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Which Atlanta United prospects could become the next Homegrown Players in 2024?

Scouting deep defensive and midfield groups for 2024

A lot has happened since the last one of these articles came out in May 2023.

We spent a fair amount of time discussing what new strategies for player development and signings may occur with Garth Lagerway leading the Front Office, including a discussion of the second team’s role as a controlled first step into the professional game for academy talents uninterested in a college career. It can also serve as an intensive trial period for college-aged players like Aidan McFadden and recently returned Academy and 2s defender, Matthew Edwards.

We discussed how most of the newly signed academy prospects were “lifers” with the Academy, growing from the U-12s or before in the system. Some players like Jackson Conway, Jonatan Villal, Alan Carleton, David Mejia, and Vicente Reyes were given more time to develop with the 2s without the roster pressure of a Homegrown deal, and Wiley, Cobb, and Brennan signed their 2s deals pre-empting Homegrown Player contracts.

In May, our top candidates for the “Next Homegrown Player” were Vicente Reyes, Garrison Tubbs, and Jonantan Villal. Reyes was granted a transfer to Norwich City in the English Championship where he quickly impressed his new club at the U-21 level before traveling to the sixth-tier side Braintree for a month-long loan. He has since seen his stock rise further, being named to the bench for first-team Championship matches in November. We were correct predicting Tubbs would be the main Homegrown Player signing from this winter, but that news was short-lived as he was traded to DC United one week later. Two weeks after the club traded away Tubbs, we learned that Jonantan Villal, too, departed the club on a transfer to Atletico San Luis of Liga MX. Former Homegrown Players Justin Garces, Jackson Conway, Machop Chol, and David Mejia also departed the club this offseason.

Now, as we look to the future to predict the next professional signing from the academy, we have a new sleight of young talent to explore. The club has increasingly experimented with signing academy talents to their first professional contracts with Atlanta United 2. For the club’s next signing, which could come as early as this preseason or early summer, we must consider the flexibility Atlanta United 2 offers the club and the players in their development timeline.

Atlanta United has become known as a bit of a defender factory with George Bello, Caleb Wiley, and George Campbell all finding success at the MLS level, and prospects like Noah Cobb and Efrain Morales getting series attention from their national federations. As Wiley’s stock continues to rise and rumors about offers from Europe begin to flow in, the natural question will be whether there is another young left-back waiting in the wings. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned the return of former Atlanta United Academy and University of North Carolina defender Matthew Edwards to Atlanta United 2. This was a unique signing where a player from Atlanta United’s collegiate diaspora returned to the club on a 2s contract rather than as a Homegrown Player. He is currently under a 1-year guaranteed contract for the 2024 season with the expectation that he will compete for a first-team contract in 2025. Edwards impressed as a versatile defender, playing every position at the back with the academy, 2s, and UNC. At 20 years old, he is the same age as Efrain Morales and a little over a year older than Noah Cobb. Edwards will rotate with these two defenders at centerback while also competing at fullback with exciting prospects like Shawn Lanza and Dominik Chong-Qui. There will also be rising academy centerbacks like Kaidan Moore and Ethan Degny who may earn cameos in the 2024 season.

The most direct comparison to Wiley could be U-17 left-sided flanking player Dominik Chong Qui. Chong Qui profiles very similarly to Wiley as a highly athletic and mobile left-flanking player. From the left-back position, he has impressive range and speed to freely move up and down the flank without compromising his team defensively when he joins the attack. His positioning is still a work in progress, but like Wiley, he has advanced closing speed and strong 1-on-1 defending to overcome that. Also similarly to Wiley, his coaches tend to shift him between wing and wingback roles to unbalance opponents and to take advantage of his strengths. He just turned 16 and is already receiving invitations to the US Youth National Team player identification camps and playing up from the U-17s with the U-19s. If allowed to take the same developmental path through the 2s beginning this Spring to the first team as Wiley began at 16 years old, he could make his debut for Atlanta United in 2025.

