The 2024 NCAA Men’s College Soccer season has come to a close in what could be remembered as a good year for Atlanta United products and a transformational season for how college soccer impacts the professional game in North America.
The college soccer ecosystem has greatly benefitted from the increasingly sophisticated and growing number of academies and lower-division professional teams across the United States. Record numbers of players are joining college programs with at least some experience in an academy affiliated with a Major League Soccer, USL, or MLS NEXT independent academy with many experiencing competition against professional players in USL and MLS NEXT PRO matches. While the top schools and conferences have benefitted from domestic talent, other top programs like Marshall have built their recruiting strategy around quality international players from European and African academies. For MLS, the classic rules governing the transition of college players to the professional game either as seniors or Generation Adidas underclassmen no longer made sense based on clubs’ growing investment in MLS NEXT PRO as a legitimate development league. For many, the SuperDraft had become a relic that clubs like Philadelphia seemed to abandon entirely as part of their roster-assembly strategy.
Back in October, Major League Soccer announced a surprising and important change to eligibility requirements for the upcoming MLS SuperDraft. For the first time in league history, eligible draftees would include collegiate sophomores and juniors. The Generation Adidas program would continue as a way to target specific standout players, including freshmen,
“We’ve seen so many changes and improvements with player development, academies, the clubs – all across the board there’s been growth in MLS,” Alecko Eskandarian, Senior Director, Player Relations, told MLSsoccer.com. “The draft had been the one thing that stayed stagnant, and knowing first-hand after coming through the draft myself, it was a much-needed area of improvement.
“The player pool remaining status quo was actually detrimental to player development, so the way we look at is broadening these eligibility parameters, it’s a win-win-win from the league standpoint, a college program standout and, most importantly, a player standpoint.”
Another key development in this is the amateur status and player rights component of the new draft rules. Players may return to school for up to two years following being drafted while the club that drafted them will retain the right to sign them to their first professional contract until they graduate. This had previously existed in a slightly different form as teams could retain a player’s rights up to the end of the calendar year. Therefore, under the new rules, a team could draft a player who could come in for their preseason and the team could then decide whether the best option for that player’s development is to remain with their collegiate program or to sign with the club and play on their MLS NEXT PRO team. Despite the draft contracting to just three rounds, this could potentially lead to more stability for draftees and more options for clubs to keep intriguing young players who may fit their plans for the future but not fit the roster in that season.
With an expansion to draft eligibility and to drafted player rights retention, clubs’ strategies around the signing of collegiate Homegrown Players could also change. Clubs can no longer stash promising prospects for four years until they are forced to make a decision, a strong Sophomore campaign to risk the loss of a young talent to a rival team. We’ve already seen several former Atlanta United players taken in the draft over the last two seasons. Ousman Jabang (Montreal) is the only one who remains under contract with Liam Butts remaining unsigned by San Jose, and Austin and Charlotte declining their options on Charlie Asensio and Russell Shealy at the end of this season.
As we await the official list of players available for the upcoming draft, let’s review the 2024 season, explore who could be the most likely Homegrown Player signings this winter, who could be lost to the draft, and who we should keep an eye on for 2025.
We begin with the most decorated and potentially most pro-ready of this class of seniors, Wake Forest’s captain and centerback Garrison Tubbs.
Tubbs has been a dominant defender and respected team leader for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons for four seasons. After earning a starting spot in his freshman season, Tubbs never looked back, showcasing versatility as a right-back when needed to start nearly every possible match for his team from his Sophomore to Senior seasons. He was selected to represent the team as their captain in his Junior season and retained that honor for his Senior campaign. He is a highly intelligent defender with good size and mobility and above-average ball control and passing ability. Wake Forest has a similar ball possession philosophy to Atlanta United so it is encouraging to see how well Tubbs manages the game from the back as a passer and as an on-field coach moving his teammates around to find paths through crowded midfields.
In his final season, Garrison Tubbs joined Atlanta United legend and Wake Forest Hall of Famer Michael Parkhurst as the fourth Wake Forest defender to earn ACC Defender of the Year honors. This is well-earned as he helped organize a defense that kept 22 clean sheets across 59 matches against some of the best competition at his level over the last three seasons. He is ranked the third-best player in college soccer by TopDrawerSoccer and is one of fifteen Mac Hermann Trophy finalists this year. The the awards and honors piling up, Tubbs would be a top-10 pick in this year’s SuperDraft if Atlanta decided to decline his rights.
