This week we take a look at Atlanta United’s alumni competing in the Fall season who were part of the academy classes of 2017 and 2018. Like we discussed last week, only the ACC, Sun Belt, and a handful of independent teams decided to compete, so we will not be discussing Liam Butts (Penn State), Natnael McDonald (Akron), Luke Mitchell (Creighton University), Thomas Toney (Yale), or Collin Travasos (University of California - Berkeley) since they have yet to compete in their seasons.
This class is larger than the previous two classes, and that trend will continue going forward as Atlanta United graduates more players from its academy. There are several intriguing names to watch in this young group of players, several of whom are already filling important roles for their college teams.
DM - Wake Forest
For background on this talented sophomore midfielder, look no further than DSS writer Kyle Soto’s profile of Suzuki from this summer.
In his second season, Suzuki won the vacancy in the Demon Deacons’ central midfield following a prolific class of seniors and prospects leaving for MLS and USL, starting all nine matches. Wake Forest primarily plays with a three-man midfield so the defensive holding midfielder is a crucial cog in Coach Bobby Muuss’s system. This #6 must be able to cycle the ball alongside the box-to-box central midfielder and provide cover for a defensive unit that often bombs its fullbacks forward. The #6 will not get a lot of glory in this system and often only shows up in the highlight reels for flashes of brilliance or major gaffs, so for players like Suzuki, invisibility is a positive. But even so, he can thread a beautiful ball like this.
One factor that should enhance Suzuki’s presence at the holding midfield spot is to increase his strength. He is a very wiry player at over 6 feet tall and weighing only 150 pounds. A good professional weight training program could help enhance his abilities when winning challenges and holding off opponents on the professional level. This may come sooner rather than later since, as a sophomore, he is eligible for a Generation Adidas contract that could place him in the Superdraft as an underclassman.
Suzuki plays a position of need for Atlanta United as a defensive midfielder, since that position lacks a clear starter following the departure of veteran Jeff Larentowicz. Also, the Bielsa system that Heinze uses requires an athletic and adept ball-handling #6 who can drop between the central defenders while also providing a metronomic presence in guiding the ball forward like what we had with Darlington Nagbe. Current academy prospect Will Reilly plays a version of that position similar to what Michael Bradley plays for Toronto and has historically played for the national team. He is a deep-lying distributor who drops between the central defenders to help with playing out of the back. Suzuki can play that position, too, but his role that he plays at Wake Forest is more similar to the roving and active defensive midfielder we saw in Carlos Carmona. I’m not comparing Suzuki to Carmona but they fulfilled a similar role. In 2020, Suzuki mostly paired with central midfielder Isaiah Parente to great effect. Both players are active defenders and capable game managers who can sit deep or play box-to-box as facilitators. I could see Suzuki and Reilly playing a similar role if he were to return to Atlanta United.
Basically, Suzuki is a player to keep an eye on and luckily for him and for the rest of us, he plays on a high profile team loaded with Atlanta United alumni.
CF - Clemson
Have yourself a season, James Brighton.
Brighton entered his redshirt sophomore season hungry for minutes and for goals. In 2019, Brighton had a highly productive freshman campaign playing behind the first overall 2020 Superdraft Pick Robbie Robinson, scoring six goals and tallying 2 assists across 21 appearances and 11 starts. Brighton returned as Robinson’s potential heir for Clemson and could see himself grow into a regular starter by his junior campaign.
Brighton is a big man with a big personality. He is the clear emotional leader for this Clemson team, and despite playing more of a super-sub role, Brighton was named one of the team’s captains in the preseason and wore that honor on his sleeve all year, doing everything he could on and off of the field to motivate his teammates to a strong season.
In his sophomore year, he needed to replace Robbie Robinson’s knack for coming up big in key situations and in a deadlocked ACC Championship, Brighton opened the floodgates by out-jumping former academy teammate Bryce Washington for the go-ahead goal.
One month earlier, he did the same thing at the death in golden goal overtime against the Duke Blue Devils to clinch his first career brace.