Atlanta United’s other compelling fullback prospect is Shawn Lanza. Lanza primarily plays as a right-back but can play on the left, too. He first joined the academy in the 2021-2022 season with the U-15s after playing with Inter Atlanta FC. Two years later, he earned his professional debut with ATL UTD 2 as a 17-year-old against Philadelphia Union II on April 30 shortly after representing the US U-17s for the first time in their first fixtures after qualifying for the 2023 U-17 World Cup. This also came at the end of the 2022-2023 academy season that landed him in the 2023 MLS NEXT All-Star Game. In his first season with the 2s, Lanza started 11 of the 15 matches he played for 822 minutes, and put together respectable numbers both in possession and in defense. He has split his time between the 2s and U-19s and will likely play a much larger role on the 2023 Atlanta United 2 team. The big question will be whether he will be playing as a professional with the 2s or as an academy standout.

The only other former academy remaining under contract with the 2s is central midfielder Alan Carleton. Carleton is a highly technical and composed central midfielder with a great understanding of how to see the field and effectively retain and move the ball through the opposition. The main issue with Carleton remains his lanky frame and tendency to get muscled off of the ball in the midfield. When he signed a 2s contract one year ago, the idea was that he and the club would buy him two years to physically and mentally grow into his best position as an 8. The soon-to-be 19-year-old midfielder is under contract through the end of the 2024 season and feels like the kind of prospect Atlanta United will want to keep around through at least his early 20s. He needs a fast defensive midfield partner with a bulldog mentality to allow his offensive gifts to shine and offset his limited size and below-average speed. Carleton got his first real taste of the Benz as a short-term call-up alongside Nic Firmino and Luke Brennan last March. Let’s see whether he joins the two of them with a first-team contract by the end of 2024.

Two more highly intriguing midfield prospects are Haitian youth international Julian Bretous (DM) and Cooper Sanchez (CM). Bretous represented Haiti as one of 10 Atlanta United prospects at the CONCACAF U-17 tournament. Like several of the players listed in this article, he was a key part of the U-16s academy team that won the MLS NEXT Cup this past summer. He is everything you want in a defensive midfield prospect with plenty of range, stamina, and soccer IQ to position himself well in the midfield. I’ve heard him compared to Tyler Adams, which makes sense based on his size, mobility, and complimentary balance of mobility and passing to have a high projectibiltiy. He will compete with Adyn Torres for minutes with the 2s but could be a great midfield partner with Alan Carleton.

Cooper Sanchez has already gotten his first caps with the 2s. In fact, he was the youngest ever player to see the field for the 2s at just 15 when he made his debut on April 22 in a victory of Chicago Fire II. Sanchez is a do-anything midfielder who has the versatility to play any position within the midfield that his coaches require. He may be best at the 8 but could earn a lot more opportunities thanks to his willingness and ability to adapt. He was one of three players to score in the MLS NEXT Cup final and was one of the youngest players on a U-16 squad that went 22-1-1 in the Southeastern Division under Kevin Kratz’s leadership. Sanchez only made 2 appearances with the 2s in 2023 but will likely have his name written into the 18 a lot more as the academy continues to challenge him at higher levels. This feels like a similar sceranio to when Carleton signed his multi-year 2s contract to lock in a talented and projectable young midfielder as he grows and matures in his role with the club.

Rocket Ritarita had a big 2023. In the Spring, he earned MVP honors for Atlanta United’s U-16s as they won the MLS NEXT Cup and was one of the other players who scored in the Cup Final. He soon followed that up with his professional debut as a second-half substitute in ATL UTD 2’s 5-0 victory over Inter Miami CF II on June 4. Ritarita is a quick attacking player with an equal ability to create opportunities for his teammates as he can hunt for his own goals. He has also earned call-ups with the US U-17s this year and will likely replace David Mejia and Villal as the most electric player on the 2s. He has played at the 10 and as a wing and may end up staying out wide as he enters the professional game.

