Gregg Berhalter’s starting lineup for the final of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup featured several surprises, perhaps none as unexpected as George Bello at left back. The 19-year-old Atlanta United defender was tasked with shutting down Orbelín Pineda and Luis Rodríguez, a job that was performed with the precision of a veteran. The back line was able to maintain a shutout, an eye-opening match for several players on the bubble for call-ups during World Cup qualifying.
Bello was born in Abuja, Nigeria, after which his family moved to Georgia. Growing up, he played with Southern Soccer Academy and the Alpharetta Ambush, while also going on trial with Everton and Genoa. Both European clubs “wanted to sign him.” In 2016, the talented young player joined the Atlanta United Academy, following his former youth manager. In addition to soccer, the teenager attended and graduated early from Rivers Academy, “a private school that focuses on offering flexible schedules for athletes and performing artists.”
In June of 2017, the club signed him to a five-year Homegrown contract that would take effect the next winter. Shortly after, Bello led the Atlanta U-16 team to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship. He was named the East Conference Player of the Year for his age group.
In his first season, Bello split time between the first team and the reserves in USL, looking comfortable as a professional and managing to influence play. He made nine combined appearances that season and scored his first career goal against the New England Revolution. Atlanta would win MLS Cup in 2018, with the young defender appearing on the bench twice during the playoffs but not playing. Top European clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea were reportedly scouting him.
“It’s great at Atlanta,” the then-16-year-old told American Soccer Now. “We get a lot of opportunities for sure - whether it be training with the first team and being able to compete on a level they’re at. You get a chance to show yourself. It’s a really great process because you never know when your time will come.”
Experiencing an unfortunate setback, Bello dealt with injury troubles in 2019, suffering from an adductor strain that required months of rehabilitation. After recovering, he would play 12 times with the reserve team. His only first-team appearance was an early season CONCACAF Champions League loss.
“I tried to stay mentally tough as much as possible because that’s as much as you can do in that situation,” he shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The simple things do matter. I have big expectations for myself… Keep going day by day, practice by practice, game by game and keep taking care of my body and everything will perform for itself.”
The 2020 season started with another injury, this time a concussion in a preseason friendly. He would rebound, making 21 appearances for Atlanta during the COVID-shortened schedule and being named to the league’s “22 Under 22” list. Despite dealing with multiple manager changes, Bello has continued to develop and hold down a place in the lineup in 2021.
His status as one of the top young players in MLS inevitably has drawn transfer interest. According to Doug Roberson of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “several clubs” are circling, including Turkish power Galatasaray. There are also multiple unnamed suitors from England and Belgium.
At the international level, Bello is a long-term member of the U.S. program, beginning with the U-15 team. He was a part of the 2019 U-17 World Cup squad, appearing in two matches before failing to advance out of the group stage. Despite being named to the preliminary roster for the recent CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, Atlanta did not release him, citing a potential absence that would be exacerbated by a mandatory quarantine.
His senior debut came during the most recent January camp friendly, playing 26 minutes as a substitute in the 7-0 victory against Trinidad and Tobago. With Berhalter utilizing a secondary squad for the Gold Cup, Bello had the opportunity to stake his claim for the left back position after “impressing [the manager] in camp.” Relegated to the back-up role behind Sam Vines, he made a single appearance in the first five matches, starting against Martinique. Observers praised his “work rate” and defensive cover against the overmatched opponent.
The start in the final was something of a shock, although perhaps not completely unexpected considering the compressed knockout round schedule of three matches in eight days. There were a few dicey moments against El Tri, but the left back was able to ride them out and adjust. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he fulfilled the somewhat nebulous but generally accurate eye test of not looking out of place.
Bello said "miss me with that" pic.twitter.com/r8du9PgOyt— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 24, 2020
In a world where fullbacks are increasingly relied upon in the final third, his skills may be an asset for the USMNT over the next decade. Bello is technically gifted with the ball at his feet, always looking to push forward and run at defenders or into open space. Chris Smith compiled a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the teenager for Scouted Football, highlighting his “engine” and strong defending “relative to his age and experience.” His decision making, positioning, and crossing need to improve, all of which were mentioned by former interim manager Stephen Glass.
David McFarland of Dirty South Soccer echoed similar sentiments, claiming Bello was “exposed multiple times” in 2020 and that Atlanta was “slightly more susceptible to conceding” with him on the field. However, his career is still in an early stage, a development process that has been slowed by several injuries. These challenges can be overcome, as former Academy manager Tony Annan credits the defender with having a “mindset that any adversity is potential for growth and learning” while possessing “the humility and drive for success.”
For some viewers, the Gold Cup provided their first real glimpse at Bello’s potential, performing on a massive stage against the USMNT’s biggest rival. While many players put in a similar position have failed, he stepped into the starting lineup and helped to claim another trophy. With more than a year until the World Cup, expect the young left back to continue to grow and receive further opportunities during qualifying.