Let’s begin by saying how proud we all are of Luke Brennan.
They grow up so fast— ATLUTD Academy (@AcademyATLUTD) March 9, 2023
From the very first Academy dinner to your first pro contract. Big up, Luke Brennan pic.twitter.com/U7hSvxOSsG
Luke is another phenomenal young man to come from this academy and joins a strong group of talent to emerge in the post-Bello Homegrown era. Like Caleb Wiley and several other Homegrown signings, he spent his entire academy career with Atlanta United beginning his journey in 2017.
Luke has played up with the U-19s since 2021 and made his Atlanta United 2 debut against Memphis 901 FC on Oct. 17, 2021. The club has played him all around the field, trying him at fullback and wingback in addition to his more natural positions at forward and wing. He brings a bulldog presence to the field with a similar toughness and attitude to his 2s teammate David Mejia. He has good quickness and can be silky smooth in his ability to move around the edge of the box. Like Mejia, Brennan racked up a lot of minutes at a variety of positions because the team wanted to get him on the field as much as possible.
Fans of the 2s knew what was coming when Luke stepped onto the field for the first time at The Benz. He is hungry for the ball and can be as much of a poacher as he can be an artist in his ability to curl a cross or a screamer into the top corner of the net.
Luke Brennan will be a fun player to watch as he begins his professional career.
The big question then becomes, who is next?
Our next Homegrown Player could come from three distinct pools of talent. The club has several players signed to professional contracts with the 2s who seem on the verge of a 1st team deal. There are also a couple of players in the college ranks who seem to stand out even more than some of my favorites from last year’s class. And finally, we look at our unsigned academy prospects, of which there are many with strong potential.
The most likely of all of these players to make his debut with the 1st team in 2024 is Vicente Reyes. Reyes has been on a meteoric rise internationally with high-profile call-ups and starts for Chile’s U-20 team.
Vicente and Efraín — from our inaugural Academy class to the world stage ️— ATLUTD Academy (@AcademyATLUTD) January 25, 2023
Great to see two of our own compete on the international level last night pic.twitter.com/nx4ZRHsEXP
Reyes is a tall and lanky goalkeeper who continues to grow more proficient with the ball at his feet while also improving on his already above-average shot-stopping ability. He continues to grow in experience and confidence with both the 2s and with Chile and seems to be a future lock to join Atlanta United’s first-team goalkeeping corps. With at least one of Quinten Westburg and Clemente Diop departing the roster after the 2023 season, the competition is on between Justin Garces and Vicente Reyes for a backup role at the Benz in 2024.
Jonny Villal is potentially the most exciting field player with the 2s this season. He is a fast and dynamic attacking midfielder with the kind of instincts, passing, and movement that will delight fans. Villal has an advanced vision, touch, and ability to retain the ball in tight dribbles from the attacking midfield position. Like Reyes, Villal has caught the attention of international youth teams with Mexico calling him up several times during the Fall and Winter. Now entering his second professional season with the 2s, he will look to continue building upon his strong performances with the 2s and U-19s against opponents who are less physically overpowering in MLS NEXT PRO. His small size caused him to get rag-dolled a few times in the USL Championship so for his health and for our sanity as fans, it will be reassuring to see him using his intelligence, quickness, and experience to avoid those kinds of challenges. With the right amount of patience from fans and from coaches, Villal could become our first Homegrown #10 to have a chance at starting at The Benz. With Almada likely to depart on a big contract sometime over the next two windows, the search for a new 10 will be on and Villal could have a chance to compete for that role in 2024.
The club’s lack of interest in this last class of college seniors caught us by surprise. With room on the roster for depth at every phase of the game, it seemed unlikely that the club would completely pass on strong options like Russell Shealy who was drafted by the Galaxy, Liam Butts who was drafted by San Jose, Ousman Jabang who signed with Montreal, or Takuma Suzuki who is still unsigned.
