Exclusive – As Atlanta United released their list of unprotected players for the MLS Expansion Draft, Anton Walkes was relaxing at home, completely unaware of the huge upheaval ahead for his professional career and family life.
The English center-back was fresh from a career year in 2021 – his second back at the club following his return from EFL club Portsmouth – logging the most appearances (33) and minutes (2,773) of any Atlanta player in 2021.
Walkes even captained the team on four occasions and figured in the top three for a number of key defensive metrics. And yet, his name did not figure among the 12 players protected from Charlotte FC’s grasp by Atlanta United.
“When I found out I’d been left unprotected for the Expansion Draft, it came as a surprise because we’d been talking long-term about staying in Atlanta,” Walkes recalls in an exclusive interview with 90min. “Within the space of a week, I’m kicking back and relaxing then my phone is going off saying I wasn’t protected. It hurt a bit but I realized after that I’d be getting picked up.”
He added: “When you’re sitting at home and find out over Twitter that you’re being taken by another team, it’s not an ideal situation to be in when you’re trying to plan a long-term future for your family.”
The omission was understandably met with confusion among supporters, too, with the 24-year-old proving a popular figure thanks to exemplary defensive performances and commitment to the club.
A source within Atlanta United told 90min the club didn’t want to lose Walkes, but were left with little choice when choosing their 12 protected players. Had the Five Stripes left someone like Franco Ibarra or Santiago Sosa up for selection, they’d only receive $50k in compensation for their departure – barely a fraction of their true market value.
Equally, as Atlanta transition back to a four-man defense under Gonzalo Pineda, they appear well-stocked at center-back with Miles Robinson and Alan Franco established starters and homegrown George Campbell showing signs of promise.
Club president Darren Eales revealed recently that there had been a ‘swirl of interest’ around George Bello and that the club would help facilitate his move to Europe, so leaving fellow left-back Andrew Gutman unprotected would also have been unwise.
This was little of consolation to Walkes at the time. During the course of the interview, the former Tottenham Hotspur man made it clear he had no previous desire to leave Atlanta United, reiterating his plans for a long-term future with the club.
But for all the water that passed under the bridge, he still looks back on his time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium fondly.
“I see my time in Atlanta as a success,” he said. “You always keep an eye on what people are saying, I don’t think anyone expected me to play as well as I did.
“Regardless of where I am, I’m going to give 100% for whatever team I’m at. I was fully committed to my job there and when things got tough, I knew I’d find a way to help everybody.
“I can hold my head high. Especially last year when results weren’t going in our favor, I feel like I stepped up and became more of a leader in the dressing room. I captained the side last year and scored some important goals. It was a great experience and really helped me elevate myself. It’s all experience I can bring to Charlotte.”
Walkes doesn’t bring up Charlotte by accident. This is his home now and he’s keen to put the past behind him and focus solely on repaying the faith his new club has shown in him.
“Once I did find out that Charlotte were interested and I spoke to people here, I realized it was maybe the best thing given how it ended in Atlanta,” Walkes explained.
“Once I really got to speak to people, I understood how much they really wanted me to be part of the franchise, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. I took things [with Atlanta United] personally to start off with but at the same time, I’ve ended up blessed, so I’m happy.”
His defensive qualities alone make Walkes a priceless addition to Miguel Angel Ramirez’s inaugural roster – top-quality, proven center-backs are tough to come across in MLS, so picking one up via the Draft was something of a steal.
But even more importantly, this is not Walkes’ first time in an expansion team having played 21 games for Atlanta United during their first-ever MLS campaign in 2017. Naturally, he’ll be calling on that experience to be a leader for those around him more unfamiliar with the unique circumstances.
“For me personally, it’s been fantastic. I remember just being unsettled for the first two months when I was in Atlanta and it took a toll on my football,” Walkes reflected. “So being able to keep a cool head and understanding how things work is important when everything is brand new to everybody and you don’t really have relationships with people.
“It’s just about making sure you can connect and come together as a tight group quickly. I’m pretty much settled, so I’m just trying to help all the other guys right now.”
Time is of the essence as Ramirez works to bring his existing players together as a unit, while the Front Office is busy seeking out more additions for the roster. Walkes told 90min that he and his teammates were slowly coming around to the Spaniard’s way of playing – despite some heavy snowfall in Charlotte adding some further undesired obstacles.
“Things are always very confusing to start off with. Everybody is new here, so it’s hard to adjust,” he said. “But we’re all in the same boat. It’s been good. We’ve settled in training now. The weather caught us off guard and set us back a few days, but we’ve caught up very quickly.”
Looking further ahead, just as he was in Atlanta, Walkes is planning for a long and successful future in Charlotte.
Things can often be tough for Expansion Teams – just ask FC Cincinnati. But if roster building and connecting with the fans is done right, you can strike gold very quickly, as was the case with LAFC, Nashville SC, and Atlanta United themselves.
Walkes hasn’t come to North Carolina for any half measures. He fully intends to help Charlotte FC fall into the successful category of expansion teams. After missing out on Atlanta United’s successful 2018 and 2019 seasons, a piece of silverware is the ultimate objective.
“Right now, I’ve got one goal and that’s to help Charlotte FC win a championship,” Walkes declared. “Regardless of being an expansion team, that’s why I’m playing here, I want to win something.
“No shirt is given away, so it’s about earning my spot and helping out as much as I can. I’m still young, I’ve got much more to offer. I feel like it’s the start of another journey, I’m really looking forward to it.”