The college soccer season is almost upon us once again, and teams across the nation are beginning their prep for a grueling 3-month sprint through the regular season. With Atlanta United’s academy now with two full years under it’s belt, a good collection of players with ties to the Five Stripes will be taking the field for their schools this fall.
Seventeen players out of the college ranks signed homegrown contracts across MLS this past winter, so there’s a decent chance that one of these youngsters could be Atlanta’s next hometown signing. In no particular order, here are five players United fans should be watching closely throughout this fall.
Justin Garces - Fr. Goalkeeper, UCLA
Justin Garces has had quite the last 12 months since joining Atlanta United. He played every minute for the United States at the U17 World Cup, made his professional debut with ATL UTD 2, and was recently named the Development Academy’s U19 Eastern Conference Player of the Season. Now, the 17-year old net-minder will look to build off of that success with a strong freshman year out in Westwood, CA at one of college soccer’s most prestigious programs.
Garces joins the Bruins as a key piece of the nation’s #1 recruiting class, and one that’s in line to make an immediate impact on the field. UCLA’s 2-year starter in net Kevin Silva transferred over the off-season before eventually signing a pro deal in Scotland, leaving Garces as the favorite to start from day one. Garces is also firmly in the picture with the U20 USMNT, and a good season out west will go a long way towards getting him on Tab Ramos’ World Cup roster next summer. It’s been a few years since UCLA has reached the heights at which they feel they belong, but with Garces leading an influx of new talent, expectations are very high for this young Bruins side.
Aldair Cortes - So. Defender/Midfielder, Georgia Southern
To this point, no Atlanta United alumni has had as much success at the college level as Georgia Southern’s Aldair Cortes. As a freshman, the Cairo, GA native started every game for the Eagles usually as a left back or a winger, racking up nearly 1,500 minutes and scoring 3 goals. That was enough to make Cortes the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and earn him a place on the All-Conference 2nd team.
Of course, with success comes increased expectations, and Southern head coach John Murphy will be looking to Cortes to become a bigger presence on the field as well as a leader for his young team. Whether Murphy sees Cortes as a midfielder or a defender long-term will likely depend on how the rest of this roster shapes up. Regardless, Cortes looks primed to become one of the Sun Belt’s best players and a vital piece for Southern in 2018.
Charlie Asensio - Fr. Defender/Midfielder, Clemson
Charlie Asensio joins the Clemson Tigers as one of the most highly-touted freshman recruits in the nation. The 2017-18 season saw Asensio spend his first full season in Atlanta with United’s academy, making 28 appearances for the U19’s and playing all over the place, from center back to left back to defensive midfield. The Roswell native has stayed involved in the youth national team circuit as well, narrowly missing out on the U17 World Cup roster and since earning multiple call-ups to the U19 MNT.
Asensio’s impressive resume got him in the door at Clemson, but breaking onto the field for one of the perennial powers in the nation’s toughest conference will be a different challenge entirely. The Tigers’ top returning stars include All-ACC center-back Patrick Bunk-Andersen, experienced defenders Malick Mbaye and Andrew Burnikel, and team captain Tanner Dieterich in defensive midfield. With all that said, coach Mike Noonan has never been afraid of giving underclassmen chances to impress, and if Asensio can prove he belongs, the sky is the limit for one of the ACC’s brightest incoming young talents.
Machop Chol - So. Midfielder, Wake Forest
Few teams enjoyed as good of a 2017 season as Wake Forest, who won the ACC’s regular season and tournament double and entered the NCAA tournament as the #1 overall seed. Much of this success came on the back of the Demon Deacons’ attacking play, led by the front four of Luis Argudo, Brandon Servania, Ema Twumasi, and Jon Bakero. All four of those guys are now in MLS, and Sudanese sophmore winger Machop Chol is one of several players vying to replace them.
Even on such a stacked team, Chol still managed 13 appearances and one goal as a freshman for Wake despite missing a third of the season with injury. Chol’s big 6’2” frame and physical stature helps him beat defenders off the dribble with ease, but he also has a refined ability with the ball at his feet. Chol was a regular starter for Wake on the left wing in the inaugural US Soccer Spring College Program, but with a new crop of freshman and transfers joining the program since then, competition for places is as fierce as ever in Winston-Salem. Chol will have his work cut out for him to earn a place in the team, but if he does, he could be primed for a breakout season in 2018.
Will Crain - Fr. Defender, Brown
So far, eight Atlanta United academy players have made their pro debuts as amateurs with ATL UTD 2, but none have been as involved with the USL side as U19 captain Will Crain. The defender has made the gameday squad in more than half of the team’s matches this season, making seven appearances and five starts. He’s also shown positional versatility, filling in at both center back and left back and looking more than competent in both roles.
Crain will now take his talents to the Ivy League and Brown University, the school at which Darren Eales starred back in the early 1990’s. The Bears graduated multiple players off of their back line last season, and with Crain being the only out-and-out defender in their incoming recruiting class, the Athens product has a good chance of playing significant minutes this season. In his two academy seasons, Crain’s maturity and commitment to the club have been second to none, and it’s clear that United have a real investment in his potential professional future. They’ll likely be paying close attention to how the 18-year old does up in Rhode Island this fall.
George Bonsu - So. Defender, Alderson Broaddus
James Brighton - Fr. Forward, Clemson
Dawson Gideon - Fr. Forward, Mercer
Michael Ille - Rs Fr. Forward, Mercer
Kevin Lingard - So. Midfielder, Furman
Sam Morton - So. Goalkeeper, Princeton
Omar Mustafic - Fr. Midfielder, Charlotte
Victor Pereyra-Zavala - Fr. Midfielder, Georgia State
Kareve Richards - So. Defender, Mercer
Kashay Sahlu - Fr. Midfielder, Coastal Carolina
Russell Shealy - Fr. Goalkeeper, Maryland
Alhaji Tambadu - So. Midfielder, Georgia Southern
Bryce Washington - So. Defender, Rutgers
Blake White - Fr. Midfielder, Alabama-Birmingham