For the last two years, we have begun this article with a simple statement, that fans were about to witness 5-Stripes history. That was true both times I wrote it with the Homegrown signings of seniors Machop Chol and Bryce Washington forging the college-back-to-Atlanta pipeline and continued with the Homegrown signing of Justin Garces and newly anointed national champion Charlie Asensio becoming the first-ever Atlanta United Academy product selected in the MLS Superdraft by Austin FC as the 35th overall selection. 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, Syracuse goalkeeper Russell Shealy.
Russell Shealy is the Defensive MOP!!!— NCAA Soccer (@NCAASoccer) December 13, 2022
Congratulations to Nathan Opoku on being named the 2022 Most Outstanding Offensive Player of The NCAA Tournament! #MCollegeCup x @CuseMSOC pic.twitter.com/Y2vC3KqER1
Coming fresh off of his second championship in his “amateur” career, Russell may be looking to bring some of his pedigree and hard work back to the Benz. As a 5th-year senior, he brings a wealth of experience fighting for the right to start for an emerging ACC program that has to compete every week against top competition like Clemson, Virginia, and Wake Forest. After transferring from a strong University of Maryland program to Syracuse, Shealy was far from a lock at starter. He was forced to compete for every opportunity, playing the prior season as a platoon option at goalkeeper. He knew that he needed to set himself apart so he spent the last two summers playing in the 4th division for Atlanta’s Georgia Revolution in 2021 and then Reading United AC last summer.
All of that hard work paid off with Shealy winning the starting job in the preseason. Now in his 5th year of college soccer, Shealy is a developed and refined leader with strong ball tracking and stopping skills, blocking two penalties in the championship to give Syracuse their first championship in school history. Shealy also developed a strong ground and distribution game with a knack for launching devastating counterattacks through long throws, punts, and place kicks downfield. He was even credited with an assist off of one of these quick counters.
What I love about watching him play is that not only does he make the acrobatic save, he immediately pops up looking for an outlet first through his fullbacks and next downfield through a streaking forward running at the off-balance defenders.
This season, Shealy started all 24 matches that he played for a total of 2220 minutes. He had 10 clean sheets in those 24 matches and only allowed 18 goals allowed on 237 shots faced. His 72 saves gave him an impressive 80% save percentage that is in the top 10 league-wide.
By the time this article comes out, Shealy will likely have won more accolades but for now, in his 2022 season he has earned the NCAA Tournament Defensive Most Outstanding Player, 2022 Men’s College Cup All-Tournament Team, 2nd Team All-ACC, NCAA Tournament Third Team All-South Region, ACC 2022 Men’s Soccer Championship All-Tournament Most Valuable Player, and Two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors in 2022.
Shealy seems like a fantastic candidate to be our next Homegrown signing but the club is also very high on Justin Garces and Vicente Reyes so if they do not want to have the 3 signed goalkeepers behind Brad Guzan be Homegrowns, Shealy is unfortunately the odd man out. That will be a boon for another team who will get a phenomenal backup keeper on day one with a high chance of becoming a cornerstone MLS starter in his late 20s. The last great goalkeeper out of Syracuse was Toronto FC’s Alex Bono and Shealy is breaking several of Bono’s collegiate records.
To put Shealy’s season into perspective, at the beginning of this season, I thought I was going to be headlining this article with the exceptional group of midfielders who headline this class.
It is extremely difficult to rank these four players but the most likely to receive a Homegrown contract may be Wake Forest’s #6 Takuma Suzuki. Suzuki is a true product of the midfield factory that is Bobby Muuss’s Wake Forest. Across his four seasons playing in the ACC, Suzuki started 52 of the 59 matches in which he played at the extremely technical and mentally challenging holding midfield position in Muuss’s 4-3-3 scheme. He sometimes played in a double-pivot pairing and sometimes was the sole connector between the defense and the midfield. Suzuki developed a strong ability to drop in between the centerbacks and dictate the flow of the match. In a lot of ways, he resembles fellow academy product Will Reilly as a strong field general who can act as both a metronome and pressure release when he needs to dictate the tempo of play. He is a quality distributor of the ball from deep-lying positions and can be a late crashing runner in the kind of wave-upon-wave attacking movement Wake Forest throws at opponents. In his senior season, Suzuki started 20 matches for 1455 minutes and earned two assists and a 2022 ACC All-Tournament Team Selection. He would benefit from developing behind Ozzie Alonso and Santiago Sosa for a couple of seasons and could offer a lot of value as quality depth at the holding midfield position. If Atlanta United chooses to not sign him, he is an easy first-round draft pick for another MLS side.
