The High Five: Atlanta United’s head start, the Fabian Johnson squabble, Fabian Castillo ongoing rise and more

1. Did you notice Atlanta United’s academy initiative?

Given the razor wire-sharp MLS playoff races and ongoing tension in Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team camp – a.k.a. the American soccer stories really moving the needle these days – it’s is easy to overlook smaller, and yet potentially consequential, happenings. To be sure, something happened on Monday that absolutely, positively should not be overlooked.

We know a little bit about Atlanta United as the fledgling franchise plants roots in the nation’s 9th largest metro area; they are setting up for a 2017 launch into MLS.  Again, we know a little little … but not too much. Coach? Who knows? Star players? Couldn’t say.  

But we know the team is getting an important head start on developing its academy program. And what a great, proactive action this could be.

Atlanta United announced plans Monday to have its full youth academy program up and running in the fall of 2016, well ahead of its initial MLS match. Five age groups will participate in U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, which means the club’s grass roots building blocks of talent production will be in place, with wheels turning, months before anyone takes a seat inside that new, downtown dome.

That expedites the timetable for incorporating Homegrown talent into Atlanta United’s MLS team. And while that may not mean much to the general sports fan, it can mean everything to clubs’ success-failure equation.

Stars help sell tickets and grab attention, and the difference makers definitely count in collecting points in the standings. But so do the bread-and-butter players. And increasingly, they come from the clubs’ academy programs.

Note that two MLS clubs with the lowest professional payroll head into MLS Round 33 leading their conferences, Dallas in the West and New York in the East. In New York, homegrown man Matt Miazga is a starter and rising star. Dallas, meanwhile, continues lead the league (by a wide margin, in fact) in minutes for homegrown talent.

While they aren’t paying salaries at the high end the way some clubs are, Dallas, New York and a few others are shoveling bigger stacks of cash into the academy program – and it’s paying off. Atlanta, wisely spotting the trend, is getting on board, gaining a healthy head start in that direction.

2. A different way of looking at the Fabian Johnson brouhaha

Truly, only a handful of people know the truth about Fabian Johnson, who was or wasn’t injured (depending on whom you believe) when he asked to be removed from the dying minutes of Saturday’s high-profile U.S. loss to Mexico.

Klinsmann said he had a “stern word” for Johnson. But it seems quite reasonable that a man who was recently injured and hasn’t played many full 90s lately, much less on a warm California night, would be spent after 110 minutes against Mexico’s lively attack.

Coaches want – check that, coaches “should demand” – honesty in players assessing their own ability to make an ongoing contribution. Then, perhaps, if the coach desperately needs the player to remain on the field, he can say something line, “OK, just stay back, don’t make any big runs forward and do the best you can … we need to save the sub.” So, there’s really no reason to believe Johnson was somehow “dogging it.”

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that’s what happened. Let’s assume Johnson did something that his coach and his teammates would mark under “letting them down.”

Johnson has been a member of the national team pool for four years now. Presumably, Klinsmann and his staff know the German-born son of an American serviceman quite well. And if they don’t … well, that’s on them.

So even if we assume that Johnson wasn’t really hurt or perhaps was hurt but could have done more to gut it out – and again, we don’t really know – then here’s the deal:

One of two things is at work here.  This was an anomaly, something that usually doesn’t happen with Johnson. In that case, you mark it down as a “bad day,” file it away and then have a word with the versatile defender/midfielder if it happens again. Clearly, Klinsmann should not have “outed” Johnson publicly; most everyone agrees on that.

Or, the alternative is that this is something endemic in Johnson, a “character issue,” as they say. If that’s the deal, then Klinsmann and his staff should have known about it long, long ago. And if that’s the case, then they shouldn’t be calling Johnson into the team. At all.

3. The hour glass on Fabian Castillo and MLS

The minute Fabian Castillo entered the match for Colombia last month, debuting at the full international level, the hour glass turned over for potential suitors outside of MLS. That is, at some point, the sand will run out and the league’s top left wing threat will move on.

