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Steven Gunn – How Atlanta United partnership offers boost to Aberdeen’s talent development and scouting

Aberdeen director of football Steven Gunn. Image: SNS
Aberdeen director of football Steven Gunn. Image: SNS

On Monday, Aberdeen jetted off for a winter camp at Atlanta United’s training base – making it the perfect time to launch our multi-part Aberlanta and Beyond series exploring the Dons’ partnerships with clubs across the globe.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking to key figures at Aberdeen and elsewhere to establish the benefits the Pittodrie outfit see in working with their roster of current partners – Major League Soccer (MLS) side Atlanta, California grassroots side Allstars United SC and KR Reykjavik.

We’ve also asked whether we could we see more of these partnerships in future.

In part one of Aberlanta and Beyond, Aberdeen director of football Steven Gunn discusses the relationship between the Dons’ and Atlanta’s football departments – including exchanging young players, how the clubs combine their scouting networks and the results, and how the Reds’ staff are going to make the most of their chance to head Stateside mid-season.

Talent exchange to be discussed during Atlanta trip

Aberdeen director of football Steven Gunn hopes a player exchange between the Dons and partner club Atlanta United can be re-established as the club emerge from the Covid pandemic.

The Dons hosted three Atlanta players – Jordan Matthews, Marzuq Puckerin and Garrison Tubbs – before plans for Jack MacKenzie to spend time in Georgia were scuppered by the pandemic in 2020.

But with the football operation from Pittodrie spending this week across the pond at the home of their strategic partners, Gunn expects talent exchanges to be high on the agenda between the clubs.

He said: “Covid did undoubtedly impact our ability to get the most value out of the Atlanta relationship in particular.

“We would have liked to have done more of the exchanges like we did with the three lads who came over.

“The benefit for those guys was to get them out of their comfort zone and come and experience European football.

“These were three guys who could have pursued a career in Europe as they had the necessary passports to enable them to do that.

“We had agreed the mechanism for Jack MacKenzie to go on loan there. Jack was all on-board with it.

Between his proposed move to Atlanta in 2020 and now, Jack MacKenzie has become part of the Aberdeen first team picture. Image: Stephen Dobson/ProSports/Shutterstock

“He’s the type of player with a really open mind about where his career might have taken him at that stage, and it was important for him to go and get regular game time.

“It was just in that March, when he was going to be travelling, that we had to put the brakes on it and clearly everything changed beyond recognition for all of us.

“Luckily for Jack his opportunity then came at a later stage with Aberdeen, but it is a route we would explore again in the future.

“We have a number of players in our under-18 squad this year who have had relatively successful under-18 careers up to now, but will need challenged beyond the under-18 programme – but who might not be ready for our first-team programme just yet.

“There is the opportunity to discuss some of those players when we meet in Atlanta.”

How Aberdeen and Atlanta are sharing their recruitment know-how

Former Don Ronald Hernandez now plays for Atlanta United.

Player development is one area of interest to both clubs – but so, too, is recruitment.

The clubs have assisted each other in providing intel on players previously and Gunn enjoys a strong working relationship with his Atlanta counterpart, former Rangers defender Carlos Bocanegra, who is technical director at the Five Stripes.

They operate in different financial climates, but that has not prevented the two sides from lending a helping hand where possible.

Gunn said: “Most of the dialogue I’ve had over the last couple of years with Carlos and the two scouting teams have had has been on recruiting opportunities.

“They don’t always come to fruition, but we share knowledge of European players Atlanta may well be interested in, and US or South American based players we’re looking to find out more about.

“There have been occasions where Atlanta have played in their version of the Champions League against a South American team with their roster full and they have made recommendations to us and we’ve done work in the background on some of those players.

“But clearly there are hurdles which present themselves when potentially trying to take a player out of South America.

“There’s Brexit, the GBE (Governing Body Endorsement) process and potentially the language barrier.

“It’s something we tread carefully with.

“Whenever we do the next player where there might be an element of collaboration and we’re going on the work Atlanta have done or vice-versa, we make sure we are making the right decision.

“We tried it to an extent with Ronald Hernandez in the recent past.

