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Atlanta United Academy: NCAA Tournament Preview

Academy graduates heavily represented at College Cup

Today, the first division of American soccer (NCAA) released the official bracket for the 2021 national championship tournament.

Of the 48 teams selected for the tournament, 12 teams feature at least one Atlanta United Academy graduate while several others include players that were formerly part of the academy at a younger age. This field of teams was officially selected from the 23 conference champions who received automatic qualifications and an additional 25 teams that received invitations after strong seasons. The top 16 teams receive first-round byes.

All first-round games begin Thursday, Nov. 18 at campus sites of the higher-ranked team, with the second round scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 21. The field will thin through single elimination until the final three matches of the Men’s College Cup on Dec. 10 and 12 at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.

There will be a lot of action for Atlanta United fans on the 18th as 8 of the 12 teams will be active. All matches will be available on ESPN+.

  • Princeton at Saint John’s
  • The University of North Carolina vs Loyola Marymount
  • Akron vs Santa Clara
  • Georgia State at Charlotte
  • Creighton at Missouri State
  • Wake Forest vs Mercer
  • UCLA vs UC Santa Barbara

First Round Match to Watch - Wake Forest vs Mercer

Wake Forest returns for their 11th straight NCAA tournament while Mercer rebounded from a disastrous 2020-2021 season to win the Southern Conference. This match is full of Atlanta United talent across the board.

Mercer is led by Atlanta United 2 and academy star Dylan Gaither who leads his team with 13 goals and 5 assists from the attacking midfield position. Gaither has been on fire this season with two hattricks and a brace to seal his team’s conference championship. Redshirt Senior forward Mike Ille has finally found his form and has been a strong complementary scoring option ahead of Gaither as has Ousman Jabang on the flanks. Yet another academy player who has made a big difference for Mercer has been recent transfer Natnael MacDonald who arrived from Akron over the summer and has already started 9 of the 12 matches he played this season.

Tasked with containing Gaither will be Wake Forest’s superb defensive midfield talent and Atlanta United prospect Takuma Suzuki. Suzuki has quietly emerged over his three seasons at Wake Forest, cementing himself as an essential metronomic presence in Coach Bobby Muuss’ midfield. Wake Forest has plenty of scoring options of their own and two come courtesy of Atlanta United. Attacking midfielder Omar Hernandez will cause plenty of chaos of his own as will Chase Oliver on the right wing. Back on defense, former 2s central defender Garrison Tubbs is starting in his second straight playoff run as just a Sophomore. Tubbs will have plenty of work to do against this talented Mercer team who are all very familiar with him from their time together at the Proving Ground.

First Round Byes

Senior left-back Charlie Asensio and Junior forward James Brighton are back in the playoffs again, this time with a first-round bye. Clemson had yet another dominant performance on their way to another regular-season title. Asensio will be a sure lock for the starting line-up but Brighton may be sitting this one out. An early-season injury has seemingly shut down the giant affable center forward so he may have to wait until next year to continue his dominant post-season run of form. Most of these Clemson players will be eligible for the draft or will be under close scrutiny by professional teams for Homegrown contracts so this could be a big tournament for them. It is hard to say how important this tournament is for Asensio to secure a contract from Atlanta United, but one would have to think his body of work already speaks for itself.

Sophomore forward Miguel Ramirez makes his first post-season performance for the Duke Blue Devils after emerging as a dynamic attacker in his second season. Ramirez appeared in 18 matches this season (starting 9) and notched 2 goals and an assist in 816 minutes. While those stats are not particularly impressive, his high work rate, positioning, and passing ability make him a trusted force for a highly talented Duke team that came up just short against Notre Dame in winning the ACC Tournament just a few days ago.

Another talented forward whose stats don’t show the full picture is Penn State’s Liam Butts. Butt exploded onto the scene in 2019 with a team-leading 9 goals. After COVID and an injury slowed the start to his 2021 Spring season, Butts was looking to bounce back and regain the form that made him one of the most exciting forwards in the Big 10 Conference. This fall, Butts played 20 matches (starting 16) and managed a whopping 41 shots (21 on goal) but only scored on 4 of them. Overcoming a combination of bad luck and making necessary adjustments in locating his shot could launch Butts into the limelight once again with a big tournament and a big senior season in 2022.

While the University of Pittsburgh may be returning to the playoffs for the second straight year, we are not sure if sophomore forward Brandon Clagette will be joining them. After earning several appearances for this high-powered ACC club, Clagette has seemingly disappeared in recent weeks and is now no longer on the team’s official roster. We will keep an eye on this and keep you apprised of the situation.

Players to Watch

UCLA heads back to the tournament after several down seasons potentially without team captain and perennial stalwart in goal, Justin Garces. Garces was forced out of a match during the PAC-12 tournament following a brutal collision with an opposing attacker. So far UCLA has managed to weather the storm but having Garces’ veteran savvy back on the field could be the difference-maker if he is healthy enough to play. Like for Charlie Asensio, Justin Garces is likely in consideration for a Homegrown contract by Atlanta United so his health will be a key thing to watch over the next month.

Another intriguing player out with an injury is Creighton’s Luke Mitchell. Mitchell is a vital part of Creighton’s central defense and his absence since September has forced the team to adapt and rush the development of his younger understudy. While the team would certainly love to have his defensive presence and vision back on the field, they are likely planning for the future and will allow him to heal for his senior campaign in 2022.

Georgia State has quite a few Atlanta United products on their roster but Clay Dawes and Logan Luque are the only two healthy enough to take the field. Victor Pereyra-Zevala went down with an injury early in the season and Matt Rios and Alex Bahr are currently no longer on the roster. Dawes is a versatile defensive midfielder who can also line up at centerback, while Luque is a key contributor as the central midfielder and as the attacking midfielder. George State is an ascendant program and could surprise some teams after getting their first look at the playoffs last season.

Princeton will represent the Ivy League this year after the entire league took last season off. Former Atlanta United academy goalkeeper Sam Morton will occupy the vital role as the veteran backup in goal. He has only been called on a handful of times in his time with Princeton but he has provided much-needed minutes to fill in for injured or exhausted starters. Fans watching this match may catch another Atlanta United academy product in attendance. Morton’s adopted brother Patrick Okonkwo was one of Atlanta United’s first homegrown players and featured for the 2s and the Charleston Battery before being released by the club.

Matt Edwards becomes the first of Atlanta United’s Edwards brothers to make it to the tournament. The freshman centerback filled in admirably early in the season for the University of North Carolina but has not seen the field much since September. Edwards could be called upon to help close out a match as UNC advances.

And finally, Akron may be back in the tournament but it is unlikely freshman goalkeeper Josh Hangi will be seeing the field. Hangi is a very young and raw goalkeeper with a lot of physical tools. He continued his development with the Georgia Revolution over the summer but the backlog in goalkeeper depth has largely kept him off of the field. It is unlikely the tournament will include his debut.

Congratulations to all of these young players. They represent only a small part of the Atlanta United diaspora currently filling the college ranks. We are so proud of their development and look forward to seeing them continue to showcase the talent coming out of Georgia.