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Atlanta United Academy: 2023 NCAA College Cup Preview

Academy graduates and future homegrown players heavily represented at College Cup

NCAA Soccer: College Cup Championship Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

And just like that, the MLS offseason has begun for Atlanta United. As we begin to speculate about the team’s future, hundreds of talented young players awaited the announcement of this year’s NCAA College Cup selection.

Of the 48 teams selected for the tournament, 12 teams feature at least one player who once represented Atlanta United Academy. 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 ranked teams at the end of conference play received first-round byes.

All first-round games begin Thursday, Nov. 16 at campus sites of the higher-ranked team, with the second round scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 19th. The field will thin through single elimination until the final three matches of the Men’s College Cup on Dec. 8th and 11th at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.

While the stakes are always high in cup competitions, they have just increased as Major League Soccer recently announced the expansion of player eligibility for the 2024 MLS SuperDraft. Rather than just seniors and a handful of Generation Adidas signings, the draft will now be open for sophomores and juniors. This changes players' timelines and the development strategies of college programs and MLS front offices. No longer are players expected to play out their four years of college eligibility to get a shot at being drafted or force a decision about a homegrown player contract by their former parent club. Now, a player can declare for the draft after a strong season and attempt to begin their career with a bit more agency. An interesting wrinkle to this new policy is that after being drafted, a player can choose to return to their college program for up to two more years during which their MLS rights will remain exclusively with the team that drafted them. This could provide flexibility for players who may need a different option than MLS NEXT PRO to further their development before signing their first pro contract. With the draft taking place on December 19th, just a week after the championship match is played, there will be plenty of action happening in front offices across the league checking in with former academy players and trying to juggle homegrown contracts and the risk of a coveted prospect being lost in the draft.

We will explore the breadth and depth of Atlanta United’s collegiate diaspora in our upcoming annual breakdown of college soccer prospects, so for now let’s focus on a few players and a few matches for you to watch over the next few weeks.

Players to Watch

The player with the biggest spotlight on him right now out of all of our collegiate prospects is deservedly Wake Forest’s Garrison Tubbs. A four-year starter and two-year captain, Tubbs has remained a stalwart of Wake Forest’s defense, serving as a vocal leader and on-field tactician. He brings a lot of the athleticism that we have come to love from Miles Robinson with the added bonus of being the kind of team leader that we have been looking for from our group of defenders since Michael Parkhurst retired. Speaking of Robinson and Parkhurst, Tubbs joined an elite group of American defenders by being named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Another highly regarded former Atlanta United 2 defender is the University of North Carolina’s Matthew Edwards. Edwards shared the field at Fifth Third Bank Stadium with Will Reilly and Garrison Tubbs and may do so again in the future. Similarly to Tubbs, Edwards has proven to be such a vital part of UNC’s backline that they have the towering centerback going back to his academy roots by playing at left-back. His versatility and athleticism allow him to play as a mobile hybrid defender similar to what we saw from Luis Abram and Franco Escobar. This could prove valuable for his future professional club as he can freely switch from a three-man to a four-man backline. The junior defender has a big chip on his shoulder heading into the tournament after missing his penalty in the ACC Tournament Championship against Clemson.

Will Reilly also seeks to propel his Stanford team to another championship after coming off of a breakout season for Reilly playing a much freer box-to-box role. Across 17 starts, Reilly scored three goals and added seven assists, many coming off of impeccably placed corner kicks. Reilly still brings the strong technical and tactical ability that fans grew to love during his time with the 2s while also gaining strength and speed. His vision of the field continues to improve as his already high-level passing and ball-retention skills continue to improve. In years past, Reilly would head into his senior season as one of the top midfield prospects in the country but with the changes to the SuperDraft, Atlanta United may have to make a key decision about his future a year ahead of schedule.

The University of Virginia’s Daniel Mangarov and Brendan Lambe will also cause similar headaches for the front office. Mangarov is a great attacking player who could probably start for a USL Championship team right now but there are questions about whether he is ready for MLS. The club is also dealing with an increasingly crowded group of wings and 10s at the MLS Next Pro Level so he may end up in the draft. No matter what, he will put on a show for anyone watching UVA play. For fans of strong central midfield performances, former 2s player Brendan Lambe will show why he deserves to be a long hard look by Atlanta next year.

And lastly, Ryan Schewe, the Big East Goalkeeper of the Year for Georgetown, deserves a big shoutout. The Marietta native played for Atlanta’s academy for three seasons before transferring to Atlanta-area United Futbol Academy, reaching the US Soccer Development Academy quarter-finals with his U-17 team. Schewe towers above everyone on the field as a 6’4” goalkeeper and has the athleticism to cover his net with authority. Atlanta may be loaded with goalkeeping talent in the academy but it doesn’t hurt to bring in a talented prospect with size.

First Round Matches

The most familiar and local team for most Atlanta United fans in the first round would be the Mercer Bears of Macon, Georgia. Led by a skilled veteran group, Mercer will take on Florida International in their fifth tournament trip in seven seasons. Mercer began the year with a lot of optimism. Not only was their 4-year attacking leader Dylan Gaither returning for his 5th and final season, but the club also added Wake Forest’s Omar Hernandez for his final campaign and brought back redshirt senior fullback Natnael McDonald. With a veteran team of experienced players, hopes were high that Mercer would dominate the Southern Conference. A midseason injury to Gaither made an already challenging season that much more difficult as they finished conference play in 4th overall, but a gritty and resilient Southern Conference Tournament run saw the Bears upset Furman to win the right to represent SoCon at the pinnacle of men’s college soccer.

The first round of the 2023 NCAA College Cup also features a lot of players we have not covered a great deal on Dirty South Soccer.

Kentucky’s Joel Gonzalez deserves a lot of praise for a breakout freshman campaign logging 1262 minutes so far as a starting centerback for a good Kentucky team that just so happened to be in the same conference as two of the best teams in college soccer this season. Kentucky will take on Big East champions Xavier who eked out a hard-fought win over Georgetown in penalties. This will be a great test for Gonzalez and could showcase him as a real prospect for Atlanta United in the future.

1st Round Matches

  • Florida International University vs Mercer
  • Xavier vs University of Kentucky
  • Louisville vs Dayton
  • Pittsburgh vs James Madison

First Round Byes

There will be a lot of action for Atlanta United fans in the second round on the 19th as at least 7 of the 12 teams will be active.

  • Stanford — Will Reilly
  • Clemson — Remi Okunlola, Mathieu Brick
  • UNC — Matthew Edwards, Colin Travasos (plus Riley Thomas)
  • UVA — Daniel Mangarov, Brendan Lambe, Andy Sullins, Amari Sally
  • Wake Forest — Garrison Tubbs, Chase Oliver
  • Duke — Miguel Gonzalez
  • Georgetown — Ryan Schewe

All matches will be available on ESPN+.