If you’ve been following our academy products in college for a while, you may notice an intriguing trend. With each year, higher and higher quality players graduate from the academy to test their talents in the college game. Will Reilly and Garrison Tubbs are two such examples. Something else you will notice is that the overall quantity of quality players making an impact early for their college teams is on the rise. To wrap up our review of the 2022 college season, we review what may end up being one of the deepest and most impactful classes of academy products so far in the college game.
In covering the draft, we have discussed how there are players who end up playing in college for a wide variety of reasons. Whether it is education, catching up on the physical development side, or finding valuable playing time, most guys are not yet ready for a pro contract in our current competitive model in MLS, and the choice to sign a 2s deal eliminates their amateur status thus preventing them from playing for a college later. Inevitably there are 50 or so guys across the country who are talented enough to deserve a professional contract upon graduating high school but who choose to go the college route in order to secure an education to backstop their careers and wait until more space opens up at their parent club for them to realistically compete for meaningful playing time.
The two highest profile and potentially highest ceiling guys of this class are Grant Howard and Nigel Prince. Both Howard and Prince are physically and athletically gifted defenders who excelled through the academy ranks and played for the 2s in their final season of eligibility ahead of college. Howard made himself a vital fixture in Jack Collison’s backline, starting at both centerback and right-back, and playing nearly 800 minutes across 14 matches. Howard probably had a lot of the front office wondering whether they should offer in a 2s deal at the last second with his tough and fearless play against much older talent in the USL Championship. Howard used the momentum from his breakout USL season to immediately step into Virginia Tech’s starting lineup. At Tech, Howard played in all 18 matches, starting 17 for 1453 minutes. This was a young and scrappy Hokies defense that gave up 29 goals on the season and was often playing from behind. Fantastic play by Grant Howard kept them in a lot of games and kept the scoreline from being significantly worse. It wasn’t long ago that Virginia Tech was challenging the top teams in the ACC so given time and his continued development against some of the top attacking players in the country, Howard could help lead this Tech team on another ACC Championship run.
Nigel Prince did not have nearly the same impact on the 2s as Howard but he certainly made his mark with the U-19s in the UPSL (4th professional division). Prince looks like a giant human being on the soccer field at 6’2” and 185 pounds. He combines that size with exceptional athleticism and mobility to cover a lot of ground and attempt to make challenges that other players would not try. That makes him a bit reckless at times and earned him a red card in his 2s debut against Detroit City. Now playing for Northwestern University alongside Brandon Clagette, Prince has a chance to refine some of his approach while continuing to develop physically and tactically against highly competitive programs like Penn State and Maryland. Like Howard, Prince made an immediate impact, starting 12 of 14 matches he featured in for 1083. He went the full 90 in half of his matches, helping to hold opens to one goal or fewer in 8 matches. Unfortunately, Northwestern couldn’t translate good defense into many wins and ended up losing the goal-differential contest 16-25. Like Virginia Tech, this is a young group that will grow and develop together. It would not surprise me to see Northwestern make a challenge to unseat Ohio State or Penn State in a future NCAA tournament.
In addition to our top-two defensive talents, Georgia State’s Justin McLean had a standout freshman season at the #10 and wing positions for his new club. He was one of a trio of freshmen from Atlanta’s academy to make an immediate impact, but he is the one who deserves the most praise. McLean played over 1000 minutes across all 19 matches, starting all but the first two matches. He led the Panthers with seven assists, tying for third in the Sun Belt. He also scored three goals, his first coming against Winthrop and his other two coming in a game-winning brace against James Madison. He also tallied two assists in each of those matches. McLean’s strong debut campaign earned him Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week recognition in week 4 and a ranking of #40 on Top Drawer Soccer's top 100 Freshmen-Midseason list and #58 in the end-of-season list.
Evan Schroeder also made an early impact for the Panthers. Joining the Atlanta United academy late as a trialist with the U-17s, Schroeder showed his quality as a centerback with great positioning and composure. He started all 10 of the matches he appeared in, debuting midseason to help the team overcome a wave of injuries on defense. GSU tends to play with 3 at the back and Schroeder showed early on that he could remain one of those 3 centerbacks for the next three seasons. With Schroeder’s help on defense and three goals on the attacking side, GSU only lost two matches over his 10 starts, outscoring opponents 20-18 across those 10 matches.