“Ronald was a player that came up through our own scouting efforts, but clearly, coming from a South American background, he was a player Atlanta United were well aware of so there was an element of dialogue prior to signing for Aberdeen.

“He ended up at Atlanta thereafter of course, but, had that relationship not been there, maybe Atlanta might not have been his next destination.”

All areas of the football department can benefit from Atlanta trip

The Scottish season has paused for the World Cup in Qatar, which begins this weekend, but the early break in domestic play has afforded the Dons a unique chance to strengthen their relationship with Atlanta by visiting the club.

For Gunn, it is a chance to speak face to face with colleagues at United, but also to forge new working relationships between manager Jim Goodwin and his backroom staff and their Atlanta counterparts.

The Dons director of football said: “I’ve had the fortune of visiting the stadium, training ground and met the people I’ve been working with over the last couple of years, including (former president) Darren (Eales) and Carlos, who I speak to regularly.

Atlanta United's home ground, the Mercedes Benz Stadium, is powered by more than 4,000 solar panels. Aberdeen FC will be there in weeks for a winter camp - as club bosses draw up new stadium plans. Revel Pix LLC/Shutterstock.
Atlanta United’s home ground, the Mercedes Benz Stadium.

“It will be another opportunity to introduce people who are new to each club.

“There’s been a lot of change at our club on the football side and we’ll be able to reintroduce folk who had a pre-existing relationship – the two sport science teams and medical teams for example.

“These are relationships we want to make sure are fostered directly between the two departments. We’ve been able to help each other out on occasion in the past.

“Atlanta undertook a medical for a player we later signed in the US and, likewise, we were able to do that with a UK-based player for them that they later signed.

“There are opportunities like that on an operational level where we can support each other as well.”

US trip is no holiday camp for Aberdeen travelling party

There will be opportunities for deeper discussion on how the two clubs can help each other, but Gunn insists the training aspect for the manager and his players in Atlanta is equally important.

He said: “Had we not been travelling to Atlanta, no doubt we would have been seeking an opportunity to travel somewhere.

Aberdeen are set to train at Atlanta United’s training complex.

“With this new group, 11 players coming in; not just players you would expect to supplement the squad, but players we are relying on to play week-in, week-out, in what has been quite a transformation with the first team, it is important for us to get them together with opportunities to develop on the pitch and the relationships off it as well.

“The trip to Atlanta will afford us that opportunity to have them all together for a week and it will be an opportunity for Jim to assess how far we’ve come since the start of the season and what his priorities are in terms of work which will go on the training pitch.

“This isn’t a holiday camp for us.

Duk, right, and Ylber Ramadani were just of Aberdeen’s summer signings. Image: Shutterstock

“We’ve got a full schedule of training and a friendly match, and also it is an opportunity for us to take younger players from the under-18 age group and integrate them, see how they respond in that environment with the manager, his backroom staff and first-team players.

“That’s hugely valuable in terms of us being able to show these players the path up to the first team.”

Dons eager to extend their scouting network, with club alliances a vital component to strategy

The partnerships formed with Atlanta United, Allstars United SC in California and KR Reykjavik in Iceland are all part of Aberdeen’s aim of expanding their outreach globally.

With signings from Portugal and Hungary in the summer among the new arrivals at Pittodrie, Gunn believes the strategic relationships being built are important in enabling the club to cast the net wider when searching for new players.

He said: “From a player recruitment perspective, we’ve spoken before about our desire to widen the scope of our recruitment network.

“That’s something we’ve started to see the fruits of over the course of the last transfer window and that is a way we will continue to work in the future.

“If there is an opportunity with KR, Atlanta or anyone else which open up markets we don’t have the knowledge in, we’ll look at it.

“You can access the data from these markets anyway, but it’s one thing to identify a player from the data. It’s another thing to be able to build relationships with agents and clubs when trying to convince players to move out of those markets.

“I’m sure we absolutely will have the support of Atlanta. We’ve got a recruitment session when we’re out there and Darren Mowbray our head of recruitment is travelling to Atlanta with us for that purpose.

“While those opportunities present themselves we’ll be putting all our efforts into getting most values out of these partnerships as we can.”

TOMORROW – Aberdeen commercial director Rob Wicks on how Aberdeen can work with partners to improve their performance off the park