Diversity drives Metro Atlanta’s continuing rise in boys soccer

Clarkston's 2017 roster featured players from 17 different countries. Credit: WSB

Boys soccer in Georgia continues to break new ground and raise its profile nationally. Since 2013, the the Peach State has landed numerous teams in MaxPreps’ year-end spring soccer Top 25 computer ratings; Georgia landed five teams in the 2013 rankings with Dalton High School claiming the No. 1 spot and winning the Class AAAA state championship 5-0 over Southeast Whitfield. Since the 2014 season, 19 different Georgia High Schools have made appearances in the rating, with the 2015 and 2016 seasons yielding the highest amount of top-25 teams with eight each.

America’s interest in soccer is on the rise with each World Cup drawing bigger and bigger numbers, and Georgia is no exception. The rising interest can especially be seen in the city of Atlanta with the introduction of its very own MLS franchise. Interest in the game is at an all-time high, and schools in the Metro Atlanta area and across the state are responding by building up strong programs.

Mark Karen, a longtime boys and girls soccer coach at North Gwinnett and Dacula who won a state champion with the North Gwinnett girls, coordinates the state’s soccer rankings for Eurosportscoreboard.com. Karen has an easy explanation for the growth of soccer around Atlanta. “Atlanta is a huge melting pot, and soccer is the biggest sport in the world,” he said.

Even with Atlanta United’s academy program taking some of the state’s top talent away from high school teams, many schools are still producing quality play.

“You can look at it two ways,” Karen said. “The field has been leveled but the talent has lessened. The best players aren’t playing anymore. The rivalry and competition hasn’t died, though. As long as I’ve been around and doing rankings, when schools have success, they lose players [to academies] and have setbacks. A very high percentage of the kids if given the chance would probably balance both, but they’re kind of forced into not having that option.”

Schools such as Walton, Central Gwinnett, Norcross, Parkview, Chattahoochee, Brookwood and many others are growing their soccer programs into truly elite teams.

The Clarkston Angoras of DeKalb County, currently ranked No. 2 in Class AAAAA, are another rising program that represents the “melting pot” of the Atlanta area. The Angoras suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in double overtime to McIntosh in last season’s Class AAAAA championship game, but deep in their 2018 season, the team has an 8-1-1 record with its only loss coming to Vestavia Hills of Alabama, which finished last season 24th in the MaxPreps computer ratings.

The 2017 Clarkston roster that reached the championship game had players from 17 different countries.

“You can tie in the international kids playing high school soccer in Atlanta,” Karen said. “Everyone complains that the Atlanta teams, Hawks and Falcons, have no fan base. Atlanta is made for soccer with its diversity. I think soccer draws from all cultures that Atlanta has to offer.”

Though many soccer programs in the Metro Atlanta area sport similar diversity, the makeup of Clarkston’s team is unique.

“At the highest level it’s an extreme outlier,” Karen said. “To see a team as diverse as they were, it’s an outlier. Central Gwinnett has similarities to that, and they’re ranked first in 7A right now.”

Having so many players from countries with rich soccer cultures is certainly an advantage for a school like Clarkston; on Thursday, the Angoras meet county rival Cross Keys, which has a similarly diverse roster and is ranked No. 7 in Class AAAAA.

Elsewhere in the state, other powerhouse programs are driving toward playoff season.

Northwest Georgia sports some strong programs as well. Heading into the 2018 season, the Dalton Catamounts had accumulated a staggering 100 wins with just four losses and two draws over the last five years. Now at the halfway mark of their season, they sit with a record of 8-2. Northwest Whitfield, responsible for one of these losses, are out to prove themselves as well, and last week’s 3-2 victory over Dalton is a step in the right direction. Their matchup against Southeast Whitfield at the end of the month will be a true test of the program’s progression.

In the soccer hotbed of Gwinnett County, Class AAAAAAA No. 1 Central Gwinnett has yet to lose this season and this Friday will take on Norcross, which has a 8-0-1 record. The Blue Devils’ recent 4-0 win over Brookwood is the team’s biggest victory to date this season. Just up the road, Gainesville is enjoying an 11-0 season and will look to an April 10 meeting with Class AAAA No. 1 Chestatee, it’s Hall County rival, which is also undefeated.

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