Atlanta United FC’s development academy is taking on more of a Lowcountry flavor this fall.
A trio of local players are making the leap from Storm Soccer Academy to the MLS club’s development academy, joining another home-grown star.
Bluffton’s Juan Zuniga and Mikey Chappelear and Hilton Head Island’s Alan Leyva are slated to report to Atlanta United this week, following in the footsteps of Hilton Head native James Brighton, who enjoyed great success in his first full season in the academy.
“It’s not a surprise to us,” said Jeremy Aven, who owns Tormenta FC/Storm SA. “I’ve been doing this for a really long time and I know the level of our kids. It’s just a matter of word getting out. You might call it the tipping point. It takes a long time when you’re creating something like this that’s not an overnight project.”
Brighton is returning for his second stint with the club after leading the U-16 team with 19 goals in 26 games and helped the squad win the U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship with a 2-1 win over FC Dallas’ academy on July 16.
Brighton has played with Storm since its inception in 2010. He was the first youth player to join the club’s Professional Development League team, Tormenta FC, spending a summer of 2016 with the squad at age 16.
Brighton’s success in Atlanta United’s program helped open up the pipeline to the Lowcountry, which led to opportunities for Zuniga, Chappelear, and Leyva to make the leap. The invitations were bittersweet for May River High School boys soccer coach Misael Garzon, who will lose two of his best players in Chappelear and Zuniga, though he was prepared for that possibility.
“For me as their high school coach it’s bittersweet because we’ll lose them, but I couldn’t be prouder of these guys getting an opportunity to chase their dreams,” Garzon said. “I’m grateful for them playing for their community and schools in our inaugural season.”
Joining the MLS club’s development program means a 10-month commitment to playing a national schedule, typically while home-schooling or attending a virtual school. The end goal for most players is to earn a major-college scholarship, though some will earn the opportunity to play professionally. Brighton is committed to play at Clemson, provided he hasn’t turned pro by then, which Aven considers a realistic goal.
The latest wave of Storm players heading to the next level along with the success of players who trained with Storm for a period before moving to other areas, such as Saul Tinoco (Atlanta United Academy), Paulo Alcocer (Orlando City Academy), and Indy Vassilev (U-17 National Team), confirms to Aven that his club’s system is working.
“When you start to look at the numbers based on the population that we’re pulling from, it’s kind of cool,” Aven said. “You might see one kid and it’s kind of anomaly, but when you see the number of kids going, you can see that somebody’s got to be doing something right.”