The final GSU freshman to make an early impact was Matthew Taylor. Taylor is a quick and dynamic forward who featured in 14 matches, starting in three. His first career goal was the equalizer against Mercer, and he tallied one assist against Coastal Carolina. GSU has a lot of midfield and attacking talent graduating this offseason so Taylor could become a regular starter in just his sophomore year.
Another major storyline worth following is in Columbia, South Carolina where former academy boss Tony Annan has transformed the Gamecocks into a hub of former Atlanta United prospects. Under his and graduate transfer Will Crain’s guidance, Christian Bruletti, Bryce Griffith, Rocky Perez, and Junior Sainte-Juste all made immediate impacts in their freshman seasons.
Junior Sainte-Juste, a local Kalonji Soccer Academy product and trialist with the 2s and U-19s immediately slotted in next to Will Crain on the backline, starting all 15 matches he played in, adding a goal and an assist from the centerback spot. The Haitian stands an excellent chance of being a 4-year starter for Annan’s Gamecocks program.
In the midfield, Bruletti and Rocky Perez picked right back up from where they started with the U-19s. Both have a flexible profile in the midfield and could be shifted to play different roles as needed. Bruletti primarily fits as an attacking midfielder or as the advancing half of a double pivot of 8s. Perez is a great partner in that scenario with the ability to be a box-to-box midfielder. Both came late to the Atlanta United academy with Bruletti previously playing for the Vardar Academy in Michigan. Rocky Perez previously represented San Antonio FC at the USL level and has featured for the US as part of the Youth National Team system. Bruletti scored two goals and added two assists with his first goal coming against a tough Campbell team and against his former U-19s goalkeeper at Georgia Southern. Perez added a goal and a couple of assists with his lone goal coming against a very good Marshall team.
Bryce Griffith was used more as a substitute in his first season, only starting 5 of his 16 matches. The forward played a lot of tough minutes in Annan’s pressing scheme and managed to earn his only goal in the second match of the season against Dayton.
It remains to be seen how many players from the academy will be joining this growing center of former Atlanta United players at South Carolina, but we do know that Luke Brennan will be heading to Columbia next summer.
Another hotbed of 5-Strips activity is up in Charlottesville, Virginia. Andy Sullins and Amari Salley joined a growing pool of Atlanta United prospects who will soon be welcoming Brendan Lambe to the party. Like Grant Howard and Nigel Prince, Sullins wrapped up his final season with Atlanta United by featuring heavily as a substitute for the 2s and as a regular starter for the U-19s. At UVA, Sullins appeared in 11 matches in his freshman campaign, scoring scored his first career goal on a spectacular left-footed strike on the half volley in a 2-0 victory over American University (9/20/22).
Chances are high that he will be scoring a lot more of these goals over the rest of his time at UVA.
Salley had a quieter freshman season due to the high level of competition on the wing at UVA but he should be headed into the offseason with a strong chance of competing for regular minutes in his sophomore year. Salley is very fast and good on the ball. He is great at pinning the defenders back and keeping his nearside fullback honest thanks to his game-breaking speed. With a #10 like Daniel Mangarov who can find him and connect on his long counterattacking runs, Salley could prove to be a highly valuable addition going forward.
The top goalkeeper is this class is Georgia Southern’s Dagoberto Romero. Romero was part of a strong platoon of goalkeepers in this class, sharing the role with James Dee, Jr who signed with Presbyterian College. When Romero wasn’t playing for the U-19s, he was leading Coach Mike McLean’s Central Gwinnett High School side to a 7A Region 8 championship. With a lot of competition ahead of him on the 2s, Romero departed the club over the summer to play for the new 4th division side, Apotheos FC alongside a large contingent of academy graduates. At Georgia Southern, he didn’t waste long in claiming the top goalkeeper spot. He appeared in 12 matches for the Eagles, starting 11 with his first collegiate start against Presbyterian on Aug. 25. This was a very bad GSU team so Romero got a lot of reps in attempting saves and scrambling to deal with pressure from his opponents. He saved eight shots twice against Kentucky on Oct. 9 and James Madison on Oct. 14, and ended up with 45 saves on the season with one shutout against North Florida with 32 goals allowed. He was absolutely peppered in goal, facing over 10 shots in 8 of his 12 matches. Against Kentucky and Marshall, he faced 28 and 24 shots apiece, allowing 6 goals in each. These two matches were part of a disastrous final three matches for this GSU team.
