With Bryce Washington returning to Atlanta United as the club’s 11th homegrown signing and second collegiate signing, the club solidified its willingness to reward talented players whether they are still in the academy or are in the club’s collegiate diaspora. The path to the pros is not as important as the quality of the individual who emerges from that path. With the academy maturing into a high-quality talent-producing machine, fans should not expect an imminent shift in philosophy following the departure of Academy Director Tony Annan. The club will continue to emphasize the trend of intelligent, high-quality, versatile athletes that began with George Bello.
The next signing could come at a couple of different points this year. The MLS NEXT season ends in June so most of the academy’s U-18/19 players will begin either their collegiate or professional careers. The club has previously superseded academy players’ collegiate commitments when it signed Lagos Kunga (Furman University) and George Campbell (University of Maryland) before they could depart. The club could do the same with two Atlanta United 2s regulars this summer.
Will Reilly has been a core player for Atlanta United’s academy and the 2s for years. It feels like he has been around forever because he has. Reilly has maturity and polish beyond his years and has made great strides at improving his defense, strength, and ability to stay on the ball through physical challenges. Will Reilly is currently committed to play for Stanford this fall. While it would not be a bad move for him to join one of the consistently best collegiate programs in the country, he would be better served to stay with Atlanta as a professional to learn and grow with the club and to compete every day against the likes of Miguel Ibarra and Santiago Sosa. Reilly is a facilitator, a box-to-box player, and a brilliant metronomic presence who can play at both the central midfield and holding midfield positions. In previous seasons he played a little deeper, dropping between the center backs to shuttle the ball forward, launch the offense, and clean up any turnovers. While he could play a similar role to Santiago Sosa, or Michael Bradley for that matter, Reilly looks better as the link between a more physical defensive midfielder and a more dynamic and shifty attacking midfielder. As that glue that can hold together the midfield and link the entire system, Reilly can show his range and his technical prowess to grow into a real talent for the club and potentially for his country.
Like Reilly, Coleman Gannon has played a key part at the club from the academy to the 2s for a long time. Gannon plays the kind of dynamic and versatile attacking role that is central to the identity of the 2s and hopefully becoming so for the main team. Gannon is primarily a wing but can tuck in to play under the center forward as a combo attacking midfielder and second striker. Gannon is quick, plays above his size, has good control with the ball at his feet, and is an intelligent runner off of the ball. Best of all, Gannon has a nose for the goal and is unafraid to make lung-busting runs deep into the match. He is currently committed to Indiana which is also one of the top college programs in the country. He would immediately become one of the best attacking players in college and could compete with older players for the prestigious Mac Hermann award. Currently, Gannon is competing with the organization’s other wing talents for minutes with the 2s, but with depth on the attacking side of the ball looking thin, Gannon may be in a perfect position to earn his first professional contract and minutes this season.
If Atlanta United chooses to allow Reilly and Gannon to depart for college, they may look to their younger academy players for their next Homegrown signing.
Caleb Wiley remains one of the most exciting young players in Atlanta United’s academy. With George Bello growing before our eyes (and the eyes of European suitors) Atlanta United may need to start looking for his successor. Luckily, the club will soon have the luxury of a second talented young left-back on track to have a career beyond MLS in Europe. Wiley grew a lot physically and technically in the off-season, stepping onto the USL pitch in 2021 with a lot to prove. Though he may be forced to share 2s minutes with MLS Reserve Mikey Ambrose, Wiley is the real star of the show. Wiley plays with a lot of speed, grit, and poise that continues to make him seem older than the 16-year-old player that he is. He has developed into a competent two-way fullback with a lot of confidence with the ball at his feet and with room to run in front of him. Several times already in the 2021 season, he has cut inside from the left flank and made full-field runs into the opposition’s box. He is the prototypical player that Coach Gabriel Heinze is looking for at the position. With a packed schedule ahead for the 2s, look for Riley to rack up plenty of minutes to force the club’s hand. He will be in the 1st team camp in 2022, the only question is whether he will be doing so as an academy player or as a professional. Right now, we are leaning towards the latter.
Vicente Reyes finds himself in an interesting position. He is clearly the best and most advanced goalkeeper in his class. He is a physical specimen for a young goalkeeper with a long lanky frame, and may yet add some size. He is confident with the ball at his feet and has above-average shot-stopping abilities. All signs point toward him having a future with the club, but there’s one snag. He currently competes for time with another legitimate talent, Rocco Ríos Novo. Both players have plenty of reason to lay claim to being the heir apparent to Brad Guzan but the club may be leaning more towards the older (and more expensive) Novo at the moment. This is an excellent problem for the club to have, but Reyes needs to ensure he gets every opportunity to develop and succeed. He likely is too advanced to choose college in 2022 so it will be imperative for the club to carefully manage his contract situation to ensure he remains in Atlanta.
Two other talented youngsters who may be headed for Homegrown contracts are midfielder Brendan Lambe and defender Noah Cobb. Lambe is a bulldog central midfielder who has a powerful goalscoring cannon built into his leg and a complete lack of fear in the middle of the park. He is the perfect double-pivot compliment for Will Reilly as a player who can be a defensive destroyer but also a force in the attacking half. The closest comparison I can think of is Weston McKennie. Lambe is still young but is getting sporadic minutes with the 2s that should increase as the academy season ends this month.
