A year of learning opportunities for Atlanta United’s homegrown center back
Ahead of the 2022 season, fans and media alike were asking whether this would be a breakout year for the then-20-year-old homegrown centerback. With an impressive pair of starters ahead of him in Miles Robison and Alan Franco, and his path to minutes cleared by Anton Walkes’ departure via the expansion draft to Charlotte, Campbell became the first man up on Atlanta’s defensive depth chart. 2020 and 2021 were tough seasons for Campbell, battling injuries and availability but he at least got a solid run with the 2s, showing his strong athletic ability with stout one-on-one defending against big and aggressive forwards and shifty little wingers. He showed his comfort with the ball at his feet and his ability to move forward in possession to find the right pass. Campbell also showed his ability to get on the end of a goal, scoring a ridiculous header to open a 3-0 route against Orlando City.
In 2022, the rising young talent probably expected that he’d play when Robinson was with the US national team or when the formation shifted to 3 in the back. Like his teammates, there is no way he could have predicted how important he would suddenly become as the injury crisis devastated the defense. Campbell, too, was caught up in the wave of injuries, first tearing his abductor muscle in late April and then missing several more weeks late in the season with a related groin injury. To his credit, he came back and played 11 straight matches through the summer slog before declining form and an aggravated groin injury forced him back to the bench.
What Went Right?
The most important thing for Campbell was that he got loads of valuable experience. When he was healthy, he flashed his potential through his athleticism and passing ability. When he has active and capable support at the fullback and central midfield position, Campbell can effectively dribble forward and pick a pass but that support was not often there in the majority of his starts. He also showed his potential for being a strong defender with similar lockdown athleticism to Robinson if he can get the positioning right and limit the times he puts himself in compromising positions. He does seem to be learning and should build off of his mistakes and inconsistencies after this offseason.
What To Improve On?
The biggest area of concern for Campbell this season was his consistency and his maddening ability to generate unforced errors. He and his centerback partners did a good job of hanging each other out to dry as the season reached its lowest points. This often came from a mixture of mental and physical fatigue that yielded bad decisions. Couple that with a lack of control of the midfield, an obsession with building out of the back, and a lack of meaningful movement in the midfield or above, Campbell was often forced to squeeze tight passes into dangerous areas or venture forward where he earned attrocious numbers for successful dribbles, miscontrols, and propensities for being dispossessed. Some of that comes from a complete lack of help from his teammates and some of that comes from trying to do too much, often beyond his skill level. Earlier in his season, his athleticism could bail him out but as his nagging injury and fatigue built up, those same recoveries were not as effective.
With that said, his health over the last three years remains a concern. Campbell has battled leg injuries it seems to be impacting availability and his mobility when the injury flares up. It is commendable that he gritted it out and selflessly got on the field as much as possible this year but at a certain point, he is creating a problem for his future and for the short-term success of the team. For his sake and for ours, I sincerely hope he is able to adequately heal his soft-tissue injuries in his legs this offseason in order to enter 2023’s camp healthy and ready to compete as Robinson gets up to speed.
What Role Will He Play In 2023?
A lot of this comes down to Juanjo Purata’s future with the club and Robinson’s health next season. If Atlanta United chooses to retain Purata (which they should), Campbell gets bumped down the depth chart to the 4th centerback, ahead of Alex De John and Noah Cobb. This would not be the worst thing in the world for the youngster as long as he can continue to get minutes. He may be called on early as the club carefully reintroduces Robinson to the field but it is very possible that Campbell will spend a fair amount of time back with the 2s in the third division. Campbell will turn 22 next summer so he has a viable shot at the US U-23 team that will begin qualification for the next summer Olympics in 2024. The club has every reason to be patient with him because he could very well become a successor to Miles Robinson or Alan Franco in 2024.
Overall Player Grade: C-
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