The 2023 MLS Superdraft is nearly upon us and the biggest surprise so far is the “tentatively” official list of eligible draft picks. It is important to note that this list of 364 players from 143 different schools is still labeled as tentative so players may be taken off of this list prior to the draft. Academy prospects that we’ve covered in the NCAA season recaps for Seniors and Juniors like Liam Butts, Dylan Gaither, Mike Ille, Will Crain, Ousman Jabang, Kendall Edwards, Russell Shealy, Luke Mitchell, Takuma Suzuki, Thomas Toney, Collin Travasos, and Jeremiah Luoma are all available in the upcoming draft as part of a massive graduating class of former 5-Stripes players. It is entirely likely that a few of these guys will make it through the draft to potentially return via MLS NEXT PRO contracts or through division 4 teams in Atlanta, but we could also see several selected by other clubs. Omar Hernandez was the only senior not on the list so he is either heading back to Wake Forest for another campaign or something may be in the works between Hernandez and Atlanta United. Last season, Atlanta United welcomed Justin Garces back to the club as a Homegrown player and saw Charlie Asensio become the first-ever Atlanta United product selected in the Superdraft. We’ll see who becomes the second-ever drafted Atlanta United product.
Atlanta United only has two picks this year, but the club will make the 7th and 36th overall picks in the first two rounds so there will be plenty of talent to choose from. Nashville currently holds Atlanta’s 3rd round pick which was part of a trade for one of Nashville’s international slots last season.
Last year, the club focused completely on the attacking side of the ball with all four draft picks. Generation Adidas signing Eric Centeno was the first overall pick and spent his season on loan with the 2s. Second-round pick Tristan Trager joined the 2s after working out a compromise on his military service requirement with the Air Force Academy. He had a strong season as Jackson Conway’s attacking partner and could vie for first-team minutes if his momentum continues next season. Atlanta selected Penn State’s Danny Bloyou in the third round, but Bloyou ended up signing with FC Tulsa instead after appearing in several preseason friendlies with Atlanta United. Fourth-round pick Tola Showunmi returned to the University of New Hampshire for a fifth season after going unsigned by Atlanta but Atlanta retained his MLS rights until the end of 2022.
A small war chest of picks this year is not necessarily a bad thing for Atlanta. Over the past two seasons, Atlanta has supplemented their drafts with several collegiate Homegrown Players who have provided valuable depth with the 2s and the first team. Machop Chol and Justin Garces remain with the club ahead of the 2023 season while Bryce Washington was released to clear a path for Noah Cobb on the centerback depth chart.
Heading into 2023, Atlanta United seems fairly set at several positions with strong developmental depth at goalkeeper, centerback, and fullback. Ajani Fortune also appears to be the future in the central midfield but there is room ahead of him if Amar Sejdic does not return to the club and if Mattheus Rossetto or Emerson Hyndman are sold or traded this offseason. The club also has a lot of depth on the wings after signing Dereck Etienne but could potentially add another body there. The central forward position could also see another player added to compete with Dom Dwyer and Jackson Conway behind Josef Martinez or whomever the future starting #9 will be. So for our purposes, we will look for the best player available at each pick while putting more focus on the attack and the central midfield. We will also prioritize players who will not require an international slot or who may be Generation Adidas signees so that we can limit their impact on roster mechanics.
7th Overall pick 1st Round
There are a ton of questions surrounding the #9 position for Atlanta United. With Josef Martinez rumored to be on the move and Ronaldo Cisneros returning to Guadalajara, the only two locks for the center forward position are Dom Dwyer and Homegrown center forward Jackson Conway. While Conway seems to be primed for a big step forward in 2023, he and Dwyer will likely need some help at the position. Cue the top-performing college striker in the country.
Our first option for the 7th overall pick is Creighton’s Duncan McGuire.