It may not be this winter, and perhaps will it not happen at all. But at some point, Castillo’s talent and upside will motivate some European club to make an offer too attractive for FC Dallas to pass up. Plus, at some point, young Castillo probably wants to push himself and test himself in a bigger way.

The point here is this: exposure at the international level was bound to expedite the time-table on a transfer. (It will be a transfer because FC Dallas has Castillo under contract through 2019.) It’s not that Castillo is a better player for the time he is getting with Colombia, even if he does gain marginally in “worldliness.” It’s mostly about the added exposure and attached benefits.

FC Dallas’ leading goal scorer apparently impressed his Colombian national team coaches; he was called in again this month and was subbed in ahead of players like Falcao and Jackson Martinez in Tuesday's loss to Uruguay. 

Becoming a Colombian international simply exposes Castillo to a greater number of influential eyeballs. It also makes him an easier to “sell” to a manager hoping to pry open an owner’s wallet. And finally, in some cases, it substantially adds to the player’s chances of obtaining a work permit.

4. Looking at the “most desperate” in MLS Week 33

Given the wonderfully tight playoff races, we could have a cracking parlor game of “Who is most desperate in MLS Week 33?”

For some, the desperation is relative; that is, it’s about the Supporters Shield chase or best-case-scenario playoff positioning. But the real desperation, the kind that cuts down to the bone, is for the small group of teams still fighting their way  into the post-season tournament.

For me, this blood-red ribbon of desperation goes to San Jose.

Dominic Kinnear’s Earthquakes are in 7th place just outside the final playoff spot after Portland's win last night. They have just two matches remaining, one fewer than either of those clubs. So when the Quakes host Sporting Kansas City on Friday at Avaya Stadium, it’s pretty much do-or-die.

If they don’t get all three points (against a team suddenly flush with a fresh round of confidence), they’ll travel into Texas for Round 34, needing a win against FC Dallas and quite possibly lots of help to make the playoffs.

Everyone knows Kinnear’s rep in the playoffs; you bet against that guy in the post-season at your own peril. Of course, they have to make playoffs for that to take hold. That knowledge adds to the pressure building right now around Avaya.

5. The Little Five

5a. My quick, personal list of MLS players who could have helped the United States on Saturday against Mexico at the Rose Bowl: Benny Feilhaber (best provider of killer passes who was not on the U.S. roster), Lee Nguyen (best at breaking down defenses off the dribble) and Dax McCarty (who would have added more hustle-bustle to a midfield that looked old and slow). You could probably add Sacha Kljestan to that list, even more so in Tuesday’s loss to Costa Rica; he’s had a better season than Mix Diskerud, who had an uneventful second half Tuesday at Red Bull Arena.

5b. I ordered my copy of Das Reboot today. That’s Raphael Honigstein’s book on the German soccer’s highly successful reinvention, which was tied into Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge of Die Mannschaft. It came out in October, and frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed that I am just now getting around to ordering a copy. It should be required reading for anyone who writes about Klinsmann.

5c. Mark me down as a fan of “Klopp and the Kop!” Finding a good fit is so important for clubs and for managers. Jurgen Klopp, the man who made Borussia Dortmund so much fun to watch and so successful on a relatively small Bundesliga budget, looks like such a picture perfect fit at Liverpool. His presence (and his teams’ style of play) will make the Premier League an even more enjoyable place.

5d. Remember when it was such a big deal that players like Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Pirlo and others from MLS were called by global powers for international duty? That was just a month ago! Now … meh. It already seems like something we’re used to. Progress sometimes comes fast sometimes in MLS.

5e. Injuries are never good, but they always deserve special attention at this time of year; the focus on each match is more intense, so the discussions gain weight on how certain, absent game-changers might impact results. For instance in the stacked-and-packed West, Los Angeles could potentially miss some dynamic presence in injuries to Robbie Rogers and Giovani dos Santos this week, Seattle’s two top choice center backs are hurt and Vancouver’s midfield is suddenly a mess due to injuries. The league report is here

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