The USL season comes to a close for Atlanta United 2, and what a year it was. In 2021, Atlanta United 2 fielded one of the youngest squads in the USL Championship made up of first-time professionals from the college ranks, academy prospects, foreign loanees, and a few USL veterans. The 2’s didn’t break their record for youngest match-day 11 this year but got very close several times with average squad ages hovering around 20-21 years old. This was a squad built on potential and they showed plenty of it.
Following the 2020 season, forward Phillip Goodrum and goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard returned to the club along with forward Amadou Macky Diop, midfielder Abdoulaye Diop, and defenders Jack Gurr and Bradley Kamdem Fewo. The club also signed Pittsburgh’s exciting young midfielder Robbie Mertz to join what was expected to be a deep group of academy talent led by Will Reilly and Ajani Fortune. As the 2021 college Superdraft approached, Chris Allan (University of Charleston) and Alex Garuba (Centre College) joined the team, followed by Atlanta United’s second and third-round draft picks Josh Bauer (University of New Hampshire) and Aidan McFadden (Notre Dame), and collegiate homegrown player Bryce Washington (University of Pittsburgh). A few more pieces of the puzzle came from the international loan market where the 2s acquired Connor Stanley from Manchester United’s U-23 team, Mathías Benítez from River Plate II, and Lanús’s young goalkeeper Rocco Ríos Novo who found his way into starting CONCACAF Champions League matches soon after his arrival. And finally, the most exciting and at the time underrated piece of the puzzle came on a free transfer from Venezuela’s Zamora FC when 20-year-old midfielder Darwin Matheus followed his family friend Josef Martinez to Atlanta.
This youth-heavy roster composition is largely thanks to the 2020 season. After a year under COVID-19 roster restrictions limiting players crossing over the MLS squad and an increasing number of players being called up from the academy, the club began to more closely resemble an extension of the academy rather than a Reserve League side. With the addition of long-time Academy Director Tony Annan as the club’s interim manager, this new youth-driven direction began to show promising results. With the team beginning the 2021 season under the still-interim management of Tony Annan, the club took on a distinctly younger and more developmental character that managed to free itself from previous philosophical contradictions of the club’s formative years when young players were being thrust aside in favor of Reserve minutes. Under Annan, the team would play fun, quick, attacking soccer based on athleticism and ability to build up from the back and overwhelm opponents with sheer tenacity and zeal. This style of play and emphasis on youth continued as Tony Annan departed for the head coaching position at the University of South Carolina and was replaced by U-17 head coach Jack Collison.
After years of playing in the east against perennial rivals like the Charleston Battery, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Charlotte Independence, the 2s discovered that they were slotted into a new division with new foes in 2021. This year, they would take on the Central Division made up of powerhouses like Louisville FC and Indy Eleven. This would be a new test for the 2s, especially with local rivals Birmingham Legion also making the jump.
Annan began the season with 2 wins, 2 draws, and 2 losses with his standout win coming on May 19th against Tulsa. This 5-0 victory was largely thanks to a brace by Aidan McFadden along with standout performances by Tyler Wolff and Chris Allan.
After taking over for Annan in June, Collison led the team to 6 wins, 8 draws, and 12 losses with his standout win coming thanks to a hattrick by Tyler Wolff on August 9 in what would become a 6-2 rout of Indy Eleven. Injuries, schedule congestion, and inexperience led to many of those 12 losses but those same challenges yielded debuts and critical minutes for young academy players like Noah Cobb, David Mejia, and Brendan Lambe.
Another major challenge for the 2s was the everchanging nature of the roster. Soon after losing Tony Annan to South Carolina, the 2s also saw the departure of Jack Gurr to Aberdeen. Will Reilly and Coleman Gannon graduated from the academy over the summer as well, with Reilly heading to Stanford University and Gannon departing as a free agent (though rumor has it we may see him again soon). Chris Allan and Efraim Morales were both lost to season-ending injuries and several players like Mathias Benitez, Connor Stanley, and Caleb Wiley all suffered knocks that kept them away for much of the end of the summer. Homegrown players Jackson Conway, Tyler Wolff, Machop Chol, and George Campbell along with MLS Reserves like Mikey Ambrose, Mattheus Rossetto, Alex De John, Ronald Hernandez, Alec Kann, and Ben Lundgaard all picked up occasional minutes. Rarely did this club have a consistent run of starts for the same 11 players but that is not really the point of the 2s anyway.