McGuire exploded onto the scene in his senior campaign with 23 goals and 3 assists, surprising everyone including himself. But if you look a little bit deeper and peel back the veneer of humility, you can see the talent and work rate that produced one of the top center forwards in college soccer. “When I got here, Duncan was a utility player, came off the bench,” senior midfielder Callum Watson told the Omaha World-Herald. “He’s worked his you-know-what off the past three years and obviously so happy for him.” As a full-time starter for the first time in his four years at Creighton, McGuire went on a tear, scoring in 16 of the 24 matches he played on the season, putting 40 of his 65 shots on goal. Naturally, he became the primary option from the penalty spot, converting 7 of 8 penalty kicks on the season. He also created a lot of opportunities for his teammates.
“Other teams worry about Duncan, so Duncan can take away two, three guys and leave other players free. That’s a huge, huge thing for us because me, Jackson (Castro), we can have more space,” said Giorgio Probo, who lead the Jays with 11 assists. “And also he is very confident right now. Every time we need a goal, we get Duncan the ball. He’s going to score.”
Between his work at Creighton and in USL League Two with Lane United, McGuire became a dynamic and technically proficient forward who can command the game as a sole striker with his 6’1” frame, but also run circles around defenders to make their and the goalkeeper’s lives miserable for 90 minutes. He is a strong, hardworking forward with great vision and the ability to hold up the ball or drive it forward. His decent speed and relentless work rate translate into competent pressing ability out of Creighton’s 3-4-3 and 5-4-1. McGuire is a junior so he could still return for his senior season, but it would be in his best interest to use a career year and Mac Hermann Trophy Finalist honor to jumpstart his career.
Atlanta should also consider one of the other two Mac Hermann finalists, Syracuse’s electric forward Levonte Johnson.
Johnson has played for four different schools over his four college seasons but something just seemed to click for him when moving back closer to home at Syracuse becoming the school’s first First-Team All-American for Syracuse since Miles Robinson in 2016. The Brampton, Ontario native, has likely been on Garth Lagerway’s radar during his time at Seattle University and seems like the kind of player Lagerway would look for at the forward position.
His former coach at Seattle University heaped praise on him, saying:
“He is a very good passer...He’s very comfortable taking the shot too, which is great. He doesn’t hesitate when he decides it’s time to pull the trigger.”
Johnson has phenomenal speed and does extremely well when paired with a big center forward partner. Johnson’s attacking partner Nathan Opoku may be the first forward off of the board in the draft. Alongside Opoku, Johnson scored 9 goals and added 8 assists. He could develop into a dangerous presence on the wing with a strong ability to stretch the field on counterattacks and tuck inside to create more two-striker looks to drag defenders away from runs through the midfield. He has the profile to be a perfect compliment for Dereck Etienne and has a history of coming up big, scoring 8 game winners in Syracuse’s championship season.
Another player likely familiar to Garth Lagerway is the University of Washington’s Kalani Kossa-Rienzi.
He is already getting comparisons to Christian Roldan thanks to his versatility and impact through the midfield. The Berkeley, California native, is potentially a top-5 pick but could still be available when Atlanta is on the board. Originally playing as a striker in high school, he dominated his California competition. In an interview from 2019, his youth coach Andre Herbert described Kossa-Rienzi as a player:
“He plays direct when he needs to. He’s got amazing skills. He’s very smart,” Hebert said. “We play principles and that last principle is know when to break the principles, and he knows when to break that really well. He can wander and he adjusts to the team and the team adjusts to him.”
Before heading to Washington, he was a regular with the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program from 2015-18 and quickly became a core player in a Huskies program known for producing top midfielders and defenders. He has a small frame at just 5’-8” and 150 lbs so he will need to add some strength to stick in the midfield but with Darwin Matheus leaving the 2s for Croatia, there is room for competition against Atlanta’s future homegrown attacking midfielders Jonny Villal and Alan Carleton.
Kossa-Rienzi’s teammate, Ilijah Paul, could also be available, and to sweeten the deal, the Sophomore forward just signed a Generation Adidas contract.
