Let’s start by congratulating our newest Homegrown Player, Jackson Conway. At just 19 years old, Conway feels like he has been with Atlanta United forever because, well, he has. Conway was part of the first batch of players to join the club’s academy ahead of its inaugural season in 2016 and from there he took a trailblazing path to his first MLS contract.
Alongside his academy teammate Alessandro Castro, Conway signed his first professional contract at 16 with the new Atlanta United 2 USL franchise. He was not technically a Homegrown Player yet, but he had an opportunity to develop his technical and mental skills as a professional with hopes of one day graduating to the first team.
In a recent article with ATLUTD.com, Conway opened up about his experience in the academy and how he saw his transition to the professional game.
“I started at the Academy pretty young, at the very beginning actually. I was playing pretty well which gave me the confidence to take that next step to the professional level. Physically, I was pretty built, a pretty big guy. But having that mentality that I could handle it,” Conway emphasized. “There were bigger guys, stronger guys, faster guys, but if I know that I can handle it then I should be alright. I think what’s helped me the most was that confidence, especially towards the end of last season. It starts in the Academy, being able to prove myself at any type of level. It’s kind of what you need.”
Having his academy director as his coach certainly helped. In a recent interview with our very own Joe Patrick, Coach and Academy Director Tony Annan discussed Conway’s game and Annan’s overall optimism about the direction of the development process. Annan is a tough man to please because he expects a lot out of his players and demands that they share those high standards in how they conduct themselves. When Conway was sent off on a second yellow for removing his jersey in celebration of a goal, everyone thought Conway was going to get lit up by his coach, but Annan and Conway both realized how professionals know when they have made their mistakes, they own those mistakes, and they work extra hard to make up for those mistakes to earn the trust and confidence of their teammates and coach. Conway did that and I believe his growth into a mature player at 19 earned him a chance to play in the MLS.
One thing that is true about all of the players we will be discussing in this article is their shared maturity, professionalism, and tenacity that can potentially offer them successful experiences more similar to George Bello than the other Homegrowns who are no longer with the team. Annan is careful about which players he trains with older teams and with the professionals but if he believes a player can grow from tougher competition and potentially thrive in an advanced setting, he will not hesitate to challenge that player. For fans who enjoy doing this sort of educated guesswork with us, keep a close watch on who trains with the team during the CCL Camp, the pre-season camp, and who plays a lot of minutes for the 2’s in 2021.
Caleb Wiley was a revelation in 2020. At just 15, Wiley looked incredibly composed in his first professional minutes as a left back in the USL Championship last year.
“It was a great feeling making my pro debut in the USL and getting my first start. The whole experience has been surreal,” Academy defender Caleb Wiley remembered about his first USL start. “Before the game, I was a little nervous since I was going to be on TV for the first time. But my teammates and coaches were and have been extremely supportive.”
Wiley more than held his own against much older and more developed players on very tough teams. Wiley played in 11 matches for the 2’s last season against veteran teams like Birmingham, Charleston, Tampa, and Miami, going the full 90 minutes in 8 of those matches. At this point in his career, his defense looks more developed than George Bello’s and his abilities going forward are still developing. Fans of the 2’s were often wowed by the quick and dangerous interchanges going on between Wiley, Coleman Gannon, and Will Reilly as they advanced the ball up the left side of the pitch.
Much of Wiley’s presence comes down to his incredible maturity, his unflappable mindset, and the trust and comfort he has in Annan’s system after spending the entirety of his development with Atlanta. When the academy launched in 2016, Wiley joined the U-12s and from there advanced rapidly through the lower age groups. His rapid rise caught the attention of US Soccer officials who called the young fullback in for the 2020 U-17 UEFA camp. The other Atlanta United player called into that camp was future-Homegrown signing Efrain Morales.
The future looks bright for this young talent. Atlanta United will soon have the luxury of two talented young leftbacks who are on track to have careers beyond Atlanta United in Europe. In 2021, it is fair to anticipate Caleb Wiley starting at leftback for the 2’s in a backline composed of Efrain Morales, George Campbell, and Jack Gurr. He will need those minutes because if Bello has a strong enough season next year and gets called in for the Olympics, Wiley may need to fill the shoes of Atlanta United’s first big Homegrown sale.
Will Reilly and the club face an interesting decision in the coming months. Reilly is currently committed to play for Stanford University, one of the premier collegiate programs that has produced Jordan Morris and Chad Marshall. George Campbell faced a similar dilemma in 2019 as he prepared to leave Atlanta United 2 for Maryland. In July, the club made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and Campbell became the team’s sixth homegrown signing.
But for Reilly, the move may be an even more difficult. Will Reilly is the soul and unsung hero of this 2’s team.
“I love how young our team is this year. I think it’s given us a certain level of aggression and lack of complacency that I know Tony likes,” Academy midfielder Will Reilly confessed. “It’s much more fun to play in a team with that kind of attitude. Everything is new, everything is exciting, so I really appreciate that. And it’s easier to connect with guys that are my own age.”
