We return to the college ranks to check in on this year’s class of collegiate juniors. This is a mixed group of players with several filling key roles for their clubs but with others still looking to find their way into regular minutes. There are several players in this class who could make a strong case for MLS contracts if they continue their junior campaigns with strong senior seasons.
Clemson center forward and two-time team captain James Brighton is probably at the top of this trio of very talented strikers. He is a big man with a big personality. Brighton uses his large and powerful frame to control the game around the opponent’s defensive box, winning jump balls, holding up well, and winning rebounds around the 6-yard box. Unfortunately for Brighton, an early-season injury shut him down before he could make a big impact on the field but he did not let that stop him from the sidelines and from the practice field. Expect Brighton to be back as soon as he is able with an emboldened Clemson team looking to repeat their championship run.
A talented forward whose stats don’t show the full picture is Penn State’s Liam Butts. Butts 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 21 matches (starting 17) and managed a whopping 41 shots (21 on goal) but only scored on 4 of them, as part of the B1G Conference Championship team. He is doing a lot of things right in creating space for his teammates and helping set up shots through the build-up of play, so if his score touch returns in time for his senior season, he could be a key player to watch for Atlanta United and the rest of the MLS scouts in attendance.
Georgia Southern’s attacking talent Jeremiah Luoma has finally started to show what he can do at the college level thanks to a fantastic summer with Appalachian FC in which he earned the NPSL Southeast Conference Best XI and a return to a more natural forward or false-9 position on the field at GSU. Luoma is fast, agile, and is improving in every phase of his game. Georgia Southern is not a particularly good college program at the moment so any improvement from him in his ability to translate his natural ability into goals will catapult them up the standings in Sun Belt Conference.
The most exciting group of players in this class are the midfielders and leading this stellar group is Mercer’s #10 Dylan Gaither. Gaither is a product of both the academy and Atlanta United 2, and has started for Mercer in each of his three college seasons. 2021 was a breakout year for both Gaither and Mercer, a team that had been wallowing in mediocrity for several seasons. Gaither led his team with 14 goals and 5 assists in 19 matches from the attacking midfield position including a key goal in their playoff loss against Wake Forest. Gaither has been on fire this season with two hattricks and a brace to seal his team’s first Southern Conference championship. Gaither is certainly one to watch in his senior season because he is doing enough right now to prove he could still be a valuable asset for Atlanta United.
Another extremely talented midfielder vital to his team is Wake Forest’s metronomic central midfielder Takuma Suzuki. Suzuki has quietly emerged over his three seasons at Wake Forest, cementing himself as an essential presence in Coach Bobby Muuss’ midfield. Wake Forest is known for its ability to produce top-tier 6s and 8s and Suzuki seems to be right on track with that tradition. He won’t score goals for you but he will do everything else you need him to in order to facilitate the entire flow of the team. Occasionally he will get credits for assists and those usually come from beautiful balls over the top or through the defense from a deep-lying position. If we were to pick one player out of this class to sign a Homegrown contract, this is the player I would petition for.
Third-Team All-ACC honors— Wake Men's Soccer (@WakeMSoccer) December 15, 2021
13 points with 3 game-winning goals
Started all 18 of his appearances
Junior season in the for Omar pic.twitter.com/O3TlrwenUr
Wake Forest’s other dynamic and talented midfielder is #10 Omar Hernandez. While he didn’t have the jaw-dropping numbers like Gaither did this season, Hernandez still added 5 goals and 3 assists of his own while helping his attackers like Kyle Holcomb have career years. Wake Forest will be on Championship watch next season with Suzuki, Hernandez, and other seniors entering their prime.
Our remaining three players in this class are Mercer’s central midfielder Ousman Jabang, Georgia Southern’s Omar Mustafic, and Brown’s Nico Perez. Jabang had his best year yet for the ascendant Mercer Bears, contributing 4 goals and 7 assists from the holding midfield spot. Quite a few of those assists came courtesy of wondergoals from his academy teammate Dylan Gaither but that should not take away from Jabang’s strong season. Omar Mustafic is still trying to carve out his role with GSU’s Sea Eagles after arriving as a transfer ahead of the 2020 season. Nico Perez will also need to find ways to get more involved for his team after playing the fewest games of his career at Brown last season and failing to be named as a starter in any of them.
Luke Mitchell is at the core of Creighton’s defense and has been for three years. Mitchell‘s absence since September due to injury has forced the team to adapt and rush the development of his younger understudy. The team would love to have his defensive presence and vision back on the field for his senior campaign in 2022. He can play as both a centerback and as a fullback and has a nice ball-handling ability. He could get some attention in the draft if he comes back healthy.
NC State’s Kendall Edwards is one of the most confounding players to come from Atlanta United’s academy. He was everywhere, training with the first team in preseason camp, starting for the 2s, and was even rumored as a potential Homegrown player. All of that seems to have disappeared as he continues to struggle to make a consistent impact in college. Injuries have been partially to blame but it is mostly just a failure to breakthrough. He appeared in 11 matches and started in 5 against opponents that were admittedly minnows. Edwards needs a big senior campaign in the starter’s spot to avoid being completely bypassed by Atlanta United’s growing pool of talented centerbacks.
Syracuse’s Russell Shealy is the only goalkeeper of note in this class. After a bumpy start to his college career, Shealy seems to have righted the ship at Syracuse and has done almost everything he needs to do to prove he belongs there. Syracuse likes to rotate their goalkeepers in a platoon so Shealy only played in 9 matches this season but he looked very good in the opportunities he got. Shealy held opponents to 8 goals in his 9 starts (0.85 goal/90) and managed 4 shutouts. Shealy’s best game came against eventual-champions Clemson near the end of October when faced 12 shots and made 3 key saves to keep Clemson scoreless. The worst game came much earlier in the season against Penn State when he gave up 3 goals, was forced to make 4 saves, and faced 13 shots on the night. After Justin Garces, Shealy is easily the most impressive goalkeeper in Atlanta United’s college ranks and could garner some consideration from his former club after his senior season.
That wraps up this year’s class of junior 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 sophomores.