We are about to witness history for Atlanta United’s Academy. For the first time, a class of alumni will conclude their senior season and contemplate their professional futures, domestic and abroad. The academy class of 2017 is a comparatively small one, with each player spending only the tail end of their academy careers with Atlanta United. Each player was born in 1998 like Atlanta United Homegrown players Patrick Okonkwo and Lagos Kunga, and enter a very different professional landscape than when they entered college almost four years ago. All of these players left for college prior to Atlanta United 2’s inaugural season. All of these players were midway through their collegiate careers when 3rd Division USL League One launched. No matter whether their future is determined in the upcoming MLS Superdraft or elsewhere, there are more opportunities for college players to join American professional teams than ever before.
The timeline for when these players may become pros is still to be decided. Due to an unprecedented scheduling of the 2020-2021 NCAA Men’s Soccer season, most college programs did not compete in the Fall season. Only the ACC, Sun Belt, and a handful of independent teams decided to compete. For most players, their season has not yet begun. For all players, the season will not be over until the end of the 36-team tournament spanning April and May. Though all of our seniors competed this fall, they have not yet declared their intention of remaining with their teams for the Spring or declaring for the Superdraft in January.
Machop Chol (Wake Forest) and Bryce Washington (Pitt) are the top two seniors of this class. Both players feature prominently for top ACC programs that both suffered disappointing defeats in the ACC Conference Tournament. Both players are likely hungry for revenge, or at least another crack at a trophy in their final season with their teams. Whether Chol can lead the Wake Forest Demon Deacons to the promised land, or whether Washington can do the same with Pitt is anyone’s guess, but that will certainly be a nagging desire in the back of their minds as their ponder their respective futures.
Machop Chol could be our next Homegrown Player and our first from the college player pool. Chol has dramatically improved with each year under Coach Muuss’s tutelage and projects to continue his growth in the right system. Chol is lanky, quick, and has a deft touch to curl tantalizing crosses into the box from the right wing. Imagining Chol lobbing chances in for Josef Martinez is enough to get any Atlanta United fan salivating. Chol leads a growing contingent of academy alumni at Wake Forest and seems to relish that role, bringing a glowing energy to his team on and off of the field. His joy, skill, and personality will make him an instant fan favorite. If there is any justice in the world, Machop Chol will be playing alongside Jackson Conway with the 2’s next season.
Bryce Washington was a vital element of a Pitt Panthers team that went undefeated in ACC Conference play all of the way until the Championship. There, Washington, like his teammates, seemed mentally and physically fatigued early against a relentless Clemson attack that pounced on two defensive lapses to win. Unlike in the majority of the season, Washington stuck out with a couple of key marking mistakes that led to goals and several other moments when he was out of the play. To be fair, one of them could have been dealt with if his teammate had switched on to help rather than leaving Washington on an island, but that did not happen and it led to the first goal of the match.
That criticism aside, this writer would be delighted to have Bryce Washington return to Atlanta as a member of our organization. Standing at 6’2”, Washington possesses a similar physical frame as Miles Robinson and can be relied upon to play solid defense thanks to his athleticism and his positioning. Washington is the last man back as waves of Pitt players move forward in their potent attack. With the right coaching and with some veteran instruction, Washington could become a Robinson-lite who could offer a steadying influence at the back.
For our other seniors, the end of the season could not come soon enough. Aldair Cortes and Alhaji Tambadu found themselves on a very bad Georgia Southern team that bottomed out in a challenging Sun Belt conference season. Kareve Richards’ Mercer Bears also struggled in a non-conference sleight of matches that illuminated plenty of areas for team-wide improvements ahead of the Southern Conference schedule in the Spring. All of these players will be looking ahead to the spring season to try to help their teams reset and prepare for what comes next.
Aldair Cortes (Georgia Southern) is the de facto leader of the Georgia Southern Eagles. He is a talented a hardworking midfielder with a plethora of collegiate awards and recognitions to his name beginning with his 2017 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year award. As a senior, Cortes leads a troubled Georgia Southern program that has not been able to find a win, let alone a draw, in a shortened Sun Belt season. Cortes has started all nine of the Eagles’ matches, producing at a statistically consistent rate for his team. While his scoring comes up short of his collegiate career-high 5 goals last season, his work rate remains high and he is able to will a goal for his side from time to time like this.
Aldair Cortes started and finished a pretty sweet run of play from @GSAthletics_MSO tonight.— Connor DelPrete (@WSAVConnorD) October 11, 2020
Eagles have a week to prepare before rival Georgia State comes to town (next Saturday at 7 p.m.)!
Check out the full highlights from tonight's game against UCA-> https://t.co/dvu0tKCErU pic.twitter.com/ypZmprwrpJ
Cortes is the sort of player who could catch on in a USL league in the United States or in a Central American league. He is certainly talented enough to play beyond college, but he may be very close to his current ceiling.
Like Aldair Cortes, Alhalji Tambadu (Georgia Southern) has been a constant presence for Georgia Southern during his four years with the team. Playing mostly in the midfielder alongside his former Atlanta United teammate Aldair Cortes, Tambadu averages between 55-80 minutes per match and will take a crack at goal at least once during each of those appearances.
In 2019, Tambadu won the Aaron Olitsky Memorial Classic Tournament MVP after shifting from defensive midfield to attacking midfield. He seemed set to break out in his senior season after becoming the leading goalscorer for the Eagles, but the challenges of life during the pandemic and the arrival of their rivals Georgia State as a powerhouse seem to have hampered that opportunity. Tambadu has played well during his senior season but has simply not produced enough for his team to win. The USL looks like a good immediate future for Tambadu as he continues to improve.
Kareve Richards (Mercer) is the defensive anchor of a Mercer team still trying to find their potential. With Mercer’s conference season postponed until the Spring, the team took advantage of their close proximity to in-state rivals who were competing to secure some much-needed non-conference matches. Though the results may not be what the team was hoping for, a lot of players got valuable experience and the seniors got to continue showcasing their abilities.
Richards has had quite the collegiate career. While featuring regularly for the Mercer Bears during his full four years at the college, Richards also competed for the Division-4 South Georgia Tormenta 2 side in USL League Two.
Richards is not a flashy defender by any means. He is solid, athletic, and positions himself well to support his partners on the backline. His role is mostly the cover man, and can usually hold his own when he is not hung out to dry by his teammates.
That completes our list of Seniors. Let us know who you are most excited about and look for the next segment of this series when we take a look at the Juniors.