Let us begin by congratulating the newest member of Atlanta United, Efrain Morales. Atlanta United signed their second Homegrown player of the summer after inking Tyler Wolff prior to the #MLSisBack tournament.
Morales is a special player, so special that Academy Director Tony Annan personally accompanied the then-15-year-old on a training stint with Manchester United this past January. Tony Annan believes that Morales is further along in his development as a centerback than previous Homegrown George Campbell was at 16-years-old. While that is certainly a high compliment for Morales, Campbell had also just shifted positions from the midfield to the backline at that point. Regardless, Campbell and Morales may be our first homegrown centerback pairing once Miles Robinson is sold and Fernando Meza moves.
Morales has strong technical skill with high marks as a passer and tackler. Just scanning this young player’s academy highlights will offer the kind of runs and devastating through-balls Atlanta United fans came to love from Leandro González-Pírez. One of the main differences between Morales and LGP is the poise and discipline Morales exhibits on the pitch. When watching our more advanced academy players with Atlanta United 2, many fans have commented on the remarkable poise and confidence these players show for such a young age. That may be by design. Morales is part of the first group of players to fully move through the academy from the original U-12 squad up to the current U-18/19 and U-16/17 sides. Morales reacted to his first contract on social media:
I am very excited to share with everyone that I have signed my first professional soccer contract with [Atlanta United]. I couldn’t be happier to play for a club that I have been a part of and have supported since such a young age.
With so much talent on the horizon, let’s take a look at who the next wave of Homegrown Players may be. We shall start with the academy players currently impressing with the 2’s and consider how far away some of them may be and check in with the uncapped academy players from last year’s pool. We will not cover current collegiate players who may get a contract prior to or upon graduation since that was recently covered in the complete Academy Alumni Tracker, which I recommend you read this weekend, if you have not already. If players are left off of this list, it is not meant to discount their abilities, rather it suggests that their first professional contract may not be as imminent as the players listed.
Atlanta United 2
Jackson Conway is having himself a season. Despite being slowed by a foolish red card and a foot injury from a pregame warmup, Conway remains the most dangerous attacking player on the Atlanta United 2 roster. The big and shifty forward has a cannon for a leg and has effectively used his first three professional seasons in the USL to develop himself into a solid option for the 5-Stripes. It is not hard to imagine him filling a similar role to what Brandon Vazquez played for the 2019 team before he was claimed in the expansion draft. One of the main faults that Annan and the front office have to keep an eye on is Conway’s maturity and judgement on the field. He is a player who channels his emotions into his play sometimes causing severe lapses in judgement that can hurt his side. The good news, though, is that he does not seem to be oblivious to this and recognizes that this is a key area of professional development for himself going forward.
Conway will be in the first team camp for whomever is coaching Atlanta United in 2021.
Like Morales, Caleb Wiley is an Atlanta United lifer, starting with the U-12s in 2016 and quickly progressing through the lower levels as a regular starter for the U-14s, U-15s, and U-16/17s before their season prematurely ended. Like Morales, Caleb Wiley plays well beyond his years. Wiley is one of the most relaxed and confident 16-year-olds I have ever seen take a soccer pitch, especially when playing against seasoned professionals. No stage has looked too big for Wiley so far, and that is incredibly valuable when building a stable of defenders for the club. Like several Homegrowns before him, Wiley joined the international ranks as member of USNYT U-17 UEFA Camp in 2020. For Wiley, it is not a matter of if but when he will receive his own Homegrown contract. Like some of his peers, he will likely begin 2021 as a non-roster invitee in the first team preseason camp and should earn his first professional contract by the end of next summer.
There is so much to be excited about when watching this player grow and become more and more confident on the left flank. It is important to remember that Wiley is a different kind of leftback than George Bello. Bello, right now, is more of an attack-minded left-back with some work to do on the defensive end. Wiley is highly polished on the defensive side and is getting better and better at combining and making runs through the midfield and in the attacking third. This will be a very fun battle for minutes in the not-too-distant future.
Could Will Reilly be the Nagbe replacement?
After getting that out of the way, let’s have a serious discussion about a very talented young central midfielder who is taking his lumps in his second season with the 2’s but is continuing to learn and grow into a more polished player. He has been a regular for the 2’s since his debut in 2019 and has often been one of the more talented players on the pitch. The game is slowing down for him and his technique is helping him work his way into the conversation to be a Homegrown player for the team rather than fulfilling his commitment to Stanford University. We still have half of the 2021 USL season to make a decision on Reilly and for him to make a decision on his future. It seems like it would be in the best interest of the club and in Reilly’s best interest for him to stay in Georgia.
Coleman Gannon is just fun to watch. He has a fearless quality to him that helps him relentlessly harass the left flank when he is playing as the left wing or second forward. He has also dipped inside to play a free-ranging attacking midfield role in one match. The coaches figured out quickly that they should just get Coleman the ball and watch him take over the match. The dynamism of Gannon and Wiley on the left side has added an exciting youthful quality to the 2’s that has shaped the identity for this young and scrappy side. They have little-brother syndrome and they love it. They will go out there and out work and out play the older professionals who are often bigger and more developed. If Coleman Gannon is not already a fan favorite, he will be soon. Gannon is committed to Indiana University in 2021 so he faces a similar situation to Will Reilly. Will the club put a contract in front of him before the end of next summer?
