Now injury free, Bello gets another chance with Atlanta United

George Bello described playing for Atlanta United for the first time in 15 months as an accomplishment.

Bello, an 18-year-old fullback, started and played 72 minutes in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in Orlando as Atlanta United resumed play after a lengthy pandemic-related break. 

“Feels great to be back,” he said Monday.

The hot and muggy night in central Florida was nothing like the conditions in his last start in a cold and windy night in Costa Rica in February 2019.

That start figured to be the first of many for the team’s Homegrown Signing.

But Bello’s body had other plans.

He aggravated an adductor in that game and re-aggravated it while playing with Atlanta United 2. While having surgery to repair that injury, doctors discovered that his other adductor was about to shear off.

A season of expectation turned into something different.

Bello didn’t play for the senior team again in 2019, though he did appear 12 times for Atlanta United 2.

Turn to 2020, and Bello again seemed poised to compete for a starting job.

But in a preseason friendly against Birmingham, while defending a set piece, Bello got turned upside down and landed on his head. He was taken to a Birmingham-area hospital, observed, cleared and released the next day. But it took a while to again start training with the senior team.

“You can never predict these kinds of things,” he said.

Bello didn’t play in any of the team’s first five games: three in the Champions League and two in MLS. He did make the 18 for two: the last league game against Cincinnati and the final Champions League game at Club America in Mexico City in March.

That was the last contest before the league shut down because of concerns about COVID-19.

Bello used the time in training to again show the coaches why he’s thought of as one of the better players in the U.S. youth talent pool. He showed some of those attributes – speed, aggressiveness, technical ability — against the Red Bulls. Bello had the team’s best chance in the first half when he ran away from his defender and caught up to a pass from Pity Martinez  before pinging his left-footed shot against the crossbar.

“I thought it was (in) for sure but the crossbar didn’t want it go in,” he said.

Bello acknowledged that he needs to find a balance between offense and defense. Manager Frank de Boer likes for the wingbacks to press forward, but they also have to be ready drop back and defend, even, as Bello said, when their legs feel like they are about to give out. Bello, along with many other Atlanta United players, got caught upfield when the Red Bulls counterattacked and scored the winning goal in the fourth minute.

“We know he has talent and ability,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “But it’s different when you’re playing in the first team. It’s different when you’re playing against men. As much as we want him to go forward, we also want him to defend and be aware of what’s around him. You learn those types of things and situations by playing games and experiencing them.

“For all the quality he has, now it’s a matter of trying to string along games consistently to look at his performance from an individual standpoint and how he can get better individually and ultimately get better to help the team.”

Bello is in competition with Edgar Castillo and Jake Mulraney at left wingback. The team plays Cincinnati at 9 a.m. Thursday in a game that it needs to win to increase the probability that it will advance out of the group stage and into the knockout round of the tournament.

“Group is really motivated to get out here and have another chance to show what we can do,” Bello said.  “Attitude has been really good despite the disappointing loss.” 

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