The MLS is hosting a week of events preceding the All-Star game to show off the city and the young talent groomed by the league’s youth development system. The Homegrown Game presented by Energizer is one of the highlights for soccer fans interested in watching the next generation of MLS players. The team is led by Atlanta United Academy Director Tony Annan as they take on Tigres UANL under 20-team. Annan says it’s a great opportunity for the players to compete against the powerhouse Mexican club.
“It’s exciting for the players and the young guys in the league to play such a great team with some tradition and some history I think it will be a really good challenge for guys who are selected to play.”
The roster for the Homegrown team includes 21 players selected from various MLS clubs including multiple players from Sporting Kansas City, Philadelphia Union, and Dallas FC. Leading the starting line-up are Andrew Carleton, and Lagos Kunga, both midfielders for Atlanta United FC. Kunga says it’s a dream come true to play in a match during the MLS All-Star week.
“It means a lot to me. I was very excited when I got the email that I was selected because I used to watch homegrown games back in the day,” Kunga says.
Both Carleton and Kunga are veterans of the U.S. U-20 National team where they played with other Homegrown team game stars such as U.S. U-17 national team captain Chris Durkin of DC United, goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski of the San Jose Earthquakes, midfielder Sebastian Saucedo of Real Salt Lake and defender Auston Trusty of Philadelphia Union. Carleton, 18, says he is happy young players are getting the spotlight during the week of events, because it’s an indication the league is growing and there are more opportunities.
“I think it’s good for soccer and the league and for soccer in this country. Guys are playing younger and younger,” Carleton says. “I got friends like Jaylin Lindsey and Chris Durkin playing week in and week out with their respective teams, I think it’s really good the level is getting better and better every year and it’s exciting to see it grow and be a part of it.”
The trend of signing young MLS players is a new one. In the past, coaches recruited older more experienced players from abroad or stateside. Now with the rising popularity of soccer in the U.S., players are learning the sport at a younger age, and as result playing at a professional level earlier in their careers. Kunga, 19, says it’s a good sign for the league, especially since the average retirement age is 35 years old.
“I think the perspective of soccer in America a lot different now,” Kunga says. “You see kids signing younger and younger and kids see their friends getting signed and they work harder because they want to be the next one.”
Other standout players in the match are Canada national team goalkeeper Sean Melvin of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada U-20 Toronto FC midfielder Liam Fraser. Efrain Alvarez, midfielder for L.A. Galaxy, will see former teammates during the match against Tigres UNAL. Alvarez was called up to play on both the Mexico U-15 and U-17 national teams.
Playing against Tigres isn’t going to be easy and defeating them is another story. Tigres is the defending Liga MX U-20 champions. Their roster includes reserves and the first team side that captured the Liga MX title in three out of the six tournaments. Carleton went on trial in Mexico when he was 13 years old and played alongside many of the players who will participate in the match and admits “They’re going to be a good team.” Many Tigres players have also represented Mexico on several youth national teams, making the Homegrown Game as anticipated as the MLS All-Star Game, for those who follow soccer. Kunga says he is aware of the speed and skill of the Tigres players, but he is confident the Homegrown team can pull their weight against the club.
“I think Tigres will be very difficult, I expect a good game,” Kunga says. “They’re always hard workers, but our team is good too. I look forward to a good performance and representing my team in the MLS.”