Suzuki’s teammate Omar Hernandez had a tough senior season that was largely hampered by injuries. It is unlikely that he returns for another year to make up for his lost season so the few chances he got to impact the game proved to be extremely important. Luckily, he showed that he still has plenty of magic in him.
When healthy, Hernandez is a strong attacking technician at the #10 position with great vision and touch on the ball. At just shy of 6 feet tall, he has decent size for the position that pairs well with his mental and physical agility. He creates well for those around him and raises everyone’s game on the attacking side of the ball. He has a high level of understanding of the game and often acted as an extra coach on the sideline when unable to play. He will need time to continue to develop due to his lost senior season but he would be an immediate impact starter at the USL or MLS NEXT PRO level. His injury may make him fall to the low first round or upper second round but would be an excellent project for any MLS team that can be patient with him and frankly, he feels like exactly the kind of player Seattle would love to develop.
Mercer’s maestro, Dylan Gaither, is Atlanta United’s other brilliant #10 from this class. Gaither didn’t miss a beat when he moved from Atlanta United 2 to Mercer down the road in Macon. Over his college career, he started 69 of the 72 matches he played, scoring 30 goals and adding 20 assists from the attacking midfield position. He has shown that he can do it all as both the lead scorer and the lead assist-creator. In his senior season, he was tied for 9th in the country in assists with 10 and added an additional 6 goals himself to earn First-team All-Conference Southern Conference honors. His main competition in Atlanta United’s development pipeline is likely Jonny Villal and Tristan Trager so it will be interesting to see what interest Atlanta United has in bringing Gaither back. He has done everything they could have asked of him in a mid-major college conference.
The same could be said for Gaither’s teammate Ousman Jabang. Jabang is a highly versatile and technical central midfielder with a high soccer IQ and strong box-to-box abilities. He is quick and strong in the air with a centerback’s frame standing 6’2”. He is very capable in press schemes and in quickly winning the ball back on a turnover in the midfield, and can be a strong connector between the defense and attack. Many of Gaither’s chances came through Jabang’s work behind him. Jabang started 18 matches in his senior season for 1525 minutes. He scored 2 goals and added 5 assists with at least a dozen more hockey assists to his name. Jabang’s main issue with coming back to Atlanta United is Ajani Fortune. Fortune appears to be the future for the team at the #8 spot and with more talent pushing through the pipeline, it may be a numbers game for Jabang. Jabang is likely drafted in the second round and could become an MLS rotational player in the right system.
One player I and many others expected to be at the top of this class based on his two seasons with the 2s is Kendall Edwards. Unfortuntately for Edwards, his time at North Carolina State was a rocky and inconsistent period that slowed and diminished his projections. His senior season was a bit of a breakout year as he started 15 matches, playing 1534 minutes as part of a defense that held 6 opponents scoreless. He still has a strong profile as a defender and could do very well if he returns to the USL-Championship. The recent trade of homegrown defender George Campbell to CF Montreal may offer a glimmer of hope for Edwards but new Homegrown Noah Cobb and Wake Forest’s Garrison Tubbs seems like the more likely candidates to fill Campbell’s spot.