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. 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. Atlanta United may choose to take things slowly with Reyes since goalkeepers generally take more time to develop and can play for a lot longer, but Reyes, like Morales, 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. Reyes is the current #2 keeper for the 2’s and may work his way into an open competition for the first team’s #3 goalkeeping spot.
David Mejia comes to us from the Armada FC academy of Jacksonville, Florida. He reminds me a lot of watching the Tasmanian Devil play soccer, and that is meant as a compliment. He is tenacious, quick, and has a nose for the ball. It did not take long for Mejia to find the back of the net, scoring in just his second substitute appearance on a backpost header. Mejia helped create the opportunity for the attack and made a great run across the box to nod the ball home. Right now, Annan seems to see Mejia as a high-energy midfield sub and that may be the best spot for this young player. Look for him to take an even bigger role on this Atlanta United 2 team in 2021.
Ajani Fortune is one of the older players of this group. Born in 2002, Fortune will likely be around for one or two 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 has played well in his midfield pairings with Reilly so far but has not been able to beat the more experienced Baboucarr Njie for a regular role. Fortune is a very capable player and will likely be rotated in as schedule congestion will force Annan to rotate Mackey Diop and Njie to the bench.
Matthew Edwards is relatively raw but talented centerback prospect from the 2004 class. Edwards made his debut in a starting appearance during the USL return to play in July as part of the youngest ever Atlanta United 2 side, and has not been rostered since that game. The club is being very careful with their young players and want to deliberately manage their minutes with the 2’s and academy teams to effectively challenge their players while not overwhelming them.
Nigel Prince rostered with Atlanta United 2 but has yet to make his first appearance on the field for the club. Like Morales, he is a very talented young centerback from the 2004 class and is worth keeping an eye on. Like many of the 2004’s, he’s an Atlanta United lifer from the U-12s up to the U-16/17s. Prince will continue to grow throughout the next few years between the U-18 and USL squads but I fully expect him to turn a few heads along the way.
Owen Wolff is Tyler Wolff’s little brother and the second of the three Wolff boys who were in the Atlanta United academy until the youngest joined his father in Austin. Owen surprised everyone by appearing on the subs list for Atlanta United 2. Everyone assumed that “Wolff” was referring to his older brother but it was our first glimmer of another talented player from the 2004 class. Owen is more of a traditional midfielder than his older brother, who is an attacker through-and-through. The most interesting question for Owen is whether he will also stay in Atlanta or join his father and younger brother with the new Austin expansion side.
5 Uncapped Academy Players to Watch
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). He caught the eye of USYNT coaches and got his call-up for the 2019 U-15 tournament in Poland where he scored a poacher’s goal on a set piece.
While it was not a big tournament for the young man, he did more than enough to earn another call-up and to continue garnering comparisons to professionals like Brazil’s Hulk. If Jenkins can become a dominant and bruising center forward for Atlanta, I cannot wait to see what could happen if OUR KING JOSEF MARTINEZ ever took him under his tutelage. Until then, we can only dream.
Danial Sebhatu is an Atlanta United lifer, having spent career from U-12 to U-16/17 with the club. Danial joined the U-12s at the same time as Morales and Wiley despite being a year younger. Like those two, he shows a great deal of field awareness and poise for his age. And he can generate highlights like this against Monterrey.
And this against Orlando. If I had not imposed a 5-Player limit on myself for this section, I would have included Ty Wilson, but for now enjoy the goal.
Elijah Buford is going to be a really solid goalkeeper. Buford is currently the 2nd or 3rd best goalkeeper in the academy behind Reyes and maybe Dagoberto Romero, due in part to how Buford can come up big in moments like this.
It was such a good save he made that Monterrey player cry. That’s the kind of presence you want in your keeper. Buford made his first appearances with the U-18s this year and will likely see more time playing up in his next season. The academy staff like to push their goalkeepers so he should get plenty of chances to play in high profile matches.
I’m a firm believer that we have a really deep Defenders pools in our academy. Andrew Durkin, younger brother of Sint-Truidense V.V. (formerly of DC United) midfielder Chris Durkin, is a stud for the U-16/17s and has played up a level several times this academy season. Durkin regularly captained his U-16/17 sides that also featured Alan Carleton and the players listed above. It was a big surprise that Durkin was not given a shot on the 2’s this season, but that is something that he will have to earn. Durkin would benefit from minutes with the 2’s if and when Annan believes he is ready.
So that does it for this look at the academy. Our next homegrown players could easily come from the many other highly talented players in our academy who were not included in this list. That is a good problem that we have in trying to cover this academy. Let us know who you are most excited about and stay tuned for the release of the new academy rosters.