Reilly joined the 2’s midseason in 2019. Since then, he has cemented himself in the holding midfield role even as the tactics switched from 2-man midfields where he was paired in a double pivot with Amir Bashti, to 3-man midfields where his role is to sit back in a triangle with the centerbacks and play a role that feels like a hybrid of Darlington Nagbe and Michael Bradley.
At just 17, Reilly still has room to grow and likely needs to grow physically in order to effectively compete at higher levels. Though he has become much better at ball control and positioning to win on both sides of the ball, he still falls victim to larger midfielders and forwards at times. The team continues to challenge him and give him plenty of opportunities to grow in training with the first team in the 2020 preseason and in training with the CCL roster. If he can continue to improve his positioning, ball control, and strength, Reilly could be a valuable midfield engine for Atlanta United in the very near future.
Like Caleb Wiley, Coleman Gannon had a massive first season with the 2’s. Gannon took advantage of 2020’s USL roster limitations to slot himself in across the front 4 for the 2’s. Gannon proved to be a fast and tenacious wing with a bloodhound’s nose for the ball. He showed no fear in taking on much older and larger players despite sometimes getting rag-dolled as a result.
“I think it’s a big adaptation for anyone. It’s a lot more fast-paced and you’re playing with grown men instead of kids, so you really have to adapt quickly to a completely different environment,” Academy forward Coleman Gannon noted. “But we play similar styles, so it’s not as hard to fit into our system as the competition being different.”
Gannon developed a strong bond with Wiley on the left side of the pitch and with his fellow attackers, Jackson Conway and Phillip Goodrum, who fed off each other’s energy to produce a dangerous counterattacking threat once Annan installed his high pressing scheme. This led to brilliant individual and combination efforts by the young player who will only become more dangerous as his shot selection and finishing becomes more refined. He is starting from a high level, as seen in his first career goal.
Like Reilly, Gannon is faced with the dilemma of a college commitment. He is set to leave in the coming summer for the University of Indiana, another storied program that will put Gannon in the running for annual trips to the College Soccer Playoffs. With competition on the wings by Erik Lopez, Ezequiel Barco, Jon Gallagher, and Jürgen Damm, Gannon will likely either spend most of his time with the 2’s or on loan if he does forego college for a professional contract. He could be a compelling candidate to travel to Aberdeen like Gallagher for a year or two. No matter where he plays after the 2021 USL season, Gannon is a player Atlanta United show try to keep around.
David Mejia is one of the most exciting players in the Atlanta United system right now. The majority of his appearances for the 2’s last year were late substitutions but instead of just being clock-killing cameos, this young player found a way to leave his mark on the matches.
Mejia recently joined Atlanta United from the Jacksonville Armada academy. He plays a dynamic attacking game from the midfield that often feels more like a forward or wing position due to his propensity to be in the right place at the right time for goals.
He seems to have that poacher’s instinct and could be well-suited to play a False-9 or Second Striker role as a starter or a game-changing super sub at the least. This young player reminds me a lot of watching the Tasmanian Devil from the Looney Tunes cartoons since he is quick, tenacious, and relentless in his movement on and off of the ball. He is still only 17 and has plenty of refinement left to reach his potential but he will be loads of fun to watch in the meantime.
Mejia credits his early success to his experience with Atlanta United’s academy.
“I think they did a good job in preparing me for the transition. They really push to get you up there, so everything they do is preparing you to be where we are now [playing at the professional level],” said Academy midfielder David Mejia. “They treat the Academy like it’s a professional training and a professional team. It’s obviously not going to be at the same level, but it’s definitely coached like it is.”
We continue to hear similar stories from other players who attribute their success with the academy and the 2’s. One player in particular who has benefitted immensely from his 2’s experience is Garrison Tubbs.
Tubbs earned his place with the 2’s in 2019 alongside George Campbell and cemented his place as a regular starter in 2020 alongside team captain Mo Jadama. Ahead of the 2020 USL season, Tubbs was part of a trio of academy players sent to train with Aberdeen during the winter. The experience seems to have helped Tubbs as he returned even more polished and refined as a defender than before. Tubbs is a lanky and athletic central defender with good recovery speed and improving distribution.
When Tubbs left Atlanta United for Wake Forest University, he likely did not expect to be called upon so early in his Freshman season. When redshirt senior Michael DeShields went down with a season-ending neck injury, Coach Bobby Muuss called on his new defender to anchor the defense of one of the best teams in the country. No pressure. Tubbs started eight matches and helped the defense hold opponents to just five goals over those starts.
While Tubbs could certainly stay with Wake Forest and continue to grow in their high-quality atmosphere, it may be better for him to join the professional ranks. To avoid potentially losing their talented defender, it may be prudent for Atlanta United to offer Tubbs a contract sooner rather than later.
