Welcome back, Justin Garces!
Grateful to be back and join this amazing club! ⚫️ https://t.co/WXDdvu2RMq— garces (@garcesjustin1) January 10, 2022
After an impressive four-year college career between the posts for UCLA, the 21-year-old Justin Garces returned to Atlanta United as the team’s first-ever Homegrown goalkeeper. Garces boasts consistency and a strong shot-stopping ability with an improving ability with the ball at his feet. The team is getting an experienced, courageous, and athletic goalkeeper who has just about seen and done it all. So far, he has played at both the academy and 2s level for Atlanta United and in the U-17 World Cup for the United States alongside Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin. Garces comes to Atlanta following one of his best seasons that often involved him standing on his head in plenty of wild matches to make some great saves, 36 in all for a career-high 72% save percentage and a tiny 1.16 goals/90. A heroic save in November cut his season short and kept him out of his only chance at the playoffs in a Bruins uniform, but he enters camp healthy and ready to learn from Brad Guzan and train alongside Dylan Castanheira. He already has a lot of familiarity with his teammates, training during his collegiate summers back in Atlanta and in his hometown of Miami. With a contract running through 2024, Garces has a real chance to position himself as a potential successor for Guzan.
His primary internal competition to be Guzan’s heir will come from fellow academy graduate Vicente Reyes, who at 19 just signed his first professional contract with Atlanta United 2. Garces and Reyes will serve as the backbone of a young and talented goalkeeper corps that will excite and enthrall fans for years to come.
Players like Garces, Machop Chol, and Bryce Washington all serve as role models for players who take the collegiate development track in their soccer journeys. Atlanta United currently has a growing talent pool permeating every level of college soccer that will continue to cycle top talent back to the club for years to come. Some players like Charlie Asensio will earn opportunities with other clubs through the Superdraft, but there will still be a place for elite college athletes on Atlanta United’s roster.
Another element that will impact the team’s player development and roster management strategy will be how MLS NEXT PRO teams are allowed to construct their rosters. Carlos Bocanegra sees a tangible opportunity for his young academy standouts. With Atlanta United 2 entering its final year in the USL-Championship, we may be witnessing the beginning of the next iteration of player development strategy with the recent signings of Jay Fortune, David Mejia, Vicente Reyes, and Jonathan Villal to their first professional contracts. With the maturation of the academy and increasingly robust pool of talent at its upper levels, Bocanegra signaled a shift in 2s roster construction where academy players and players signed from the academy make up the majority of the roster. Unlike collegiate players who must be signed to Homegrown contracts to avoid the MLS Superdraft, academy players can sign 2s deals to extend their development, keep them with the club, and reward their talent and work. Academy standouts with 2s experience who would have otherwise been named to these speculative lists like Danial Sebhatu (F), Brendan Lambe (CM), and Luke Brennan (F/W) now have the stepping stone of a 2s contract to help them prepare for the expectations of a Homegrown contract. But that is not a bad thing, and it begs the question as to whether past homegrown players who no longer remain in the organization may have been better served by this new model.
With all of this context in mind, here are five current and former academy athletes who could realistically become our next homegrown player.
If our next signing comes during the summer, that player is more likely to come directly from the academy. The readiest player in the academy right now for MLS minutes is George Bello’s heir at left-back, Caleb Wiley. Wiley’s timeline to a Homegrown contract likely is aligned with when George Bello is sold overseas. While Wiley is not yet ready to start at the MLS level, Andrew Gutman can fill in for as long as needed whether that is half a season or through the summer of 2023. The club’s internal assessment of Wiley’s proximity to MLS minutes also likely swayed the team away from signing Charlie Asensio since they are currently four-deep with Bello, Gutmann, Mikey Ambrose, and Wiley at left-back.
Wiley is doing everything he can and should to earn that first contract, and Atlanta United should do everything the club can to ensure that his first contract is not in Europe. 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 is already a more dynamic and intriguing product than George Bello and is likely being watched closely by teams around the world.
It seems almost unheard of that another player could be picked before Wiley from the academy but if anyone could make his case to be that player, he would be Noah Cobb.
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
Cobb got his first chance with the 2s at 16-years-old 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. He will gain valuable experience alongside fellow homegrown players Bryce Washington, George Campbell, and Efrain Morales as they form a deep and impressive group competing succeed Miles Robinson and Alan Franco as the club’s first-choice tandem.
If the club chooses to sign these two talented youngsters to 2s contracts, instead, our next Homegrown Player may come from the college ranks next winter. Current rising seniors Dylan Gaither (AM), Takuma Suzuki (DM), Ousman Jabang (CM), and Russell Shealy (GK) could all be viable candidates for that next invitation back to the Benz.
The most promising pool 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. 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 with two hattricks and a brace to seal a Southern Conference championship for Mercer. With the club showing a strong interest in direct and dynamic attacking players in the most recent draft, 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 he returns to Atlanta United, Suzuki will fill the role of valuable depth in the midfield who needs to continue his development to reach the speed and level of play of MLS, but who could turn into a reliable and affordable option behind Emerson Hyndman, Mattheus Rossetto, and Santiago Sosa.
Ousman Jabang had his best year yet for the ascendant Mercer Bears, contributing 4 goals and 7 assists from the central 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. Jabang does not get the accolades or attention that Gaither and Trevor Martineau receive in Macon, Georgia but he quietly earned a higher ranking in the Southern Conference than Gaither as the #5 overall player. With the club generally investing Designated Player and U-22 Young Player money into attacking positions, Jabang’s talent and versatility between the holding and central midfield may make him a more compelling candidate than some of his more attack-minded fellow alumni. He has more attacking responsibilities than other central and holding midfielders like Suzuki, which explains the flashier stats, but he can also do the work of a destroyer when called upon. His tall 6’2” frame could probably use some more strength and bulk on it to fully take on the role of a destroyer in an MLS midfield, but with that physical development, we could see Jabang talked about much in the same way Notre Dame’s Mo Omar was discussed in the lead-up to the 2022 Superdraft.
Syracuse’s Russell Shealy is the only goalkeeper in this group because Garces and Reyes’s 2022 seasons will likely impact whether he returns to Atlanta United. Like Garces, Shealy has overcome a lot of adversity in his college career and has put in the work to prove he is a starter at Syracuse and in the professional game. After training with the Georgia Revolution last summer, Shealy will likely continue to showcase himself and keep on top of his training ahead of what will be a pivotal senior season for him. In a junior year that saw him used as a platoon keeper, 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 if Garces shows enough to be Guzan’s primary back-up.
The future looks bright for Atlanta United’s Academy and for the club’s maturing pipeline of talented youngsters. Not only does the quality of players continue to improve, so does the club’s ability to reward their young talent with opportunities. With the dawning of MLS NEXT PRO, we will likely see a lot more talent following in George Bello and George Campbell’s footsteps to meaningful roles with the first team and possibly to high-profile clubs overseas.
Which of these players are you most excited to see at the Benz one day?