Brighton scored four goals on ten matches (5 starts) with two of those goals being game winners. He peppered opposing goalkeepers with 19 shots (13 on goal) for the second most on the team behind senior forward Kimarni Smith. With Smith likely heading to the Superdraft, the scoring duties on the team will fall to team captain James Brighton and attacking midfielder Grayson Barber. That partnership is sure to produce some SportsCenter moments so keep your eyes out for this duo.
AM - Wake Forest
Omar Hernandez returned to his role as an impact substitute for the midfield in his second year. Hernandez is behind redshirt sophomore Jake Swallen for the attacking tip of the midfield triangle, but often substitutes on when the midfield shifts from 3 to 4. Hernandez plays in advanced attacking roles as the #10 or as a flanking midfielder and has dangerous vision along with strong range on his shot.
The highlight of his season came in the final minutes against Duke as he lined up over the ball just outside of the box for a free kick. The match and the team’s position atop the ACC comes down to this moment.
That was a beautiful strike, and likely not the last one we will see from this talented young player. It was enough to earn him Co-Offensive Player of the Week in the ACC and will earn him a hard look by his coaching heading into the Spring season.
CB/LB - Georgia State
Matthew Rios is a big surprise in this list of sophomores. He faced steep competition to get playing time on a deep Georgia State defensive back line that includes freshman phenom Alex Henderson and senior George Proctor.
Rios mostly features as the left centerback in a three-man line. Though he has only featured in five matches in 2020, he has gone the full 90 in both of his two starts against University of Alabama-Birmingham and Georgia Southern. Rios will continue to compete and will seek to earn a larger role in the defensive rotation for GSU in his Junior and Senior seasons alongside fellow Atlanta United alumni Alex Bahr.
CB - North Carolina State
Kendall Edwards is still potentially the best player of this class but he has yet to have enough minutes to show it. Edwards was the first academy player to join Atlanta United’s USL side in their inaugural season and continue to make regular starts in 2019 ahead of his first college season. Due to his heavy workload from his academy and USL teams, Edwards was eased into the NC State lineup so as to not burn out their new young star.
In his second season with the Wolfpack, Edwards once again played limited minutes. Aside from playing a full overtime scoreless draw against rivals UNC, Edwards managed only an additional 43 minutes across three other matches. There may have been an undisclosed injury that could have delayed the start of his season to the end of October, but we simply do not have that information. Edwards should get more opportunities to play in the Spring, and then hope to have a strong Junior season next fall.
GK - Syracuse
When Russell Shealy left Atlanta United to play for the University of Maryland, he knew he was entering a college program with an incumbent starting goalkeeper who was probably the best in college soccer. Not many could have predicted, however, that Dayne St Clair would lead the 2018 Terps to a national title. So Russell waited patiently for his turn after the senior graduated. In 2019, coach Sasho Cirovski was not ready to anoint the talented Atlanta United product St. Clair’s successor so it became on open competition (a platoon, for you baseball fans) between Shealy and fellow freshman Niklas Neumann to see who would become the regular keeper. Things started well for Shealy, notching a shutout in his first match and lost a tight one to UCLA against Justin Garces, but his minutes soon trailed off with only one more substantial appearance remaining. It soon got to the point that Maryland sports writers described Shealy as “mercurial”. Tom Hindle of the Diamondback shared a Maryland fan’s perspective on the goalkeeper competition:
Perhaps most importantly, though, Neumann made very few errors of judgement between the sticks. While Shealy made costly mistakes against Northwestern and UCLA, Neumann proved to be a more reliable and solid presence.
Shealy did not believe there was a path forward for him at Maryland, so in the offseason between his redshirt freshman and sophomore years, he transferred to Syracuse of the ACC. Syracuse is a respected college program, one that produced Miles Robinson, among others. At Syracuse, Shealy entered another goalkeeping competition against sophomore Andres Quevedo of the FC Dallas academy. Shealy allowed just one goal in each of his two starts including a 110 minute overtime match against Virginia Tech.
As a redshirt sophomore, there is still time for Shealy to salvage his college career in his last two years of eligibility, but he will have to prove to his new team and new coach that he is the best candidate for the job.