Like the players listed above, Washington forward Ilijah Paul proved to be one of the best offensive players in the country. During his first full season of college soccer, Paul led the Pac-12 after the regular season will 11 goals and four assists on the season on his way to becoming the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, Pac-12 All-Conference First Team, and a MAC Hermann Trophy Semifinalist. A Gilbert, Ariz. native, Paul spent time with the Real Salt Lake Academy and Barça Residency Academy when growing up and saw the field for FC Tuscon as well. At 6 feet tall, Paul has the size to play the role of a target forward but also the mobility to contribute to an active press scheme. Paul returned to play after missing seven months with a broken foot and hamstring issues. “Last year, he was never fully fit,” coach Jamie Clark told the Seattle Times. “He worked tirelessly [for this season]. He checked every box in terms of preparation.”
” … We were really confident in Ilijah. We expected him to be this good, but goals are fickle. In terms of production, he has definitely been in the upper range of what we had hoped for.”
Getting back from injury and redeeming himself for the Huskies’ 2021 Championship loss to Clemson fueled Paul and Washington back to the playoffs in 2022. Paul, in part, attributes that to the lucky haircuts he enjoys giving his teammates. “Every time I cut Meek’s and (Nick) Scardina’s hair, they usually score the next game,” he said. I know plenty of players in Atlanta and a few personal barbers in Atlanta who may enjoy a teammate who can bring these kinds of skills to the clubhouse.
If instead of an attacker, Atlanta United wanted to bring in an experienced defensive prospect this offseason they could target Indiana’s two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Daniel Munie.
Indiana is known for producing defenders and Munie is one of those highly experienced and pedigreed defensive prospects. Frankly, he reminds me a lot of Andrew Gutman. He’s about 6 feet tall and plays a defense-first style that could translate well to becoming a left-sided centerback. Just to give you a sense of how good this Indiana defense was with him in the squad, Muni played 78 matches at Indiana (starting 71), 51 of which were clean sheets. This extends fourth back to his academy days with the legendary Saint Louis FC academy where he was part of the second-best defense in the country with a 0.62 goals against average. If you want to see his full list of accolades, click through to his college profile page and see why he would be a great defensive addition to the squad. Bringing in another left-back can take some pressure off of Wiley to be the primary backup there and give him more time at the wing, while also allowing Aidan McFadden to focus on being the primary backup at right-back. It would also create greater depth that would allow the team to sell or trade Ronald Hernandez to free up cap space and xAM resources.
36th Overall pick 2nd Round
The second-round pick is unlikely to sign a first-team deal but like Tristan Trager and Aidan McFadden, he will likely begin his career playing for Atlanta United 2 in the MLS NEXT PRO League. This eases the pressure on the player’s domestic versus international status and opens the range of players who could be selected. For our purposes, I’m looking for a leader who will immediately be a great mentor for our emerging academy prospects on and off of the field while also having the potential ceiling to move to the MLS. The positions with the greatest room for impact at this draft spot include the central and holding midfield and along the backline.
Of the three potential players who could be picked at #36, Syracuse’s captain Amferny Sinclair seems like the most likely player to be available as the best overall pick at this spot.
He is a former youth international for Costa Rica and played as part of Alajuelense’s system for 11 years before opting to pursue his education in college rather than break through with Alajuelense’s first team. “They saw me as a prospect for the team,” Sinclair told the Daily Orange. “Of course, I didn’t want to leave — this is a club that I supported since I was a child — but I really was interested in academics and being able to balance more things.” While representing Costa Rica in the U20 World Cup Qualifiers in Florida, Sinclair was recruited by Syracuse’s coach Ian McIntyre. McIntyre often refers to Sinclair as the first name he writes on any line-up card, the heart of this championship team in 2022. Sinclair is a great teammate, a hard worker, and a calm and steady presence in the holding midfield position. He brings a rangy athletic profile that can cover a lot of the field while also possessing the technical and strategic depth to connect a defensive group playing in a high line with one of the highest-energy attacks in college soccer. He will turn 23 before the start of the 2023 season and still has room to grow into at minimum a capable backup at the #6 position in MLS.
