A year ago, Julian Gressel walked into StubHub Center in Carson, California, hoping to impress enough at the MLS SuperDraft Combine to launch his professional soccer career. The German was not one of the highest rated players available, but his play did manage to catch the eye of Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and Tata Martino. 25 starts, 5 goals and 9 assists later, the former Providence College midfielder was celebrating being named the MLS Rookie of the Year with his club Atlanta United.
Now a year has passed, and a new crop of prospects are available in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, which will take place on Friday in Philadelphia. Those players are currently participating in the SuperDraft combine down in Orlando, where all 23 MLS clubs are checking out just what this year’s class has to offer. (If you’re looking for a breakdown of who’s available, check it out here.)
Atlanta United has 3 picks in the first two rounds, beginning with their first round pick at 14th overall. That all sounds great, but it does not mean much in terms of draft success. Historically, picking as far back as 14th leads to pretty poor on-field returns, and teams statistically have about as much chance of finding a contributor at #14 as they do at #70, which is Atlanta’s last pick of the draft. You could say that the choice Eales and Bocanegra make on Friday is somewhat of a shot in the dark.
With that in mind, I decided to take a few shots in the dark myself and pick out five potential SuperDraft selections that could do well with Atlanta United. These players were chosen for their potential fit in the squad as well as their probable availability on draft day. While there’s no guarantee any of these kids will find success in MLS (or even make the team, for that matter) there’s still talent to unearth here. So, with the help of some EDM-laced highlight videos, let’s try and do that.
Christopher Lema - Midfielder, Georgetown
There have not been many SuperDraft prospects in the history of MLS that can boast “United States U-17 Captain” on their resume. However, that’s the type of player that Georgetown’s Chris Lema is. Many expected Lema would sign a Homegrown deal with the New York Red Bulls, where he starred as a youth player. That has not happened, and now Atlanta may have a shot at one of the draft’s most talented seniors.
The first thing that stands out about Lema’s game is his passing range. He can spray the ball all over the park, he’s very composed in possession, and he’s capable of controlling a game from midfield. There are reasonable concerns about Lema’s eventual position and his defensive instincts at the next level, but he clearly has the tools to be a solid depth piece in Atlanta’s midfield. Plus, there are not many better coaches around the world for a young central midfielder to learn from than Tata Martino.
Tristan Blackmon - Defender, Pacific
Currently, one of the biggest holes left in Atlanta United’s roster is a like-for-like replacement for new right back Franco Escobar. Enter Pacific University’s Tristan Blackmon. The top fullback prospect in this year’s draft pool could be the exact type of player to thrive in Tata Martino’s system.
Blackmon entered school as a center forward, scoring 8 goals as a freshman before transitioning to right back. Watch him play, and you’ll see he still has that attacking instinct in him. Blackmon will often cut inside with the ball at his feet to combine with midfielders, and with his big 6’2’” frame, he’s very good at pursuit. His crossing and decision-making are both concerns, and most mock drafts think he’ll be off the board by the time Atlanta is on the clock. However, if he’s available, Blackmon could be a solid squad player for the Five Stripes in 2018.
Wyatt Omsberg - Defender, Dartmouth
As of now, Atlanta’s only cover for the LGP-Parky center back duo is the aging 34 year-old Jeff Larentowicz and the inexperienced 20-year old Miles Robinson. While center backs Tomas Hilliard-Arce and Joao Moutinho both figure to be top-5 picks, Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Wyatt Omsberg is probably the next best option.
Omsberg hails from Maine, where we was the Gatorade Player of the Year out of high school. At Dartmouth, he made a name for himself both as a smart, composed defender and as a goal-scoring threat on set-pieces, with ten tallies in four years. Like Robinson a year ago, Omsberg rated in the top 5 in both speed and agility at this year’s combine, and he may just be a useful depth option for the Five Stripes in 2018.
Marcelo Acuna - Forward, Virginia Tech
If there’s one thing that Atlanta loves in its depth players, it’s versatility. Virginia Tech striker Marcelo Acuna has that, as well as a real chance to contribute to an MLS team from day one.
Acuna spent most of his college career as a number 9, but could also play as a second forward or a winger in the pros. In 42 games for Virginia Tech, Acuna racked up 23 goals and 6 assists, establishing himself as one of the best scoring threats in the nation in the process. He’s an adept finisher with both his feet and head and can be deadly when he finds space in and around the box. Acuna is a Costa Rican youth international and a product of the Saprissa Academy, meaning he would fill an international slot on Atlanta’s roster. Still, United has already found success with drafting versatile international attackers, and Acuna may have the tools to follow in Julian Gressel’s footsteps.
Pol Calvet Planellas - Midfielder, Pittsburgh
When Tata Martino was getting accustomed to his new job at FC Barcelona in 2013, a young midfielder named Pol Calvet Planellas was breaking into the Catalan club’s B team. After 3 years with Barcelona, a year with Deportivo La Coruna, a brief spell with semi-pro club Llagostera, and a season with the Pittsburgh Panthers, Planellas enters the draft as the most well-known player to Atlanta’s coaching staff.
Planellas has been a stereotypical number 10 throughout his young career. He has a real eye for making the final pass and can create space with the ball at his feet. His position as a pro is a concern, since very few collegiate number 10’s can stay there at the next level. Furthermore, Planellas is not considered among the top prospects at this draft and will likely still be available when Atlanta make back to back selections in the second round. His international status hurts his chances of making the roster from day one, but with an entire USL squad to fill out, there’s a good chance the La Masia product reunites with his old boss in Atlanta.