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Atlanta United 2021 MLS Superdraft Preview

Who will Atlanta United pick in the Superdraft next week?

SOCCER: JAN 11 MLS SuperDraft Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SBI Soccer just released their first Big Board for the upcoming MLS Superdraft that will be held on January 21st. An updated board is expected next week.

As has been covered throughout the fall season, the 2020-2021 NCAA soccer season experienced remarkable levels of disruption for college soccer and for MLS and USL scouts attempting to gameplan the draft. For the first time in recent memory, the college soccer season will continue after the MLS Superdraft culminating in the championship tournament in May. Since most teams have not played competitively since 2019, it will be a guessing game to determine where players will fall on any team’s big board.

Beyond the logistical constraints of the 2020 season, there are additional constraints in the construction of rosters in the MLS. Once again, the majority of the top-tier talent in the upcoming draft will require international player slots. With these highly valuable roster slots already taken up by DPs, TAM players, and potentially the long-discussed U-22 initiative, it is possible that some of these players will fall in the draft if teams are simply unable to accommodate another international player on their roster. While a challenge in the current rules, it should be something MLS and the MLS Players Association work out to not disadvantage this group of players going forward.

Also in this draft are players who previously played for MLS academies but are either ineligible for homegrown contracts or have had their rights waived by their former club. This is something to watch in regards to Atlanta United’s small group of seniors who will be looking to begin their professional careers.

Atlanta United will select the 5th player in the upcoming draft if all things stay the same and will select players at #32 and #59 in the final two rounds. This is their highest draft position since Atlanta United’s expansion season in which Julian Gressel and Miles Robinson were selected in the first round. While it may be unrealistic to expect the same kind of contribution from our upcoming pick, this player will have every opportunity to earn his place in Gabriel Heinze’s rotation.

So who will we pick? First, let’s look at the position groups. One of the most top-heavy groups in this class is at the central defensive position. Ethan Bartlow (Washington), Nabi Kibunguchy (UC-DAVIS), and Josh Bauer (U. of New Hampshire) appear to be the top-3 players in the draft but none of these players have played their 2020 seasons yet so their placement that high up SBI’s board seems to be speculative. Atlanta United also has a strong group of centerbacks coming through the academy right now and will need to provide plenty of minutes for George Campbell and Efrain Morales to become the sorts of prospects who can replace Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza in a season or two. It does not make sense to spend a high pick on a player who may just be temporarily filling a seat for youngsters with more upside.

If we were going to choose a central defender, it would need to be a player who is good in possession, can find those defense-splitting passes to cut through multiple levels of opposition, and can hold his own on the ground and in the air from the left centerback spot. If we had to pick one of those players, we would probably take Ethan Bartlow from the University of Washington. Bartlow is a rare centerback who is called upon to take free-kicks for his top-10 ranked Huskies team. Standing at just above 6-feet (1.83 meters), Bartlow is not the tallest of centerbacks but his size will not be a big disadvantage for him. Ahead of joining the Huskies in 2018, his future coach Jamie Clark raved about his new player:

“Ethan is a fantastic central defender that is dominant on both sides of the ball. His range of passing is incredible and he’s dominant in the air. Ethan’s time with the US U17 national team saw him handle many of the top attacking players in the world, so he will be ready to play against any of the top attacking players he faces this fall.”

Bartlow would be a domestic player and would not require an international slot. This, and his range of abilities, would make him a highly attractive player for Atlanta United.

Forwards are also a strong group in this class with Calvin Harris (Wake Forest), Ousseni Bouda (Stanford), Edward Kizza (Pitt), David Egbo (Akron), and Kimarni Smith (Clemson) all providing intriguing options across a 3-man attacking front.

For me, Kimarni Smith is the most intriguing of the bunch. He was on fire in the ACC Championship tournament and uses his size and athleticism from the left wing to put himself and his teammates in good positions to receive the ball and find dangerous angles on goal. Smith can play any forward spot, and when paired with a taller striker like Atlanta United product James Brighton, Smith can choose his moments to whip in the kind of cross that Josef Martinez and Jackson Conway would salivate over. Smith could offer the team a tall and dangerous substitute with plenty of speed and technical ability to change the momentum of a match when the team needs a goal. Smith hails from England and played for the Sheffield United academy and U-23 team before heading to Clemson.

There are a few midfielders who would make a big impact for their MLS sides early if drafted into the right systems. Philip Mayaka (Clemson), Daniel Pereira (Virginia Tech), and Justin McMaster (Wake Forest) all offer unique and intriguing skillsets.

Mayaka could have gone as a top player in the Superdraft last year as the ACC’s Freshman of the Year. In 2021, Mayaka will likely be going to Austin FC as the top pick. After struggling with some ball control and decision-making in 2020, Mayaka may have created a few more question marks than before but the talent is indisputable and so is the potential. At Clemson, Mayaka played all over the midfield but seemed to find the most consistency as a forward-moving central midfielder or a deep-lying midfielder tasked with rapidly shuttling the ball forward. The speed of play at the next level will be a crucial challenge to overcome for Mayaka, but if the young Kenyan can sync up with his teammates, he may become a top-10 central midfielder in MLS.

Like Mayaka, Pereira was also heavily considered in the previous MLS Superdraft. After returning for his second season with the Hokies, Daniel Pereira led the midfield of a Tech team that was the biggest surprise in the 2020 ACC Championship. They are attack-minding and scrappy, seeking to outpace the other team. Unfortunately for them, Clemson plays the same style of soccer and are much better at it. Pereira can play as the attacking half of a double pivot and seems to have a knack for scoring.

Justin McMaster would be a great pickup for Atlanta United if he somehow falls to the second round or if our top choices are no longer on the board. I doubt he will make it past the middle of the first round, so he will be a great roleplayer for a team like Toronto or Seattle at the next level. McMaster played all over the midfield and frontline for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The Deacons often line up in a 4-3-3 with a circulating midfield and with wingers dropping back to form a 4-man midfield diamond at times. McMaster could play on the flanks and could also hold his own in the middle.

Finally, Atlanta United could use some goalkeeping depth. Brad Guzan and Alec Kann are both getting old and while the team has Ben Lundgaard from the 2’s who could take on the presumptive #3 spot and academy prospect Vicente Reyes could be #4, and since we have not heard any follow-up to the rumored transfer of Argentine-American Rocco Rios Novo from Lanus, we should proceed as if the team could really use some depth to help fill out the roster and plan for the future. The goalkeeping position should not be filled in the first round with the current group of players available, but with an early pick in the second round, Atlanta United could nab their future backup keeper.

Andrew Pannenburg from Wake Forest University could be a great option for the second pick. Pannenburg is a redshirt Junior with Wake Forest after spending time with the U-17/18 Development Academy Team and the US U-17 team. Across 9 matches in 2020, Pannenburg had 26 saves and allowed 7 goals. As a domestic player, Pannenburg would not require an international slot and would likely be a very cheap, but experienced option to compete with Ben Lundgaard for the third keeper spot or as the primary keeper with the 2’s.

That wraps up our first review of college players who could be drafted by Atlanta United. Check back in a week and we will go over the new SBI Soccer big board to see if any new names pop up for the later rounds.

In the meantime, tell us who you are interested in Atlanta United drafting.