.

If ATL UTD 2 didn’t exist, Gallagher could be spending this season way down the bench in MLS or away from the club on loan. By playing with ATL UTD 2, Atlanta’s decision-makers can keep a close eye on Gallagher’s development, and he gets the chance to show them what he can do in a real game.

“Every week I’m just trying to put pressure on those guys ahead of me and I feel like if I keep scoring goals and keep performing the way I am then I can kind of showcase myself,” Gallagher said. “I think the big thing for me is just being consistent, and if I can keep scoring then that shows I can be clinical in front of goal.”

Brandon Vazquez and Jose Hernandez also played for ATL UTD 2 on Wednesday, and goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt also appeared for the first time this season, returning from a knee injury.

While ATL UTD 2 gives a handful of MLS players the chance to get off the bench and refine their skills, it’s the first real taste of professional soccer for others, such as 18-year-old Atlanta United academy product Will Crain, who made his pro debut this week.

ATL UTD 2 is 2-4-3 this season, but the scoreboard doesn’t matter as much as what the players are getting out of the games, and each one is seeking different things: a goal to boost their confidence, 90 minutes of solid play, a chance to run after an injury or an opportunity to prove they belong.

This is the challenge of ATL UTD 2 head coach Scott Donnelly, who has a different roster nearly every game and is tasked with meshing first-team players, second-team players and academy students into a winning product.

“The players know how to play together when we have the ball. But there’s more to it than just that,” Donnelly said. “There’s relationships positionally on sides of the field and centrally, and then defensively, that’s where time together really helps and improves things… (Four goals allowed) is not what we want, but at the same time it’s the reality of having those three populations mixed together on one field… If we have this mix again, it will be better next time.”

But there’s no guarantee of that. The starting XI from Wednesday’s game may never be replicated again this season. Instead of Williams up top, it could be Andrew Carleton. Instead of Hildebrandt in goal, it could be Paul Christensen.

The one constant in each lineup for ATL UTD 2 is that it’s made of players seeking chances to prove themselves.

“It is a special opportunity for (younger players) to get to play week in and week out with Atlanta United 2 and also for some of us with the first team who are not getting consistent minutes to come down and get minutes in,” Williams said. “It is beneficial any way you want to look at it. It is never a negative, it is always a positive and hopefully we can continue to build and grow as players.”

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