Welcome to the silly season, 5-Stripes Aficionados. Rob and Joe have already run through the Ins and Outs of the 2021 senior roster so now it is our turn to check in on the kids.
Over the last 12 months, Atlanta United expanded its potential Homegrown player pool to Atlanta United 2 with the signing of Jackson Conway and to the club’s collegiate diaspora with the signings of Machop Chol and Bryce Washington. With these moves, the club solidified its willingness to reward talented players whether they are still in the academy or have graduated into another part of the club’s expanding network. For the decision-makers, the path to the pros for these young players is not as important as the quality of the individuals who emerge from that path. Even after the departure of Academy Director Tony Annan, the club retained the same player development philosophy of empowering the kind of intelligent, high-quality, versatile prospects that began with George Bello. Fans got to see these talented youngsters first-hand as the 2s became synonymous with the polished, professional, and ambitious youngsters making their way through the system.
With the club clearing out some depth at forward (Erik Torres), goalkeeper (Ben Lundgaard and Alec Kann), central defender (Josh Bauer), and in the midfield (Mo Adams), we will take a look at a handful of players who have made their case to become Homegrown Player #13.
Our best guess for who will be the next Homegrown Player is Clemson’s left-back Charlie Asensio. Asensio is a four-year starter for one of American college soccer’s best perennial programs. Asensio is solid and consistent in his play and remained a constant force on the left flank for the Tigers. Asensio does not accumulate a large number of shots, assists, goals, or really anything that would make its way onto a college soccer stats sheet but what he does so well is creating space and creating opportunities for the players who get those assists and shots. Just watching his game tape, you see a confident and experienced fullback who is athletic enough to keep up with his quicker opponents while also possessing the tactical intelligence to rein in players who may athletically outmatch him. His floor is likely a Mikey Ambrose sort of player who could grow into an average to above-average MLS fullback.
Like last season, we think that Atlanta United could double-dip into their collegiate player pool. UCLA’s goalkeeper Justin Garces shares the same level of experience and pedigree with Charlie Asensio, and even out-does him with USYNT call-ups alongside former Homegrown players Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin. Garces has consistently been a superb athlete and shot-stopper but has also played for consistently bad teams that have given him a lot of reps at shot-stopping. 2021 finally offered Garces a chance to play for a winning UCLA team and as the team’s captain, Garces guided UCLA back to the playoffs for the first time in years. Unfortunately, Garces has not played in the playoffs after a heavy collision with an opposing forward knocked him out of the PAC-12 championship. If Atlanta United signs Justin Garces, they will be getting an experienced, courageous, and athletic goalkeeper who has just about seen and done it all. He could immediately slot in as the 3rd goalkeeper on the senior depth chart or as the primary keeper with the 2s.
It is hard to say when Atlanta United may sign their ascendant left-back Caleb Wiley, but Wiley is doing everything he can and should to earn that first contract. As just a 16-year-old, Wiley has already started for two seasons in the USL Championship and has played up two age groups at the international level to represent the United States and Atlanta United against three top U-20 teams. Wiley started all three matches, and by all accounts was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise disappointing and chemistry-less outing for the Americans. Wiley plays with a lot of speed, grit, polish, and poise that continues to make him seem older than the 16-year-old player that he is. His defense is already advanced for his age and his offensive ability took a huge leap forward with him even starting as a left wing rather than as a fullback for the U-19s.
Wiley likely needs at least a half a season more before he is ready to debut with the first team, but that could be accelerated as he already attends the MLS preseason camp and regularly trains with his MLS counterparts.
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
The other extremely impressive 16-year-old on this list is centerback Noah Cobb. Cobb got his first chance with the 2s this past season and turned that into an impressive run of starts and substitute appearances that often showed how advanced he already is. Gaining strength and size will certainly benefit the young man who was sometimes bullied by some of the 30-year-old strikers facing him, but he has the speed, positioning, and tenacity to hold his own. Cobb likely returns to the 2s in 2022 after receiving an invitation to the senior preseason camp.