With thin depth at the centerback position, especially considering the imminent departure of Miles Robinson to Europe, welcoming Tubbs back to Atlanta feels like the most obvious and logical choice this Front Office could make.
If Atlanta United chose to have a youth movement on defense, this would be the perfect off-season to begin. With Tubbs as the obvious leader of the group, two other centerbacks could make a strong case to also return to Atlanta.
Northwestern’s Sophomore star Nigel Prince has arrived. After showcasing freakish athleticism and loads of potential in the Atlanta United academy and in brief cameos with Atlanta United 2, Prince has refined his game and solidified the raw parts of his game as a two-year starter at Northwestern University. After quickly establishing himself as a freshman, Prince made himself indispensable to his team, playing 99.6% of possible minutes across 17 matches in his second collegiate season. Like Tubbs, Prince has great size, mobility, and technical confidence with the ball at his feet. If the SuperDraft rules had not changed, I would have argued that we give him one more year to develop but after earning First Team All-Big Ten Honors, Big Ten All-Tournament Team, and All-North Region Second Team honors in his second season, Atlanta United will have to decide whether they can risk losing him to another team.
The same may be true for North Carolina’s Matthew Edwards. Like Prince, Edwards broke out in his second season with the Tar Heels last year earning a regular starting spot and like Tubbs, remained a regular starter despite shifting out to left-back for the 2023 season. Edwards showed this versatility while playing for Atlanta United 2 for two seasons before leaving for UNC. Edwards may not be as tall as Prince and Tubbs but he towers over the pitch and has a great deal of mobility for a player his size. He is a better centerback than left-back and may choose to return for his Senior season just to get rid of the bitter taste of his missed penalty kick in the ACC Championship final.
Virginia Tech’s Grant Howard may also choose to remain in college for his Junior season. Howard impressed Atlanta United 2 fans with his brave and relentless defending in the summer of 2022 before leaving to play for an abysmally bad Hokies team. He logged a team-high 1,453 minutes in his first season alternating between centerback and fullback and followed that up in his second season with 1,361 minutes across 16 starts. It may be worth asking how beneficial Howard’s experience may be playing against superior attacking sides rather than being able to develop as part of a more organized group that is not constantly scrambling and throwing themselves about for heroic defensive plays.
A player who took a gargantuan step forward between his second and third seasons in college is Stanford’s Will Reilly. Now playing as a box-to-box central midfielder who also is responsible for corner kicks, Reilly broke out for what may be his best season so far. Reilly has never been a player who flashed gaudy numbers on the stat sheet, doing the thankless word that goes unnoticed in the middle of the pitch. He is a tireless runner in press schemes, brings a metronomic energy to set and change his side’s tempo, and can make the kinds of passes that delight fans and coaches alike. Similarly to his former academy teammates listed above, Reilly worked his way into the starting 11 for Stanford in his freshman campaign and has never looked back. This year, Reilly started all 20 matches and helped his young and scrappy Stanford team outscore opponents by a combined score of 43-19. Reilly added 4 goals and 7 assists to that total and saved his best overall performance for Stanford’s signature win at top-ranked Marshall in the College Cup.
Atlanta United may already have Ajani Fortune, Tristan Muyumba, and Alan Carleton at central midfield but Reilly feels like the kind of player that could quickly make an impact at the next level.
With strong midfield options at the academy level and already signed to professional contracts, Atlanta United may allow several of their collegiate talents to enter the draft. For fans who have followed these college and academy updates, the names Dylan Gaither, Omar Hernandez, and Daniel Mangarov will all feel very familiar. They have all had impressive college campaigns as attacking players, lining up as attacking midfielders and forwards when needed. The key point for each of them is that they help their team score goals. Each player is superbly gifted at creating chances for their teammates and has put up impressive assist numbers along with goals scored across their college careers. They will all likely be in the SuperDraft and could all be selected and stashed on MLS NEXT PRO teams where they should play very well. If any of them go undrafted, I hope they will find their way onto Atlanta United 2’s roster for 2024.
Two other players who could be drafted this year are Georgetown’s goalkeeper Ryan Schewe and Creighton’s centerback Luke Mitchell. Schewe had a great season for a great Georgetown team, earning an invitation to the MLS College Soccer Showcase as one of only 4 goalkeepers in attendance. He started 14 matches in 2023 earning 5 shut-outs, making 29 saves, and allowing 12 goals on 134 shots for a 71% save percentage. Schewe has good size at 6’-4” (1.93 meters) and good mobility as a goalkeeper and could develop well in the right professional system. He will likely not be counted on as an immediate option for the team that drafts him but could become a reliable option after some more development in MLS NEXT PRO.
