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Who Will Be Atlanta United’s 16th Homegrown Player?

Will he come from college, the 2s, or the academy?

Atlanta United has been very busy signing and selling homegrown players since the last one of these articles came out ahead of the 2022 season. Justin Garces rejoined the club after playing four years of college soccer at UCLA. George Bello transferred to Germany and Caleb Wiley took his place as the 5-Stripes' next talented young leftback. Noah Cobb signed his first professional contract to play out the 2022 season for the 2s with an official homegrown deal on the way for 2023, and we just learned that Ajani Fortune will be joining him.

Today, we celebrate the accomplishments of each of these young players as they pursue their dreams of competing professionally for their hometown Atlanta United. With each of these signings, we gain a deeper understanding of the types of players the club is looking to sign out of their academy and out of their collegiate diaspora. They all come from the George Bello experiment. The club wants smart, athletic, and mature players with good character and a strong work ethic to humbly train, learn, and compete for new opportunities. These players and their young teammates on the 2s and on the first team have earned the trust and praise of their coaches and managers who gush about the selfless, fearless, and relentless qualities of the young men coming from the academy and from the 2s. Those are wonderful qualities for a coach to work with and admirable qualities for fans and media to witness on and off of the field.

Atlanta United’s most recent homegrown signing embodies those qualities in every way.

Fortune is a fast-rising talent with a staggering growth trajectory from his raw and reckless early appearances in the USL midfield two years ago to the confident and composed central midfielder fully deserving of the captain’s armband. This season, Fortune paired with then-captain Robbie Mertz as half of a double-pivot midfield that commanded the center of the pitch and moved the ball confidently through wide channels and defense-splitting passes to Tristan Trager up the middle. Fortune has quickly become a composed release valve for this defense with the remarkable speed and tenacity to make lung-busting recovery runs to deny opposing counterattacks. He is fearless and fiery with a nasty streak that would Ozzie Alonso proud but with the intelligence and composure to pick his moments and know his role. When paired with Efrain Morales as the 2s’ new post-Mertz midfield duo, he is now expected to be the good cop. Look for Fortune to begin next season playing mostly for the MLS NEXT PRO team but with the expectation that he will compete in training for minutes in the crowded central midfield rotation.

Now, the big question is not only who our next Homegrown Player will be but also where he will come from. The three possible origins are from the college pool, from the players on 2s professional contracts, or from our unsigned academy pool. What makes this exercise so entertaining is that we now have candidates from each pool who could rightfully make the case for themselves.

For a bit of context, there seem to be two clear pathways to professional contracts forming for our academy prospects. The first and more common path will be for them to excel playing up age groups in the academy, potentially play with the U-19s in their 4th division league or play as academy players with the 2s, and head to college to develop in a high-quality program before either returning to Atlanta United or another MLS club through the Superdraft. Path 2 seems to begin the same as path 1 with players being challenged against higher age groups and with the 2s before foregoing college and signing their first professional contract with the 2s.

Players like Garces, Machop Chol, and Bryce Washington all serve as role models for players who take the collegiate development track. Jackson Conway, Caleb Wiley, Noah Cobb, and now Ajani Fortune all represent the other path.

It will become increasingly rare for players to jump directly from the academy to a Homegrown deal but there are a few who certainly could command that special treatment.

Based on the current roster timeline and when that next signing could occur, our next Homegrown Player likely will come from this year’s rising senior class of collegiate prospects.

The club caught us by surprise last winter by not signing Charlie Asensio, a four-year starter at Clemson and a high-profile prospect from a championship U-17 academy side. With the club primed to sign Caleb Wiley and set to introduce Andrew Gutman as their main two left-back options, the choice came down to Mikey Ambrose’s experience and Asensio’s upside. The club felt Asensio could get a better opportunity with another club to play so Asensio joined Austin FC and is currently on loan with the Charleston Battery.

As you will be able to see in our college season preview next month, there are a lot of fun seniors to watch this year. For that matter, there are a ton of fun players to watch in general but for our sake, we’ll focus on the players we need to protect from the draft. It is still entirely possible that a younger prospect like Grant Howard, Garrison Tubbs, or Will Reilly could force the club to accelerate their timeline back to Atlanta, but for our purposes, we will just focus on our seniors.

The most promising pool of players in this class is the midfielders. Leading this stellar group is Mercer’s attacking wizard Dylan Gaither. Gaither is a product of both the academy and Atlanta United 2, and has started for Mercer in each of his first three college seasons. He broke out in 2021 leading 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 single-handedly took an otherwise average Mercer team and brought them back from several years of mediocrity. Gaither has been on fire with two hattricks and a brace to seal a Southern Conference championship for Mercer. With Atlanta United showing a strong interest in direct and dynamic attacking players like Tristan Trager, Aidan McFadden, and Darwin Matheus, Gaither is certainly one to watch in his senior season because he did enough as a junior to prove he could still be a valuable asset for Atlanta United.

Another 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. It is difficult to tell whether Fortune’s recent signing will impact the club’s calculus on Suzuki because they may see them playing similar roles but a case could be made for them to coexist in a double pivot with Fortune taking on the more advanced box-to-box role with Suzuki having more freedom to drop deep and be the connector between the defense and flanks. He reminds me a lot of Amar Sejdic currently offers the club and could be brought back to develop into that role.