M - Georgia Southern
After barley seeing the field in his first season with Georgia Southern, Jeremiah Luoma cemented himself in the Eagles’ midfield in his second season, starting all 10 matches. His coaches have switched him to the midfield and though he did not offer much on the stat sheet, his role as a two-way player on this team leaned more toward the team’s greater need for defensive cover in the midfield as they were routinely outmatched by opponents. Luoma did everything he could for this team, even providing the only two shots in a disastrous 0-6 loss to Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt Tournament, but he could not help the team overcome a brutal season.
Luoma will attempt to build on the confidence his coach continues to show him by increasing his minutes in the spring and the fall while attempting to increase the quality of his contributions to his team as the entire team rebuilds and attempts to put 2020 behind them.
M - Georgia Southern
After an unsuccessful first season with UNC Charlotte, Omar Mustafic redshirted 2019 in order to transfer to Georgia Southern University. There he hoped to join his former teammates as they attempted to win the Sun Belt Conference. Mustafic had not played competitively since he left the academy in 2017 so it was highly unlikely he will get heavy minutes in his first season with the Eagles.
As mostly a role player, Mustafic played just shy of 300 minutes across 8 matches including one start where he went 60 minutes. These were mostly defensive performances and can be valued more as opportunities to build experience with his teammates rather than try to pad a stat sheet. Mustafic will look to prove he belongs when play resumes next season and will try to carve out more opportunities to help his team win.
AM - Mercer
Dylan Gaither returned for his sophomore seasons at Mercer as one of the most important players on his team. Gaither continued his role in the attacking midfield building off of a strong freshman season when he started 20 of Mercer’s 21 matches to log over 1300 minutes to earn All-Southern Conference Freshman Team honors.
While his 5 goals and 3 assists are respectable for a #10 in his freshman season, Gaither was expected to add to those numbers as an entrenched starter who will likely lead this Mercer side as the #10 for as long as he remains at the school.
In the opening minutes of the first exhibition game, Gaither gave teams a preview of what they can expect from him when conference play starts in 2021.
Like a lot of college teams, Mercer is fairly limited in goal production and rely on two players to provide the majority of their offense. Those players are forward Trevor Martineau and Dylan Gaither. As a sophomore, this is an immense responsibility for a young player but Gaither has never looked like this stage was too big for him.
We will be covering Gaither and the other exhibition season players in greater depth once their regular season has completed in the Spring, but for now, we can expect the Southern Conference regular season to be a coming out party for Gaither and a chance for the rest of the team to reset and use the hard-earned lessons of a disappointing fall to run over some of their weaker opponents. Gaither is a talented player who will be leading a USL franchise in the very near future. Time will tell whether he will become a regular role player for higher level team.
D - Mercer
Ousman Jabang enters his sophomore year as a potential heir to Kareve Richards in Mercer’s defense. Jabang will benefit greatly from having some of the older players graduate and open spots on the defense for him to try to win. For now, he is stuck in limbo trying to grab rotational minutes from a few different positions. Jabang offers defensive cover in the midfield and plays a rotational role as a defender, but has yet to find a role that can get him regular starts on the field. As mostly a role-playing substitute in his first season, Jabang seemed to continue that role in the two exhibition matches he featured in against South Carolina and Kentucky. He got one start and one decent cameo between the two matches and will hope to secure a larger role for the Mercer Bears as they open their conference schedule in the spring.
John Michael Bandy
LB - Kentucky
John Michael Bandy enters his third season with the Kentucky Wildcats as a Redshirt Sophomore who can be a defensive utility tool for his coach. Bandy can play leftback and left centerback along with the defensive holding midfield role. This versatility has served him well as it earned him 18 starts in 20 appearances and Conference USA All-Freshman Team honors his first season.
During the exhibition matches this fall, Bandy played sparingly, appearing twice against Notre Dame and Duke. He looked solid for the most part and had a little rust from it being an exhibition match months after his last match, but both matches were something for him to build on. Bandy will look to lock down the starting left back spot this spring as Kentucky opens its conference schedule with the hopes of a conference title and a run at the NCAA Championship.
That completes our list of Sophomores. Let us know who you are most excited about and look for the final segment of this series when we take a look at the Freshmen.