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Has Atlanta United tipped its next academy signing?

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Plus other observations from around the club’s development sphere

Jackson Conway chases down a loose ball
Matt Ralph - Brotherly Game

Atlanta United has no shortage of young players pushing the professionals at the club for their chance in the spotlight, but one in particular may have pulled ahead of the pack in recent weeks. In this little recap, we dive into what his future holds, as well as a couple other interesting things from the last month.

Conway’s Big Chance

Few players in the country had as impressive of an academy season as Atlanta United’s Jackson Conway did in 2017-18. Across three major competitions (the Development Academy, Generation adidas Cup and LigaMX Invitational), the 16-year old bagged a stunning 45 goals in 45 appearances, solving nearly every defense that he came up against. With his name now firmly on the national radar as one of the nation’s top amateur forwards, one of the biggest questions going into the new academy season was how the youngster would follow up his tremendous performance at the U19 level.

That question, as it turns out, was perhaps a little conservative with regards to what Atlanta United thinks of their young forward. Conway has yet to appear for the U19’s this season; instead, he’s been a regular inclusion with ATL UTD 2 in USL, appearing in all of the club’s final ten matches of the season and totaling over 400 professional minutes in 2018.

To date, Atlanta United has not given any of their other academy players this kind of extended run of games at the pro level, and had it not been for multiple injuries over the summer months, that run could have been even longer. As you might imagine, it’s led to some speculation over Conway’s future. The striker recently told the Gwinnett Daily Post he has been “in talks” with the club. He has already committed his collegiate future to Clemson, but in school year terms, he’s still only a high school Junior, meaning that potential decision is still nearly 2 years away.

There’s another element at play with regards to Conway’s future, and it may be forcing Atlanta United to handle this situation with some more urgency. Conway grew up in the United States and has represented the Stars and Stripes at the youth level. However, he was born in Leeds, England, and — unlike many other young American prospects — could presumably return to his country of birth before his 18th birthday should the opportunity present itself.

Recent months have seen an uptick in MLS academy players leaving the states for free, as top clubs from around the globe have taken notice of a low-risk, high-reward player pool that is improving each year. Atlanta United have been bitten by this themselves, with former academy players Zyen Jones, Chad Letts and Rayshaun McGann all heading to Europe in the last 12 months. While there’s no current indication that Conway is considering making that jump, United may need to act sooner rather than later to keep him at the club long-term.

Reilly, Reyes Shining Abroad

The United States U17 national team is currently across the pond partaking in a tournament against Brazil, Russia, and the hosts England. George Bello is with them, and it’s no surprise the Americans have handed the budding star the captain’s armband for the trip. However, we’re focused on another Atlanta youngster in the squad getting his first real look at the national team level: midfielder Will Reilly.

Under new United U17 head coach Stephen Glass, Reilly’s gone from under the radar to a key figure in a very short amount of time. A tidy central midfielder with good vision and passing range, Reilly spent most of last season playing with the U16 team in the Atlanta area amateur league ADASL, only making two brief appearances with the U17’s in the DA. This season, he’s been indispensable to the side, and with the prestigious Nike Friendlies right around the corner for the US U17’s, he’ll be looking to entrench himself in the national team picture going forward.

Before their trip to England, the American U17’s were in Mexico for a different tournament, taking on El Tri as well as Argentina and Chile. While the US roster didn’t include any Atlanta players, dual-national goalkeeper Vicente Reyes was at the competition playing with the Chileans.

How Reyes became connected with the Chilean youth national team is somewhat remarkable. Born in South Carolina to Chilean parents and having represented the US at multiple YNT camps, Reyes was discovered by Chilean scouts via his older brother’s YouTube channel, who then reached out to the young keeper via a direct message from an anonymous Instagram account. Fast forward a year and Reyes is firmly a part of Chile’s U17 player pool and has become the number 1 for Atlanta United’s U17’s as well, starting four of the team’s five league matches this season.

Despite regularly playing against 16 and 17 year-olds for club and country, Reyes will only turn 15 next month. Don’t let his age fool you, though; he’s already over 6 feet tall and has the feet of an outfield player to go with his tremendous shot-stopping ability. Goalkeepers notoriously develop more slowly than other positions, but by all indications, Reyes is quickly becoming one of Atlanta United’s biggest prospects and it’s exciting to see him progress this quickly.

Benefiting from a Loophole?

If you’ve been following the Five Stripes at all over the last 2 seasons, you’re probably aware of the constant shenanigans that surround Major League Soccer. There are tons of rules, very few of them make any sense, and the way they’re enforced is wildly inconsistent. This is no different in the world of MLS academies, and in one specific case, it could work to Atlanta United’s advantage.

If you remember, back in 2015, nearly a year before Atlanta United launched their academy, the club took “technical control” of the existing Georgia United DA, also led at the time by current academy director Tony Annan. This decision allowed then-Georgia United players Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin to begin accumulating time towards MLS’s homegrown training requirements, and subsequently, both players were signed to the MLS roster before ever appearing for the team’s academy. While the move was likely made with those two young super-talents in mind, they weren’t the only players earning that training time.

One of the graduating seniors at Georgia United in 2016 was Cal Jennings, who went on to the University of Central Florida following that season. Now in his Junior year at UCF, the local product has exploded with 17 goals and 4 assists in 12 games this fall, good for second-most in NCAA Division I. Jennings made the all-Conference first team as a sophomore, so his breakout season is not entirely shocking, but in a short time, the local product has become widely-recognized as one of college soccer’s best players. Presumably, despite never actually playing for Atlanta United’s academy, Jennings may have the qualifications to sign a homegrown contract with the Five Stripes.

There’s no guarantee that this is true, and the cloud that exists around the league’s HG player rules make it so there’s very little way of determining whether or not Jennings would be eligible to be signed. Either way, he’s a talented player who has a personal relationship with Tony Annan, and as we’ve seen with players like ATL UTD 2 midfielder Kevin Barajas, that kind of relationship can lead to employment at the club.

Whether or not Jennings is on United’s radar, the mere possibility of this is yet another case study of the foggy, confusing rules that govern how MLS academies work. When the league allows clubs to sign players who left the club before their final academy season, claim kids who never once played for them as their own, and block other clubs from signing homegrowns simply because of where they’re from, the whole system loses some credibility. As long as MLS allows loopholes such as these to be exploited, clubs like Atlanta United will be smart to take advantage of them.