Luke Mitchell may be a better option for the USL Championship. He has done just about everything you can do at the college level, starting for Creighton for five years after featuring for one of the first Atlanta United 2 teams. He is a reliable centerback who can play centrally in a back-3 or on the right in a back-4. An injury during the 2021 COVID season limited his mobility slightly in 2022 but that did not stop him and Duncan McGuire from nearly winning a season title. Mitchell has a US Youth National Team pedigree and a lot of talent that may be too advanced for MLS NEXT PRO but may not yet be ready for regular MLS minutes. He will turn 23 in July and could turn a great season or two in the USL Championship into a contract with a team like Nashville or Real Salt Lake.
The last group of players we will look at ahead of the draft will be our standout Freshman players who did enough to be on our watchlist for the 2024 college season but are not likely to sign a Generation Adidas contract this winter.
Atlanta United 2 left-back Andrew De Gannes leads this group as a regular for the College Cup Quarterfinalist Oregon State Beavers. De Gannes impressed while playing for Atlanta United’s U-19s and 2s but was overshadowed by Caleb Wiley within the organization. Now, the Trinidad Youth International player can step into his spotlight starting 17 out of 20 matches and playing nearly 1500 minutes for a very very good Oregon State team that had a real shot at a championship. He wasn’t counted on to add a lot of goals in his first season, scoring 1 and adding 2 assists but he did play a vital role in a defensive group that held 6 clean sheets and outscored opponents 37-24. Aside from a bad 0-4 loss to Stanford, this defensive group consistently held opponents to 2 goals or fewer, allowing their potent offense to grind out wins. De Gannes will return in 2024 and could be an option for Atlanta United if Caleb Wiley is sold ahead of the 2025 season.
Another fullback worth watching is Clemson’s Remi Okunlola. Okunlola played very well in limited appearances for the 2s over the summer before taking his talents to Clemson alongside his fellow academy defender Mathieu Brick. The 2022 Gatorade Soccer Player of the Year in Georgia quickly worked his way into the Clemson rotation. He appeared in 15 matches and started 4, helping Clemson win the College Cup Final in his first season. From the fullback position, Okunlola found a lot of freedom to work on the flank, displaying his mobility and athleticism to create chances for himself and his teammates. He scored 2 goals and added 4 assists in 604 minutes, a goals-added/minutes ratio that should be making his coach and Atlanta United salivate for the player he could become in 2024 and beyond.
If Atlanta could only choose one college midfielder other than Will Reilly to bring back, that other play would probably be the University of Virginia’s Brendan Lambe.
Lambe, an Atlanta United 2 regular before departing for North Carolina FC last season, gradually worked his way into a crowded and experienced UVA midfield, playing 17 matches and making his first start on November 3rd in a highly competitive match against Syracuse that went to penalties. He started and played nearly the entire match against a veteran Florida International team in the cup in addition to another 60 minutes in a gritty 0-1 loss to Indiana in the next round. Lambe looks set to lead UVA’s midfield in 2024 and could force Atlanta United to make a tough decision ahead of the 2024 SuperDraft.
The University of Kentucky centerback Joel Gonzalez could also play his way back into Atlanta United’s plans after an impressive freshman season in which he started 17 of 19 matches he played for nearly 1450 minutes. These were high-quality minutes for Gonzalez against some of the top teams in college soccer in 2023 including Marshall, West Virginia, University of Central Florida, Louisville, and James Madison. Gonzalez could try to follow the same path as Nigel Prince to establish himself as a breakout Sophomore in his second season with a chance to be drafted in 2024.
The same may be true for Georgia Southern’s AJ Pama, a talented centerback who stepped out of a starting job with the U-19s in UPSL Georgia and into a starting centerback role in Statesboro. To be fair, this was not a good Georgia Southern team. The Georgia Southern program is in the middle of a rebuild as part of a competitive Sun Belt Conference that could offer great opportunities for young players like Pama and academy teammate Ty Wilson to earn valuable minutes as impact players early in their college careers.
That wraps up our review of the 2023 NCAA Men’s College Soccer season. There were a lot of exciting prospects in the mix this year and plenty of intrigue surrounding the 2024 SuperDraft so please let us know who you will be watching and who you would like to see return to Atlanta United.