Will Vicente Reyes be the first homegrown goalkeeper signing for Atlanta United? The answer to that question is increasingly looking like “Yes”. Reyes is already 6’2” as a 16-year-old so it stands to reason he will add a few more inches and whole lot more muscle to his gangly frame. When Reyes first began exploring soccer, his immense height for his age made him awkward and uncoordinated but when he made the switch from field player to goalkeeper, what was once a below-average player transformed into a prodigy.
Right now, he is quick and has above average feet at the back to play the kind of facilitator Atlanta United requires from the goalkeeping spot. As of right now, Vicente Reyes looks primed to return as the #2 goalkeeper for Atlanta United 2 and may compete with the rumored Rocco Ríos Novo for the honor of being Brad Guzan’s eventual replacement.
“They’ve always pushed me to play with older players. I would play with the 15s when I was 13,” Academy goalkeeper Vicente Reyes voiced. “They always pushed me to play with bigger, stronger and older players.”
Goalkeepers generally take more time to develop and can play for a lot longer, but Reyes, may require Atlanta to act quickly in securing his professional services since he is already receiving interest from the Chilean and American youth international systems. With Guzan nearing the end of his career, Atlanta United will need to take stock of their goalkeeping depth to see what the future at that position will be.
If you have not yet met one of our favorite academy alumni yet, then I am happy to introduce you to Machop Chol.
Chol is a very tall winger with a smooth crossing touch. Now midway through his senior season, Atlanta United and Chol will have to decide what his professional future looks like. By all accounts, the team keeps close contact with Chol during his four years at Wake Forest and there seems to be interest in having him return. In order to facilitate that, Atlanta United will need to sign him to a contract in order to circumvent the Superdraft process. Chol will likely be eligible for the upcoming draft this January so this decision may be coming soon.
If signed, Chol likely begins his return with the 2’s. The possibility of Chol playing alongside the very tall and entertaining Mackey Diop is enough to fill some seats at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in 2021.
Ajani Fortune is one of the older players of this group. Born in 2002, Fortune will likely be around for one more USL season but will be making an important decision about his future next season. The midfielder likely has a CONCACAF future ahead of him as already a youth international for Trinidad and Tobago. Fortune played well in his midfield pairings with Reilly in 2020 but was not been able to win consistent starts over the more experienced Baboucarr Njie for a regular role. Fortune is a very capable player and will likely be called upon to play a more important role in 2021.
“Coach Tony is a coach that wants the best for us, and he does his best to get the best out of us. I feel like he’s able to do that in training sessions and through what he asks of us,” said Academy midfielder Ajani Fortune. “I’m enjoying having him as a coach. He always finds ways to try and motivate us and push us to be better and work hard.”
And the last two on our list are a darkhorse candidates for the 10th Homegrown signing. More likely, they will sign after several of the players listed above but they are certainly ones to watch.
We have already met one talented leftback in this article. Our next player could be the third leftback signed to a homegrown contract by Atlanta United.
Matthew Edwards is a versatile defender capable of lining up at the leftback and left centerback positions. In 2020, Edwards appeared in 8 matches for the 2’s, playing the final four as the starting leftback. While Edwards is not as far along as Wiley, the 17-year-old played admirably for the 2’s and displayed a positional flexibility that will benefit him going forward.
“Just the work ethic they prepared me for, from always having to work hard no matter where you’re playing or who’s around you,” Academy defender Matt Edwards concluded. “That helped me going into this season, just working hard for every training session.”
Atlanta United have a bevy of talented defenders currently at the upper levels of the academy so it will be fascinating to see which of Matthew Edwards, Nigel Prince, and Andrew Durkin make the greatest impact in 2021.
Italo Jenkins will become a household name soon enough. Jenkins began his development with Inter Atlanta before joining the Atlanta United U-14s in 2018. He quickly jumped to the U-15s and played a full season between these two age groups. He is currently playing up with the U-16/17s and will likely split his time between the U-16/17s and U-18/19s for the 2020-2021 season. Jenkins is a scoring machine. Jenkins was one of 9 Atlanta United players invited to the U-14 Talent ID Mini-camp in Frisco for national team scouting a development. There he joined Elijah Buford (goalkeeper); Mathieu Brick and Remi Okunlola (defenders); Alan Carleton, Johann Chirinos and Jonathan Villal (Midfielders); and Danial Sebhatu and Ty Wilson (forwards).
Jenkins is a big kid. He general build reminds us a lot of former USMNT defender Oguchi Onyewu, but he plays the striker position. Jenkins could potentially develop into a Jozy Altidore or Daryl Dike kind of bruising forward who can beat you with his physicality and his touch. He may be seasons away from contributing visible minutes for the average fan but he could certainly force his way into USL minutes next year.
We at Dirty South Soccer are so proud of these young players and all of their teammates who go out and compete every week even through incredible adversity like the pandemic. Their passion and hunger are admirable and we cannot wait to cheer them on as they earn their Stripes with the 2’s and one day make their debuts at the Benz.