With former college Homegrown Signing Bryce Washington also departing from the organization for DC’s Loudon United and George Campbell heading to Montreal on a lucrative trade, the club cleared the way for its highly anticipated young defenders Noah Cobb and Efrain Morales to step into that role. The strongest candidate from this year’s college class is Wake Forest’s captain Garrison Tubbs. Tubbs is a well-known player in Atlanta United circles as a former standout with the academy and 2s, along with a continued presence on the training pitch during his offseasons. Tubbs is a vocal leader at centerback and does well when partnered with a highly athletic partner. He handles the ball well with his feet, playing his Sophomore season at right-back, but his true strength is orchestrating the team from the backline. With another year of experience in the attacking arms race of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Tubbs will be well-suited to transition back to Atlanta as part of a young pool of defenders vying to be Miles Robinson’s successor.
Two other seniors who were part of last year’s intrigue are Mercer’s attacking duo of Dylan Gaither and Omar Hernandez. Hernandez, a longtime standout at Wake Forest, joins Gaither in Macon for their final college season. Hernandez is a more traditional #10 with Gaither able to play at both the 10 and on the wing. This gives Mercer greater flexibility when rotating players during the match and will create an almost cheat-code level of attacking firepower for this college side.
If you are looking for fun college soccer this Fall, look no further than south down I-75.
Fans of the 2s may be in for a treat in 2023. In addition to seeing some familiar faces from 2022, fans will also get to know the new head coach Steve Cooke. Cooke joins Atlanta United with 30 years of coaching experience, most recently as the Seattle Sounders Academy Director. As part of Garth Lagerway’s recent conversations with the media, he shared that there have been some recent shifts in development strategy in the 2s pipeline to better equip and prepare reserves and talented young players with the ability to see the field earlier in the career while being prepared to take on more regular roles with the first team.
It now appears that Cobb and Brennan were two of those players he was referring to, in addition to Machop Chol, Aidan McFadden, and Jackson Conway as key reserves that they need to get ready for regular minutes when needed.
With this shift in approach, academy players will see increased attention with a more direct pipeline from the U-17s to the 2s. This has been the case since the COVID season when the 2s relied almost entirely on U-17s to fill out a depleted roster.
Alan Carleton was one of those youngsters who benefited. Carleton traveled with the team to Mexico as part of their preseason camp and continues to see himself integrated into the first team’s plans. He plays a more central role than his older brother, with plenty of experience as both a central midfielder and defensive midfielder. He is strong in passing, fearless in defense, and increasingly capable of retaining and advancing the ball. He has always been smaller and lankier so he looked out of place against the 30-year-old forwards and midfielders of the USL Championship but this experience helped him understand angles, positioning, and other ways to win duels against physically imposing opposition.
Danial Sebhatu also benefitted from an early introduction to the 2s. Unfortunately, the center forward missed most of 2022 with an injury but he is back and ready to catch up on lost time. Sebhatu has a good size for a target forward role but also the quickness that keeps the opposing backline off balance.
Malachi Grant could be our next left-back to sign a homegrown contract. Grant was one of 10 Atlanta United players to be called up by his international team this past winter, joining academy teammate Ashton Gordon with Jamaica for the Concacaf U-17 championship. Grant has played at both fullback positions and brings a lot of quality to both sides of his game. He will likely settle in at left-back as his main position and could be in line to be Caleb Wiley’s (‘04) successor once Wiley is sold to Europe in 2024 or 2025. His main competition is Andrew De Gannes who currently plays for the 2s.
Our biggest wildcard in this group is midfielder Cooper Sanchez. At just 14 or 15 years old, Sanchez played his first match with the 2s this preseason. He has played up with the U-17s this entire academy season and looks to continue forcing his way up the development ladder. Admittedly, I haven’t seen enough of his game to describe what specifically makes this young player capable of playing up this many levels but what I can say is that he looks like he belongs.
As you can see from this short list of players, there is plenty of talent in the Atlanta United pipeline. This list is specifically meant for Homegrown Players #17-19 but familiar names like Will Reilly and David Mejia could work their way back in with a strong senior season in 2024 for Reilly or a strong 2023 with the 2s for Mejia. There are also compelling academy prospects like Adyn Torres, Ashton Gordon, Nash Skoglund, and Jonathan Ransom who could all push for their opportunities very soon. With the club’s new focus on its own youth, and a need to keep this pipeline rolling as part of the club’s roster strategy, the time could not be better for these kids to show what they can do.
Let us know who you are excited about seeing this season with the 2s and which current Homegrowns you hope to see break out in 2023.