James Dee arrived at Presbyterian College with the understanding that he would be in open competition with fellow-freshman Leo Stritter, a German goalkeeper who had bounced around the academies of the Bundesliga. At least in their first season, Stritter seems to have won the competition for regular starts as Dee averaged only one match per month as opposed to Stritter’s 16 starts. In his lone start, Dee went the full 90 against USC Upstate, facing 16 shots, saving 7, and allowing 5 goals. This was his third match of the entire season. Overall, Dee played just 148 minutes, making 7 saves while allowing just 6 goals on 21 shots. Dee will likely look to gain an edge over Stritter this off-season with a starting role on a 4th division side in Georgia or the Carolinas. He’s a talented player but is under 6 feet tall and will have to do everything exceptionally well to make up for the inclination of coaches to play the taller athlete if they are close in talent.
Local ECNL star and North Gwinnett High School Forward of the Year Damian Segura headed out to Drake of the Missouri Valley Conference where he became a day-1 lock in the Bulldogs’ lineup. He started 13 of the 15 matches he appeared in, logging 959 minutes on the field. Now playing mostly as a midfielder, Segura saw his production drop from his academy production of 31 goals and 16 assists in 37 games of club action to just two assists. Granted, he is playing a different role in a different system from what he experienced in Atlanta’s academy and with NASA before that. After a year of building familiarity in the new league, we could potentially see Segura’s numbers rebound, especially if he’s given more attacking freedom.
Miguel Romero also joined a mid-major program at Stetson in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He started six matches in his first season, including against Dagoberto Romero’s GSU team on October 18, and acted as a sub in another six. The midfielder finished the season with a goal and an assist.
Rohan Blackwell joined a growing group of former academy players at the Air Force Academy. He did not play in his first year so he may be eligible for a redshirt extension in his second season.
Atlanta United has a good track record of sending players a few players every year to exceptionally good academic schools. This year, Mateo Bargnana headed to Tufts in Boston. Tufts is a Division-III school for men’s soccer so this competition level may actually be a lateral step if not a step down from what he was getting with the Atlanta United U-19s. That said, 2s players Toni Tiente and Jack Gurr both came from lower-division schools so the pathway is there with the right combination of hard work, talent, and luck. In his first year at Tufts Bargnana played in all 18 matches, starting two. The defender scored his first goal against cross-state rivals Williams College on September 18 and recorded his two assists in a 6-0 win against Clark University on October 12. Overall, Barganana made a strong start in his college soccer career, helping Tufts to reach the second round of the Division-III playoffs.
Bargnana’s academy teammate Gray Mollenkamp also competed in Division-III soccer with a team made up of players from the trio of Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps Colleges of Claremont, California. He appeared in seven matches as a defender for his new team and that’s about all we know about his season.
Our final player joined the academy from Valencia, Venezuela. After appearing on the bench and on the field a few times for the 2s, Santiago Cano headed to the upstate to join a small group of Atlanta United exports at the Division-II University of North Georgia. He seems like a strong candidate for the local division-4 circuit this offseason and we shall see how long he remains in college soccer if he catches on with a local team like Georgia Revolution or Limeño GSA.
That wraps up our review of the 2022 NCAA men’s soccer season. As you can tell from these stories and from everything surrounding the draft, the American soccer player pool is growing rapidly as is the number of players coming to the US from abroad to chase their dreams here. That can only be a good thing for a club with a robust scouting, analytics, and development infrastructure capable of identifying and developing talent.