Another highly promising prospect who had an inconsistent college career is Penn State’s Liam Butts. Butts is a highly talent striker whose breakout freshman campaign created speculation around whether the could be named the top overall player in college soccer. Injuries and the COVID season threw off his momentum but he was able to come back in his senior season and produce a respectable campaign. He started 13 matches of the 16 he played (1051 minutes), scoring 8 goals and adding 3 assists. As the center forward, he produced three game-winning goals. His best matches came against Michigan State (brace), Indiana, and Ohio State from October 7-21, and those led to him being honored on the All-Big Ten Second Team. Butts would be a great player to bring back to the 2s if he makes it through the draft, and he could also be a strong starter for a USL-Championship side. He is quick, smart, and does a lot of the important build-up work that many teams look for from their striker.
Our other striker who had a bit of a breakout season was Mercer’s 5th year senior Michael Ille. Ille had mostly played as a substitute since he transferred from Clemson early in his college career. With Mercer’s top striker Trevor Martineau locked in as the starter, Ille was forced to carve out a supersub role and learn how to play as a wide forward. His hard work finally came through with 10 starts in 18 matches with 7 goals and 2 assists in his final season. If Ille chooses to continue his soccer career, an excellent home for him could be just down the road with the USL’s South Georgia Tormenta.
Another 5th-year senior who had a strong season was the University of South Carolina defensive leader Will Crain. Crain joined his former Academy boss Tony Annan at USC as a graduate transfer and acted as a sort of player-coach for this young USC team. Crain had previously captained some of his Atlanta United academy sides along with several of his teams at Brown. He brought that calm and technically sound defensive ability and played well in what could be his last season on the field. He would be an excellent player-coach for the 2s but it isn’t clear whether that would be the best use of his abilities. While Crain could play in the USL, his academic studies and experience with Annan suggest that he could transition over to the business side of the game soon and would be well-suited to a career in the front office or on the team staff.
Georgia State’s Clay Dawes is in a similar situation. He has been a core player for GSU for each of the 5 years he plays been part of that team. Injuries prolonged his time at GSU and forced him to become a versatile defender, playing as both a holding midfielder and centerback across GSU’s three-man backline. His task in his final season was to be a leader and mentor for a young group of players including his fellow academy product Evan Schroeder who had a fantastic freshman season. Dawes started 10 matches and accumulated 939 minutes across a total of 15 matches. He scored his first-ever college goal in 5-1 win over Winthrop on September 2nd and even had a key save against West Virginia on October 23rd. Injuries limited his ability to play in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and potentially ended his career.
Another core player for his side who is likely pondering his future is Yale’s Thomas Toney. Toney is beloved and highly impactful defender for Yale who was heavily impacted by the lost COVID season and injuries. Like Edwards, Toney had a lot of potential and a bright potential professional future that was impacted by factors outside of his control. He would do well in the USL if he chose that route. He has a big frame, good positioning, and a great presence on and off of the field.
For some players, the USL may not be the best option after college. Quite a few of our college products have benefitted from America’s 4th division both during and after college. One such player is NC State’s Jeremiah Luoma. Luoma transferred to NC State for his senior season after seeing the program at Georgia Southern take a nose dive during his three years at the school. He was often played out of position and given inconsistent opportunities to show what he can do. Luoma is fast and is a great chance creator as an attacking player. He can play as a False-9, a center forward, a wide forward, or even a 10 if needed. He did all of that for the NPSL’s Appalachian FC last summer and became an immediate fan favorite. After struggling to get on the field for NC State, Luoma would benefit greatly from heading back to Boone for another season with Appalachian FC. From there, he can continue his development and work his way up the soccer pyramid to the USL.
The same is true for Blake White who transferred out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 2021 to play for Rheingold University of the NAIA. The NAIA is a lower division of college sports where White should hand and did excel. He broke out against lesser competition, scoring 10 goals and adding 5 assists in 15 starts in 2022. White has also spent a lot of time playing for Atlanta-area 4th division teams in the summer including Peachtree City MOBA (2018), Georgia Revolution (2019), Apotheos FC (2022) and FC Matata (2022) and will likely continue that until he can land in a higher league.
Congratulations to this impressive class of seniors. Next, we will review a talented class of Juniors led by Garrison Tubbs and Danny Mangarov.