Syracuse’s Russell Shealy is the only goalkeeper in this group because the club’s young goalkeeper roulette will likely impact whether he returns to Atlanta United. The club has a lot of options with Garces, Vicente Reyes, Rocco Ríos Novo, and potentially Raúl Gudiño in the mix behind a recovering Brad Guzan. 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. Shealy joined the Georgia Revolution in 2021 and Reading United in 2022 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 outside of freshman Dagoberto Romero and could garner some consideration from his former club after his senior season if the MLS NEXT PRO team wants to add a platoon partner for Vicente Reyes.

Two other midfielders who are darkhorse candidates but could garner a lot of movement up the Superdraft are Mercer’s Ousman Jabang and NC State’s recent transfer Jeremiah Luomah. Jabang is a talented hybrid 6/8 midfielder who is a hard worker and strong midfield engine that can keep control of the center of the pitch behind a dynamic attacker like Dylan Gaither. He’s versatile and selfless in his work rate. Jabang is the kind of player who could excel at the USL level and make the jump to MLS from there. Like Shealy, Luomah has resurrected his career thanks to summer semi-pro soccer with Appalachian FC and with a key transfer to NC State. Luomah is an attacker who can play anywhere in a front-4 from the target striker to the wings or as either a False-9 or #10 when needed. He will be a versatile option with a nose for goal who will be an immediate favorite of any coach who gets to develop him.

Our next play is the former team captain of the U-17 champion side that featured Asensio, Andrew Carleton, and Chris Goslin. Will Crain is a talented and experienced defender who can also play as centerback, right-back, or wingback and is known for his precision on set piece kicks. Crain is a natural leader and highly intelligent player. He has battled injuries in the past but looked healthy and confident in his return to Brown in 2021. He recently transferred to the University of South Carolina to join his former academy director Tony Annan as a graduate student at the Darla Moore Business School and should offer Annan’s Gamecock side a valuable defensive leader.

Creighton’s central defender and defensive leader Luke Mitchell may be the under-the-radar pick on this list. His profile is similar to Atlanta’s 2021 Superdraft pick, Josh Bauer, in his size and ability to play the ball with his feet. His former experience with the 2s is likely a strong plus in his favor. He is coming off of an injury that ended his 2021 season so we will have to see how he responds this fall. That injury may also count as a redshirt season which could extend his collegiate eligibility through the end of the 2023 season. Depending on how well he performs this fall, he could be at least a second-round pick in the Superdraft and would offer a good veteran presence on the MLS NEXT PRO backline.

Clemson’s big target forward and team captain James Brighton may be another intriguing option for Atlanta United. He is a lot like Jackson Conway in his physical profile and style of play. He has a huge personality and strong aerial ability. He can double as a poacher and a hold-up player capable of fighting off centerbacks to create time and space for his teammates to make runs. Brighton is another player on this list who will likely excel at the USL level and could offer a valuable option coming off of the bench in MLS as a late-game target. If we don’t sign him to a Homegrown deal, chances are he will get a first-round pick for another MLS side.

Another defender who has become a darkhorse candidate is NC State’s centerback Kendall Edwards. Edwards was a key fixture in the original 2s defensive groups and seemed like a sure bet for a future contract from the team but an underwhelming career at NC State has put a lot more pressure on Edwards to remind the team and the league of his impressive potential in his senior season.

Now, with all of that said, it is equally as likely that we will see several players signed together in close proximity so those other non-collegiate players would likely come from our current 2s signees or players who are regularly playing at a high level for the 2s as academy prospects.

At the top of this list is Chilean international goalkeeper Vicente Reyes. The 18-year-old signed his first professional contract this past offseason with Atlanta United 2 to be the consistent anchor behind what was likely a revolving door of first-team goalkeepers getting vital minutes for this exact situation. The club has consistently put him in tough match-ups against some of the best sides the USL-Championship can throw at him. Though the team gave up some goals in those matches, he never looked outmatched. Like Fortune, Reyes has improved quickly with every opportunity he has been given and looks on pace to become Atlanta United’s starter in the next 5 years if he isn’t sold first. He’s tall and lanky at over 6’4” (1.93 meters) and has developed a lot of confidence both as a shot-stopper and as a ball-playing keeper in possession.

David Mejia also fits this model of hard-working and fearless players who make the most of their opportunities. Mejia has become a bit of a swiss army knife in his versatility, now lining up regularly as a wingback or fullback on both sides of the pitch. This role suits him well due to his combination of speed, aggression, and impressive touch both in scoring and setting up his teammates. He takes good routes both on and off of the ball and continues to become more efficient with his tireless energy. My favorite thing about Mejia is his ferocity, which many fans would welcome to the MLS side.

Another highly versatile player who could sign both his first 2s contract and homegrown contract in the same stroke is Luke Brennan. Brennan can play any wide position or forward position that you ask of him and will bring a deft scoring touch to that position. He is equally gifted in playing the ball long from the fullback spot and short from the wing or center-forward position. He will play at the MLS level, so it is only a question of when.

Jon Villal is also an excellent candidate for the MLS game but may be further out than some of his older teammates. Villal has an advanced vision, touch, and ability to retain the ball in tight dribbles from the attacking midfield position. He is still small but is unafraid of the big bruising challenges he receives in the USL. In fact, he is getting a lot better at avoiding them altogether. Villal is currently playing on a 2s contract and will likely play a larger role with the MLS NEXT PRO team next season, so he is a longer shot at being #16 or #17 than the other three 2s teammates on this list.

That’s it for this round-up of candidates for our next homegrown signing. Let us know in the comments which of these guys excites you most and which player pool you think the next homegrown player will come from.