Another talented defender who could be returning to the club is Brown University’s Will Crain. After losing 2019 to injury and 2020 to a canceled Ivy League season, Crain made the most of his senior season as the captain and defensive anchor for Brown. Crain often lined up as the right centerback for Brown and could be shifted out to right-back due to his smaller size, good footwork, and crossing ability. If you watch Brown’s highlight reels you may be surprised to see Crain taking a lot of the free-kicks and corners on the right side of the field. The organization as a whole is thin at right-back so Crain could potentially find his way back to Atlanta by returning to the 2s in 2022. If he does not sign a Homegrown contract, he could potentially be the first-ever Atlanta United product selected in the MLS Superdraft.
Mercer’s attacking midfielder Dylan Gaither is our collegiate player of the year. In this third season for the Bears, Gaither became an offensive machine, wracking up a ridiculous 14 goals and 5 assists over 1424 minutes of play. A big part of this comes from his whopping 70% shots-on-goal percentage that saw him peppering opposing keepers every match. With just one more year of collegiate eligibility remaining and a Southern Conference championship and an NCAA playoff run under his belt, one has to wonder whether Atlanta United will allow him to return for one more season or bring him back as the go-to #10 for Atlanta United 2. Gaither and current 2s phenom Darwin Matheus are exactly the kind of inexpensive attacking dynamos Atlanta United needs.
Kept fighting and found the equalizer— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) June 10, 2021
Coleman Gannon is tonight’s Man of the Match pic.twitter.com/qixC2b3Z8m
We all thought fan-favorite attacker Coleman Gannon was headed to the University of Indiana but something else behind the scenes seems to have happened. Since he departed Atlanta United 2 over the summer, things have been very quiet surrounding Coleman Gannon, but I agree with Joe Patrick, who said on a recent podcast, “we haven’t seen the last of Coleman Gannon.”
These players are just a small portion of the talent pool. There are at least a dozen more who will likely remain in college for another year or two to continue their development, but for others like Jay Fortune, their first professional contract may come with Atlanta United 2.
Atlanta United 2’s backup goalkeeper Vicente Reyes is likely at the top of the list to receive a professional contract in 2022 with the 2s. Reyes looked good in relief of Rocco Ríos Novo and brings a nice compliment of size, skill, footwork, and control of the ball at his feet to be an intriguing prospect for Atlanta United. With Atlanta United’s goalkeeping corps on the advanced side of 30, the club is likely looking to develop plenty of in-house options for replacing Brad Guzan and Alec Kann in the next couple of years. We already mentioned Justin Garces as one of those options, but Reyes should not be left out of that conversation.
Academy midfielders Brendan Lambe (DM/CM) and David Mejia (attacker) also seem like strong candidates for professional contracts. Mejia continues to benefit from his time with the 2s, taking another massive leap forward in 2021. Mejia brings a great deal of danger to the field whenever he has the ball or the team is in transition. He is a fiery player who I have flatteringly compared to the Tazmanian Devil in the past. He may not be ready to jump to the MLS level yet but he is a player who the club should keep close. The same could be said for Brendan Lambe who looked good when called on to replace Will Reilly and Chris Allan in the 2s central midfield. He still has some work to do to improve his decision-making and ball retention but he is improving rapidly.
Georgia Southern’s defensive midfielder Alhaji Tambadu could also be in strong consideration for a 2s contract. He is not at the level you would want to return on a Homegrown contract but if he goes undrafted, the 5th-year senior could still make his way back to the 2s. He is a hard worker, a leader on and off of the field, and a tenacious player who can occasionally work his way into a goal. Tambadu has kept himself front and center for his former club, extending each of his seasons with the Georgia Revolution each summer.
Finally, we conclude this talented group of players with the athletic freak named Nigel Prince. Prince is a tall, lanky, and quick central defender who has all of the traits you look for in a stud central defender. He is still working on refining his game and adding to the technical side of it but he is still plenty impressive in the air and with the ball at his feet. The only downside for Prince is that he has a ton of competition for a roster spot at his position. Like Mejia, Prince is the kind of player you want to keep close before someone else has a chance to steal him.
That wraps up another review of some of Atlanta United’s wealth of talented youngsters. Who do you most want to see play for Atlanta United?