We also saw a bunch of debuts by academy products like Nigel Prince, Mathieu Brick, Johann Chirinos, Jonathan Villal, Danial Sebhatu, Luke Brennan, and the extremely impressive young centerback Noah Cobb who started nearly 10 matches and looked like he belonged.
16 years of age, but you would never know it by last night's performance.— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 16, 2021
Noah Cobb is our Man of the Match pic.twitter.com/skcEpW0AOJ
But even with all of this turnover, all of this adversity, the club still got the closest any Atlanta United 2 team has ever gotten to the playoffs and were very much in contention until the last few weeks. That is something worth celebrating in and of itself.
It is also worth celebrating Ajani Fortune who earned his first professional contract with Atlanta United 2, ensuring that he will remain a professional in the Atlanta United organization for at least another season and is set to follow the same path to the pros blazed by Jackson Conway.
And so we get to the fun part, dreaming about the future. Which of these young players will make a difference at the next level for Atlanta United?
The answer to that question will be greatly influenced by whether Rocco Ríos Novo’s loan purchase option is picked up this winter or if his loan is somehow extended. Last year, we reported that as part of the loan agreement, Atlanta United could purchase 80% of Ríos Novo’s right from Lanús for $3 million. Depending upon the length of the contract and his salary, this could bump him into U-22 territory at the expense of a player like Erik Lopez. It is hard to say whether that will be necessary or will occur but we feel that the club and other outside sources were impressed enough by the young keeper to make this asking price fall on the low end of what he could be worth.
There is plenty to also like about Darwin Matheus who could prove to be a massive scouting coup and recruiting steal for the organization. Matheus is what some of our readers refer to as “a baller” and can create magic on the field with his speed, agility, ability to hang onto the ball and dribble through space, and ability to create goal scoring chances for himself and his teammates. Over just 1,485 minutes across 30 matches, Matheus acrued 6 goals and 2 assists as compared to team leader Aidan McFadden who scored a team record 8 goals along with 3 assists across nearly double the minutes. Matheus possesses a lot of the same skillset as Ezequiel Barco and could force his way into the first team as an attacking substitute if Barco departs this winter.
6️⃣th goal of the season for Darwin Matheus! pic.twitter.com/rH8Ril5rdg— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) September 26, 2021
Aidan McFadden is also another fascinating player to consider. McFadden became an absolute menace on the right flank, offering average to slightly above average defensive coverage and above-average attacking and distribution ability from the right-back and right-wingback positions. McFadden is a highly intelligent player with great vision and instincts on the field. He is let down by his volatile emotions and compulsive decision making when he becomes frustrated but that same fire also fuels the heroic moments that make him a difference maker. McFadden should return to the team and should receive an invitation to the first team preseason camp as depth at both wing positions and at right-back.
There is plenty to be excited about for the future of Atlanta United’s defensive depth, too, with Josh Bauer and Bryce Washington in contention to round out Atlanta United’s crop of centerbacks. Better yet, more young talent is in the pipeline and will force their way into consideration soon enough.
One of the brightest of those young talents is 17-year-old left-back Caleb Wiley who had a stellar summer with the 2s. Wiley still has plenty of room to physically and technically grow but the tall and lanky fullback has plenty of the tools and defensive nastiness to work his way into Atlanta United’s MLS fullback corps as soon as late next season. He is another player who should be invited to first team camp in February with the chance to earn his Homegrown contract this winter.
A few players who may not get promotions but may be invited back are Robbie Mertz, Chris Allan, and Bradley Kamdem Fewo. Robbie Mertz and Bradley Kamdem Fewo shared the captain’s armband this year and both left their hearts on the field every time the team played. Both are experienced but young players who play with a tenacity and intensity that is contagious for such a young squad. Chris Allan may be the most important player to return due to the outsized role he played as the #6 in build-up and distribution and in locking down the midfield. Allan is a greatly underappreciated player whose absence was sorely felt after he was lost to injury.
Once again, the kids stepped up this year and made it one to remember. All-in-all, 16 former or current academy players took the field for the 2s and played admirably, often looking composed and confident against much older competition. What makes this more impressive is that many of the debutants were born as recently in 2005.
The future looks bright for Atlanta United.