As the world prepares for the World Cup to kick off, American college soccer also prepares for its own clash of elite programs from across the country. In just its short life, Atlanta United has already made a mark in this corner of the game, supplying dozens of talented players to the top teams in the most elite conferences. Last season, Atlanta’s own Charlie Asensio and James Brighton hoisted the league’s championship trophy in their senior seasons. This season, fourteen more players across eight teams hope it will be their turn.
Of the 48 teams selected for the tournament, 7 teams feature at least one Atlanta United Academy graduate or former draft pick while several others include players that were formerly part of the academy at a younger age. This field of teams was officially selected from the 23 conference champions who received automatic qualifications and an additional 25 teams that received invitations after strong seasons. The top 16 teams receive first-round byes.
All first-round games will take place on Thursday, Nov. 17, at the campus site of the higher seed, while all second-round action will take place Sunday, Nov. 20. The third round will be played on Nov. 26 and 27, and the quarterfinals will continue on Dec. 2 and 3.
The field will thin through single elimination until the final three matches of the Men’s College Cup on Dec. 9 and 12 at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
The most exciting quadrant of the bracket for Atlanta United fans will be the absolutely stacked bottom left where Stanford, Wake Forest, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia will all be competing.
Stanford leads this group as the top seed. At the heart of this Stanford University team is sophomore Will Reilly. Many fans may remember Reilly from his exceptional play with the 2s. After taking half of his freshman campaign to work his way into the regular rotation, Reilly has cemented himself as the same steady and reliable midfield rock that he was for the 2s. At Stanford, he has more room to see the field and advance with the ball into attacking zones. In just his second year, he has already scored more goals than in his multiple seasons with the 2s. Stanford is a strong school for developing midfielders and Reilly appears to be one of them.
The main competition for Stanford will be the University of Virginia. UVA is a disciplined and experienced team that is hungry for post-season redemption after uncharacteristically missing the tournament in their last two seasons. The Hoos got a much-needed injection of midfield creativity from junior transfer Daniel Mangarov who has a strong ability to split lines with his passing and create openings for the quick forwards ahead of him. His fellow academy graduate Andy Sullins is occasionally that target as he comes off of the bench and shows the same kinds of dynamism that enchanted fans in his one season with the 2s. Sophomore Asparuh Slavov offers a valuable lockdown ability in the midfield from off of the bench, and freshman winger Amari Sally continues to wait for his collegiate debut.
The deepest team in this group, and potentially in the tournament, is Wake Forest. This perennially excellent program returns to the tournament under the expert guidance of Coach Bobby Muuss. Leading this group is the junior captain Garrison Tubbs. After just a short time watching this team, you can see why Tubbs is the leader. He is a highly vocal centerback, shifting and coaching his teammates all over the field. He lines up next to an equally talented NYCFC product Prince Amponsah, forming one of the most athletic centerback duos in all of college soccer. The other on-field general for the Demon Deacons is senior central midfielder, Takuma Suzuki. Suzuki is Wake Forest’s Darlington Nagbe. He covers the entire field and has a metronomic ability similar to what Will Reilly brings to Stanford. He is cool and collected as a game manager, and has an advanced ability to split defenders with balls over the top like Daniel Mangarov. While he may go unnoticed at times, there’s a very good reason why he was one of two Atlanta United products named to the All-ACC Tournament Team this season. Two other players who could be impact subs off of the bench are Omar Hernandez and Chase Oliver. Hernandez had a slow start to his season due to injury issues. The senior is vitally important to the team and was expected to be the starting #10. Despite his limited availability, he can still come on and score a world-class goal off of a setpiece when needed. Oliver brings speed on the flanks and has stiff competition for opportunities but when he gets his chances, magic often happens.
The other team that could be a cinderella story from this group is the University of North Carolina. UNC had a very good season but ran into the buzzsaw that is the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament at the end of their season. One of their strengths is their defense, in part thanks to sophomore centerback Matthew Edwards. Like many of the players on this list, he too played for the 2s and is also the younger brother of academy graduate and NC State senior Kendall Edwards. Matthew is a tall and rangy defender with good skills in the air. He can play at both centerback and fullback positions but will likely lock in long-term at centerback due to his size and strong ball-handling ability. In some ways, he is similar to his former teammate Grant Howard who had a breakout season at Virginia Tech after a strong summer with the 2s.
UNC vs High Point
Wake Forest vs Ohio State
Stanford vs (winner of UNC vs High Point)
UVA vs (winner of Elon vs Marshall)
The most interesting storyline of the tournament will be whether Clemson gets a rematch with Syracuse after losing in the ACC Tournament.
For Atlanta United fans though, loyalties may be leaning toward Syracuse this season. Senior goalkeeper Russell Shealy is having a season to remember and is already breaking school records for clean-sheets set by Alex Bono years before. Shealy has strong reflexes, good instincts, a solid ability to play the ball with his feet, and the kind of tough but in-control attitude you want from an experienced goalkeeper. He can cool a game off when needed and can stand on his head when his defenders get beaten. Of all of the talented Atlanta United products in his senior class, he may be my favorite, and with news of Atlanta United clearing out their goalkeeper room behind Brad Guzan and homegrown keeper Justin Garces, Shealy may be playing his way into a return to Atlanta.
Syracuse vs (winner of Penn vs Rutgers)
The final corner of the bracket that we will cover features a few players with fewer direct links to Atlanta United. The most direct is academy graduate Miguel Ramirez who plays as a forward for Duke. Ramirez is a really good workhorse forward who can play wide or as a second forward. He has often been overshadowed by stellar talents at the forward position and this year has been no different. But, Ramirez still creates his opportunities off of the bench and can add goals and assists from his high work rate.
Another forward in this group is Atlanta United’s fourth pick in the 2022 MLS Superdraft, Tola Showunmi. After failing to sign with Atlanta United or Atlanta United 2 in the preseason, Showunmi returned to New Hampshire where he worked his way back from injury to offer the same kind of veteran scoring presence that got him drafted in the first place. He is tall, quick, and can play across the top line of a 4-3-3. While Atlanta United still has his rights until the next draft, it is unlikely that he will be getting a contract unless he has one of the greatest tournaments of all time.
Finally, former academy goalkeeper Ryan Schewe returns to the tournament with a strong Georgetown team. Schewe did not graduate with the academy but is one of the top players to come out of the Atlanta area from the class of players born in 2002. He is a strong shot blocker and an overall great goalkeeper who will need to be at the top of his game if Georgetown advances past Navy to face Tulsa and Washington.
New Hampshire vs Seton Hall
Navy vs Georgetown
Duke vs (winner of Denver vs San Diego)
Congratulations to all of these young players. They represent only a small part of the Atlanta United diaspora currently filling the college ranks. We are so proud of their development and look forward to seeing them continue to showcase the talent coming out of Georgia.