Last year, we began this article with a simple statement, that fans were about to witness 5-Stripes history. That was true then with the Homegrown signings of seniors Machop Chol and Bryce Washington forging the college-back-to-Atlanta pipeline, and could be true this year too but with a growing number of Superdraft eligible players who may earn the honor of being the first-ever Atlanta United Academy product selected in the MLS Superdraft. Last year, Mercer’s centerback Kareve Richards was the first player to be listed in the draft pool but went unselected. This year, there are quite a few more players, several of whom represent compelling Homegrown player options or Atlanta United 2 signings if they manage to evade being drafted by another club.
We begin with the most decorated and potentially most pro-ready of this class of seniors, Clemson left-back Charlie Asensio. Coming fresh off of his second championship in his “amateur” career, Charlie may be looking to bring some of his pedigree and good fortune back to the Benz.
Many of you who follow our coverage of potential Homegrown signings and college prospects are likely very familiar with Asensio. He routinely appears on our lists of players to watch and is widely discussed as a potential insurance policy for if George Bello departs this winter and academy phenom Caleb Wiley is not ready to challenge Andrew Gutman and Mikey Ambrose for minutes in MLS.
Asensio is an experienced and intelligent left-back who has performed and served in a leadership role at every level he has played so far. He is a four-year starter at Clemson and has the durability to play nearly every minute of those four years. He is not the flashiest or shiftiest player at his position but brings a lot of intangibles and intuition to the position that will help him adjust to the professional game. He has good positioning, good pace, good defensive instincts, and will occasionally stun an opponent with a pin-point cross.
Our other senior who may end up with a Homegrown contract is UCLA’s captain and 4-year starter at goalkeeper, Justin Garces.
The stars seemed to align in 2021 for Garces. After years of standing on his head to keep brutal seasons from looking far worse, Garces finally had a good team in front of him. He still had plenty of wild matches that forced him to make some great saves, 36 in all for a career-high 72% save percentage and a tiny 1.16 goals/90.
Unfortunately for Garces, a heroic save in November cut his season short, keeping him out of his only chance at the playoffs in a Bruins uniform. We do not know the extent of his injury or whether that will be something of concern for Atlanta United ahead of the draft but he is a capable and experienced young goalkeeper who already has US Youth National Team pedigree, playing alongside Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin at the U-17 World Cup.
Our next player has already won a trophy for Atlanta United. In fact, he and Asensio were teammates on the U-17 side that won the club’s first-ever cup. Brown’s senior captain and right-back Will Crain has had a long road to getting back on the field but he left everything on it in his last season of college soccer.
After losing his sophomore season to an injury in 2019, a now-healthy Crain saw his junior season canceled when the Ivy League decided to cancel all athletics during the opening year of the pandemic.
Crain is a talented defender, natural leader, and capable set-piece wizard often tasked with set pieces and corner kicks up the right flank. He needs some time to develop after losing two key years of playing time so he would be an ideal player for Atlanta United 2. Crain and McFadden could either platoon at right-back or Crain could push McFadden further forward into his more natural forward position on the wing.
Another player who could be returning to Atlanta through the 2s could be Georgia Southern defensive midfielder Alhaji Tambadu .
If you are sensing a trend with these players so far, it is leadership. Tambadu is another player on this list who is a vital part of his team. His work ethic and determination to continue developing himself as a player is best shown by his three seasons of summer-league soccer with the NPSL’s Georgia Revolution. He can play as both an 8 or as a 6 and will likely be called on to be a multi-purpose midfielder in the professional ranks. It is hard to say what his highest level of competition may be but it seems realistic to project him in the USL-Championship at this time.
A few other seniors who will be making some key decisions about their future later this month are Georgia State’s multi-purpose defender Clayton Dawes and winger Victor Pereyra-Zavala, and Mercer’s center-forward Mike Ille. Dawes is the most experienced of this group and will probably be the most intriguing for USL-Championship teams. Ille is a bit of a late bloomer, finally making an impact in his redshirt senior season as Trever Martineau’s back-up. The future for Pereyra-Zavala is a little bit more unclear since he disappeared from the roster due to an apparent injury near the beginning of the season, so he may be back with GSU for another year.
Another senior who had a dormant season is the former Georgia Southern captain Aldair Cortes. At the beginning of the 2020 season, we learned that he was transferring to High Point University. In what would have been his redshirt season, Cortes was nowhere to be found on the High Point roster which leads us to believe he is redshirting and will play his final season in 2022.
That wraps up this year’s class of senior prospects. Let us know which of these guys you would like to see play for Atlanta United or Atlanta United 2. We will continue this series soon with the juniors.