As has been noted time and time again, sometimes a player needs a change of scenery. Whether running into a developmental wall or looking for better first-team opportunities, a transfer can be the best course of action for a career. After a stretch of inactivity, George Campbell departed Atlanta United for CF Montréal. The 21-year-old defender can build on his experience and regain momentum in a new environment at a club appearing on the verge of a rebuild.
Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, Campbell played as a midfielder for Nether United and George United before moving to the Atlanta United Academy, a member of the then-expansion club’s first class of players that won the 2017 U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship. In March of 2019, the late bloomer was promoted to the reserve level and appeared in a USL Championship match against Harford Athletic, earning Man of the Match honors. That season, the defender played in 22 matches and scored two goals, earning a spot on the league’s “20 Under 20” list. Despite committing to the University of Maryland, higher aspirations became available.
Midway through 2019, Atlanta signed Campbell to a professional contract, with Major League Soccer quickly naming him to the roster for the annual Homegrown Game. “George has shown remarkable progress at each step in his development and he’s earned a professional contract with our club,” said executive and former USMNT captain Carlos Bocanegra. “As a member of our inaugural Academy teams in 2016, he’s worked hard to utilize the club’s pathway to the professional level, highlighted by his form in USL this season – most of which came before his 18th birthday. He’s just starting to scratch the surface of what he can be in the future, and that’s a testament to his commitment to improve, as well as the program that we have in place.”
In his first season, Atlanta United struggled with injuries, providing an opportunity for Campbell to make his debut. He played 46 minutes in a 2-1 win over FC Cincinnati, performing well despite “looking a little bit nervous” while dealing with the faster speed of play and intensity. However, that would be his only appearance for the rest of the year, perhaps influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and a manager change in July.
In 2021, Campbell split time between the reserves and senior squad, appearing in 16 matches for the MLS team. He earned a string of starts, including a consecutive four in the month of September, and scored his first professional goal in a 3-0 win over Orlando City. Manager Gonzalo Pineda described him as a “physically gifted center back with tremendous potential” who displays “fantastic aggression” when “pressing between the lines” and forcing turnovers. Dirty South Soccer praised his “strong athletic ability,” “stout one-on-one defending against big and aggressive forwards and shifty little wingers,” “comfort with the ball,” and “ability to move forward in possession.”
Last season began well, with Campbell starting 16 of the first 22 MLS fixtures while dealing with abductor and adductor injuries. However, he lost his spot in the lineup and the rotation in August, playing a mere single minute in the final 12 matches as Atlanta missed the playoffs for the second time in three years. The expected breakout never happened, unable to steady his form and avoid costly positioning mistakes.
With opportunities seeming limited, Campbell was traded to CF Montréal in exchange for General Allocation Money, joining a side with clear interest in his services. “We are very happy with George’s acquisition,” expressed club executive Olivier Renard. “He’s a player we tried to get in the past, but his club preferred not to let him go at the time. He has the type of profile we particularly like: a young player who doesn’t take an international spot and who we can support in his development. I am very confident that he has what it takes to strengthen our current defensive squad.”
At the international level, Campbell has been a fringe member of the United States program. He made a few appearances for the U-20 team in 2019 but is a part of the lost generation that missed out on the canceled 2021 U-20 World Cup. The defender sees himself pushing for a spot on the upcoming Olympics roster, viewing participation in the competition as an “undeniable goal.”
Campbell is a center back who can line up on both sides, possesses ideal height for the role at 6’2”, and also occasionally takes on defensive midfielder responsibilities. In his positional group, he is one of MLS’ most accurate short-range passers and prolific creators, while also winning the majority of his challenges and aerial duels. His ball recovery numbers, over seven per match, are in the 97th percentile. At times in 2022, his ability to track opponents and close down on runners led to goals, issues with movement that directly led to losses against Inter Miami and the LA Galaxy.
“He’s about a year-to-18-months ahead of where Miles Robinson was at his age,” said Peter Douthit of 11 Yanks. “His style is very similar to Robinson: very athletic [and] decent but not great on the ball. Areas of improvement for him are going to be reading of the game because, like Miles, he still relies too much on his athleticism, which is great, but if you can pair that with a better reading of the game, you are golden. He also needs to not play it so safe with his passing. He’s a decent passer of the ball, but I would like him to be a little more aggressive with his passing: step into midfield more with the ball, try to break lines with his passing, and not just play it safe.”
In many ways, Campbell is ahead of many players in his age cohort, having already made 38 first-team appearances and featured in 65 professional-level matches. However, despite early experience, he is forced to undergo a minor career reset and re-establish himself at a new club. The defender should receive several opportunities to stake a claim in the starting lineup and continue to develop at CF Montréal under a new manager. With consistent performances, a return to the national team setup should be expected, especially with the 2024 Summer Olympics on the horizon.