Noah Cobb is even younger but he has been a high-priority player for the club even before he debuted in the academy’s official photoshoot alongside Nigel Prince, Vicente Reyes, and David Mejia. Like most of the players listed here, his game is much more mature than his age would indicate. He is calm, poised, and makes calculated angles on and off of the ball to win the highly cerebral positional battle between defenders and attackers. With the right instruction, Cobb could grow into a defender in the style of a Michael Parkhurst who uses his combination of intelligence and athleticism to be several steps ahead of his competition and to lead his team from the back. He is further away than the other academy players on this list but he is a highly intriguing U-16 to watch.
If Atlanta United waits until the winter to sign its next Homegrown, that player may become the third Homegrown to return from college. The club has a larger number of Homegrown-eligible seniors this season and several could offer intriguing depth opportunities for the club.
If you have been following our NCAA recaps, you should recognize a lot of these names. At the top of that list is Clemson left-back Charlie Asensio. Asensio enters his senior season this fall as a 4-year starter for the Clemson defense and has remained a quiet but constant presence for the team on and off of the field. He has a championship pedigree, racking up accolades with the Clemson Tigers and the Atlanta United academy. He is an intelligent and technical player who can read the game at a high level. With Andrew Gutmann likely returning the club after his season-long loan to the New York Red Bulls, and with George Bello’s potential sale to Europe on the horizon, Atlanta will find itself in an intriguing position to mix up its depth at the position. Asensio could very well find himself in competition with Mikey Ambrose for the #2 left-back spot on the MLS club in 2022.
If you are looking for a talented player with a lot to prove and a desperate need to be on a better team, look no further than UCLA’s goalkeeper, Justin Garces. Garces’ addition to the academy was a huge coup for Tony Annan. Garces was a United States youth international goalkeeper with the U-17s and met with a lot of suitors before choosing to move to Atlanta from Miami. Garces played extensively for the United States’s youth program alongside Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin with the U-17s, and more recently, Garces with the U-20s and the U-19s following his sole youth World Cup experience with the U-17s in India. UCLA has been dreadful during Garces’s three years with the program and that is of no fault of his own. Garces has faced a high volume of shots, heroically held his team’s defense together, and kept UCLA alive in games that should have been even more lopsided. He has the experience, humility, and toughness to succeed at the next level, so Atlanta may be very tempted to give him that chance. A goalkeeping corps of Novo, Reyes, and Garces would be the youngest and best in the MLS by far and could remain dominant for years to come.
Like Garces, Aldair Cortes needed to escape from a very bad Georgia Southern team. Luckily, due to the peculiarities of the pandemic season, he gets to play his redshirt senior season with High Point University. Cortes is a leader for his team and a highly versatile player capable of playing in the midfield and at the fullback position. Cortes would bring a wealth of experience. maturity, and leadership ability back to Atlanta United and could immediately make an impact for the 2s. He could play multiple defensive positions like Bradley Kamdem Fewo or Laurence Wyke or play as a dynamic fullback like Aidan McFadden but with more of a defense-first focus. Either way, he is certainly a player the club will be keeping an eye on.
The youngest of this group of college players is Garrison Tubbs. While it would be tempting to leave Tubbs in the top-level Wake Forest soccer program for the full four years under Coach Bobby Muus, he may be ready to play well before then. Tubbs has already been a standout as a freshman after stepping in for an injured Michael DeShields. As a presumptive starter in 2021, Tubbs will look to lead a much younger defensive group made up of mostly academy graduates. Tubbs already showed his ability to play up to the professional game with the 2s in 2019 and 2020 so the timing of his return may come down to how long the club thinks it can afford to not sign him.
There is so much talent in this organization and most of that credit goes to the club’s first Academy Director Tony Annan. With the successive waves of top talent coming through the system, the club has a plethora of options in the coming seasons including a wealth of defenders like Nigel Prince, Remi Okunlola, and Kobey Stoup, plus talented midfielders like Ajani Fortune, Owen Wolff, and David Mejia. Forwards Andy Sullins and Amari Salley have already committed as high school Juniors to play for the top-tier University of Virginia.
Younger players to be excited about include midfielders Ty Villal, Mathieu Brick, Matthew Dejianne, and Bryce Jamison who introduced himself to the fandom with two world-class volleys last weekend.
U-15 Bryce Jamison blessed us with 2️⃣ worldies yesterday— ATLUTD Academy (@AcademyATLUTD) May 30, 2021
We’ll be watching these on repeat until MLS Academy Cup resumes on Monday! pic.twitter.com/kqLfGk1Erj
Defenders Malachi Grant and Tyrell Moore are worth our attention as are Forwards Danial Sebhatu, Ty Wilson, and Italo Jenkins. Elijah Buford could be the next keeper in the pipeline as could Dagoberto Romero.
Atlanta United has two other graduating seniors Kareve Richards (CB - Mercer) and Alhaji Tambadu (DM - Georgia Southern & Georgia Revolution) to consider, but there has been little indication the club has a high interest in either player. Richards was a 4-year starter for Mercer and can play both center back and the #6 sweeper position. Tambadu is more of a traditional #6 and can play as a bruising central midfielder, too. Both players have a future in the USL as their floor and Richards’ Canadian citizenship should garner the attention of some of the Canadian Premier League teams.
There is a lot to be excited about with this team, so as Matthew Lawry takes the reins as the new Academy Director, he will be inheriting a promising future for the program and the entire organization. With that legacy, he inherits a now-tried-and-true system for success from his predecessor that should yield promising results well into this decade.