Another dynamic winger for the academy is Jamaican U-17 Ashton Gordon. Gordon began his development with the academy primarily as a center forward, but seems to have found new life at the right wing. He is really fast, has a great feel for the game, and can be very direct in moving the flow of the game towards goal. Most of all, he’s a playmaker who makes his counterpart’s life hell in trying to keep track of him when the ball turns over. He was the leading goal scorer in the MLS NEXT Cup Play-offs for the U-16s and trained with the 2s and was on the bench for several matches in 2023. He has not yet made his debut but I expect that we will see a lot more of him in 2024.

Another forward who earned himself a big opportunity is Matthew Dejianne. Dejianne had a monster Fall season for the U-19s in the UPSL Georgia. As a 16-year-old, he led the U-19s in what is largely a U-23 league in scoring with 15 goals in 13 matches including a 3 goal and 2 assist match against Legends FC. This high production probably does not surprise any of his teammates or coaches. He was named the Academy Player of the Month in September of 2021 when he was playing with the U-16s. “He has a good understanding of the game and a feeling for where he has to be in front of the goal,” Kratz said. “That, along with his work rate, allows him to be very effective in the final third.” He led his U-15s team with 13 goals in 22 matches and just kept scoring. He has been in the club’s academy system since the beginning in 2016 and could get his first chance with the 2s after dominating the highest level of the academy he could get to in 2023. He just turned 17 at the end of November and could be the dynamic target forward prospect we have been looking for.

At the opposite end of the pitch in goal, we have a few intriguing options. Dillon Griner took home the 2023 MLS NEXT Cup Best Goalkeeper award, conceding just three goals all tournament for the U-16s. James Donaldson of the U-15s got his first call-up and caps with the United States U-15s this Fall. South African youth international Kyle Jansen has committed to joining the University of Syracuse in the Fall of 2024 and his teammate Nash Skoglund will rejoin Tony Annan at the University of South Carolina. With all of that said, the most likely goalkeeper to be the first to sign a professional contract in our current academy group is Jonathan Ransom. Ransom has had the spotlight on his since he first won the 2019 Generation Adidas Cup Golden Glove with the U-12s. Since then, he started the 2022 U-15s MLS NEXT Cup, was called up to the United States U-15s, and has even made the bench for the 2s before his 16th birthday. With more experience and age, he will get stronger and will improve his competitiveness in the air. Overall, he is a very young and very exciting prospect who Carlos Bocanegra was referring to when he said our two goalkeeper SuperDraft picks were meant to act as a bridge to between our older veteran group with the first team and the future down on the academy.

We will know by May which of these talented young players may be embarking on their professional careers in 2023 with Atlanta United. The other group of potential Homegrown Player signings to watch will be next winter at the conclusion of the 2024 college season. Three players feel like a near lock to return to Atlanta with the first of them being Will Reilly. Reilly had a fantastic 2023 season that you can read about in our season recap from last month. The same is true for sophomore centerback Nigel Prince and freshman midfielder Brendan Lambe. I expect each of these three players to be wearing 5-Stripes kits again by 2026. Three other players to watch for 2025 are Clemson freshman fullback Remi Okunlola who emerged as a valuable part of Clemson’s championship team last fall, Andrew De Gannes who played nearly every minute of Oregon State’s terrific season, and Joel Gonzalez who also played nearly every minute as a freshman for the University of Kentucky. Each of these players will likely be in the 2025 SuperDraft unless Atlanta United chooses to retain their rights.

That wraps up this breakdown of some of the many talented players in our academy. If you want to read another person’s perspective on our young players and learn about some who were not yet in one of our “Next Homegrown” articles, I highly recommend you check out USMNT Prospects on Patreon for their top-25 breakdown of current Atlanta United Academy players.

Who are you most excited about from this group of players and who will you be following most closely with the 2s next season?