Another midfielder with strong leadership abilities and pedigree is Maryland’s captain Malcolm Johnston.
Johnston just completed his second straight season as Maryland’s captain and hopes to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Allistair Johnston who went from a standout player at Wake Forest to an MLS regular and now a World Cup starter for Canada. Malcolm mostly plays as a central midfielder but is capable of moving around the field depending on his team’s needs. “My whole career here, I think I’ve played almost every position other than goalie,” Johnston said in an interview with The Diamondback. “I know [Cirovski] has full trust in me, and I have full trust in him. Wherever he puts me, I’m just gonna work as hard as I can and do whatever I can for the team.” This past season, Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski shifted Johnston up the field to the wing and the #10 position out of his regular double pivot to inject some life into the attack. This seems to have worked with Johnston scoring 6 goals and adding 8 assists on the season, his most as a collegiate player. “If there’s one word I’d use to describe [Johnston], it’s composed,” midfielder Joe Suchecki. “He’s very cool on the ball … he never gets rattled, he never gets pressured. He’s just really fun to play with, but he’s also dependable. He’s there when you need him to be, and he’ll step up in the big moments.” That sounds like a great player to have on our young 2s side and the kind of player who could create his own opportunities in Atlanta under Coach Gonzalo Pineda. Johnson was also invited to the MLS College Showcase.
Another player that fits the profile of other trialists with the 2s is Campbell’s Moses Mensah.
The four-time All-South Region and four-time first-team All-Big South Conference central defender is athletic enough to play at the left wingback position while also stout enough on defense to play as the left centerback in a four-man backline. When we look at players from mid-major programs, we often need to see how much of a difference they have in talent and performance from their teammates and competition, and how much additional work they are doing in the offseason to propel their development forward. Mensah is the first 4-time all-region honoree in the full 60-year history of Campbell’s soccer program and was ranked as the number 2 prospect in the USL League 2 while playing for One Knoxville last summer. He has started 72 of 73 games he played for the Camels and has been an integral part of their five Big South trophies and pair of NCAA College Cup appearances. Ahead of the 2022 season, he was named to the United Soccer Coaches national watchlist and earned an invitation to the 2022 Adidas MLS College Soccer Showcase which features 44 of the best players in the college game. While he could be selected at the end of the 1st half, he would be an absolute steal in the second and would replicate the type of athletic defender profile that the 2s have used in Nelson Orji, Bryce Washington, Wesly Decas, and Mo Jadama. He has a high athletic upside and the potential to become a versatile depth player on an MLS side with some quality development.
Wu and Rocha both earned United Soccer Coaches All-East Region honors for their play in the 2022 NCAA College Cup and represented Georgetown at the MLS College Showcase. This was Wu’s first all-region honor and came along with the awards of BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All-BIG EAST, and Second Team All-American Selection. He led a defense that registered 7 clean sheets in 2022. The Cary, North Carolina native was an immediate starter on the 2019 National Champion Georgetown team, scoring in the final against the University of Virginia.
Rocha was the BIG EAST Midfielder of the Year and named First Team All-BIG EAST. His award for the best midfielder was a bit of a surprise considering he transitioned to the midfield early this past season after beginning at right-back. This move immediately launched the team on a run back to the NCAA playoffs, scoring two game-winners in the campaign. From the central midfield, he scored three goals and added three assists. As the team captain, he started in all 20 matches for the team and was an indispensable part of Georgetown’s identity. He could provide depth at fullback and in the central midfield for Atlanta United, likely beginning the season with the 2s.
That wraps up of 2023 MLS Superdraft Preview. How do y’all feel about these picks, and which of these players would you like to see play for Atlanta United and the 2s next season? Let us know in the comments below.