Until recently, Atlanta United was one of the most successful clubs in the MLS.
Atlanta debuted in 2017, joining the league alongside Minnesota United. In their first season, Minnesota finished with the league’s fourth-worst record. Atlanta? They finished with the fourth-best record, reaching the playoffs, and the US Open Cup Round of 16. In their second season, Atlanta won the entire league.
Their achievements are remarkable. In each of their first three seasons, they finished as one of the league’s top four regular season clubs. In two of those seasons, they won at least one trophy — the MLS Cup in 2018 (reaching the semifinals in 2019) and the Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019. They almost achieved the most impressive feat of all in 2019, advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals before losing to eventual winners Monterrey.
Now, however, Atlanta is struggling. They’ve missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, losing in the first round in 2021. Last season in particular was dreadful, as they finished eleventh in the Eastern Conference with a club-low 54 goals conceded.
This season, it again looks like the club will be refreshing the backline. Miles Robinson is returning from an Achilles injury that kept him out for most of last season but will need some time to adjust. In his absence, Atlanta tried many different center backs, but the likes of Alan Franco, George Campbell, and Alex DeJohn have already departed the club. Luckily, they have a player ready to step up this season: Efraín Morales.
CB Efraín Morales, 18, Atlanta United
Morales was born in Decatur, Georgia (US), not far from Atlanta. He joined Atlanta United as soon as he could — literally. Morales was part of the first U12 team in the club’s history.
Morales rapidly moved through the ranks, making his debut for Atlanta United II at the age of 16. On his debut, he scored off of a corner, and he started to work his way into the first team. In his first two seasons with Atlanta United II, he played a total of ten times.
Atlanta United II was one of just a handful of teams that elected not to join the MLS NEXT Pro League with the other MLS reserve sides, meaning that they stayed in the USL Championship — the unofficial second tier of US soccer. As a result, Atlanta II and the other MLS reserve sides that stayed endured pretty miserable seasons.
Instead of facing other MLS hopefuls, Morales & co. were pitted against professionals, many of whom have been capped internationally. Additionally, Atlanta II tried putting him all over the pitch, with Morales playing in midfield on several occasions. Despite this, Morales himself put together some decent performances, making 24 appearances and 17 starts. The club won just three of the ten games that Morales didn’t appear in.
Morales has also featured in several US youth squads, although that is changing. In December, he started for Bolivia’s U20s in a friendly against Venezuela. Eligible to play for the US by birth, Bolivia through his father, and Puerto Rico through his mother, Morales now looks set for Bolivia — particularly if he impresses at the U20 South American Championship this January.
While Morales has played different positions, he’s at his best at center back. For a start, he’s tall: at 6’3″, he’s the tallest defender Atlanta has on the senior roster and the second-tallest Atlanta player overall. He’s very good with the ball at his feet and is good at carrying and playing the ball forwards, probably why Atlanta II tried him in midfield. Morales is capable of winning tackles and intercepting passes at the back, with a combined 52 of those last season.
Like another center back I wrote about recently, Ayberk Karapo, Morales can get caught out of position and he’s not a finished product. However, this could be a big year for him, with the U20 Championship and the situation at the back for Atlanta United. Morales has a great chance of taking advantage.
Image Courtesy of Bama in ATL, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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