Let’s start by congratulating our newest Homegrown player, Machop Chol, who is the first product of the Atlanta United academy to return following a successful college career.
Though being the first Homegrown player to return from college, Chol continues a more recent trend of Atlanta United signing high-character players from their academy. This is part of a broader move to promote quality individuals within the organization.
The players we will be discussing in this article share maturity, professionalism, and tenacity that can potentially offer them successful experiences more similar to George Bello than the other Homegrowns who are no longer with the team. Annan is careful about which players he trains with older teams and with the professionals but if he believes a player can grow from the tougher competition and potentially thrive in an advanced setting, he will not hesitate to challenge that player. We have yet to see new head coach Gabriel Heinze take to the training pitch with his young players but all signs point to Heinze taking a similar approach to Annan in offering young players opportunities.
Caleb Wiley - LB - 2004 - Atlanta United 2
The future looks bright for Atlanta’s young talent. Atlanta United will soon have the luxury of a second talented young leftback on track to have careers beyond Atlanta United in Europe.
When the academy launched in 2016, Wiley joined the U-12s and from there advanced rapidly through the lower age groups. His rapid rise caught the attention of US Soccer officials who called the young fullback in for the 2020 U-17 UEFA camp. The other Atlanta United player called into that camp was future-Homegrown signing Efrain Morales.
Caleb Wiley was a revelation in 2020. At just 15, Wiley looked incredibly composed in his first professional minutes as a leftback in the USL Championship last year.
“It was a great feeling making my pro debut in the USL and getting my first start. The whole experience has been surreal,” Academy defender Caleb Wiley remembered about his first USL start. “Before the game, I was a little nervous since I was going to be on TV for the first time. But my teammates and coaches were and have been extremely supportive.”
In 2021, it is fair to anticipate Caleb Wiley starting at leftback for the 2’s in a backline composed of Efrain Morales, George Campbell, and Jack Gurr. He will need those minutes because if Bello has a strong enough season next year and gets called in for the Olympics, Wiley may need to fill the shoes of Atlanta United’s first big Homegrown sale.
Much of Wiley’s presence comes down to his incredible maturity, his unflappable mindset, and the trust and comfort he has in Annan’s system after spending the entirety of his development with Atlanta. The speed of the game does not seem to be a problem for him. Fans of the 2’s were often wowed by the quick and dangerous interchanges going on between Wiley, Coleman Gannon, and Will Reilly as they advanced the ball up the left side of the pitch. Wiley can hold his own against much older and more developed players. At this point in his career, his defense looks more developed than George Bello’s though his abilities on the offensive side of the game are still developing.
Will Reilly - CM - 2002 - Atlanta United 2
Will Reilly has an imminent decision in the coming months. Reilly is currently committed to play for Stanford University, a premier collegiate program that has produced Jordan Morris and Chad Marshall. Will he, like George Campbell, end his commitment to Stanford to sign his first professional contract? The club likely has until midsummer to decide how advanced they feel Reilly is as a player and how soon he can contribute to the MLS team.
Reilly joined the 2’s midseason in 2019. Since then, he has cemented himself in the holding midfield role even as the tactics switched from a 2-man midfield where he was paired in a double pivot with Amir Bashti, to a 3-man midfield where his role is to sit back in a triangle with the centerbacks and play a role that feels like a hybrid of Darlington Nagbe and Michael Bradley. Will Reilly is the soul and unsung hero of this 2’s team.
After the 2020 season, Reilly shared a few thoughts about playing at the USL level under Annan’s leadership.
“I love how young our team is this year. I think it’s given us a certain level of aggression and lack of complacency that I know Tony likes,” Academy midfielder Will Reilly confessed. “It’s much more fun to play in a team with that kind of attitude. Everything is new, everything is exciting, so I really appreciate that. And it’s easier to connect with guys that are my own age.”
Reilly still has room to grow and likely needs to add some strength and size in order to effectively compete at higher levels. He has become much better at ball control and positioning to win on both sides of the ball, but he still gets overpowers by larger midfielders and forwards at times. The team continues to challenge him and give him plenty of opportunities to grow in training with the first team in the 2020 preseason and in training with the CCL roster.
In 2021, Reilly will have a new group of midfield partners to adjust to with Robbie Mertz joining the team from Pittsburgh to fill Amir Bashti’s Attacking Midfield role. If Reilly can continue to improve his positioning, ball control, and strength, Reilly could be a valuable midfield engine for Atlanta United in the very near future and could pick up a bunch of hockey assists through Mertz for the 2s this season.
Ajani Fortune - AM/CM - 2002 - Atlanta United 2
Ajani Fortune is one of the older players of this group, and just this week was called up to the senior national team for Trinidad and Tobago. Born in 2002, Fortune will likely be around for one more USL season but will be making an important decision about his future next season. We have not yet heard any college recruitment rumors for Fortune yet, but he will certainly be a player in demand.
Fortune is a very capable player and will likely be called upon to play a more important role in 2021.
“Coach Tony is a coach that wants the best for us, and he does his best to get the best out of us. I feel like he’s able to do that in training sessions and through what he asks of us,” said Academy midfielder Ajani Fortune. “I’m enjoying having him as a coach. He always finds ways to try and motivate us and push us to be better and work hard.”
The midfielder has a CONCACAF future ahead of him as already a youth international for Trinidad and Tobago and now a senior team player after receiving his first call-up against the US Men’s National Team. Fortune played well in his midfield pairings with Reilly in 2020 but was not been able to win consistent starts over the more experienced Baboucarr Njie for a regular role. Now with Njie departed from the team and Fortune entering his second year with the USL roster, Fortune has a chance to make a strong impression for the new coaching staff. He will likely compete with incoming midfielder Robbie Mertz for a central midfield spot.
Nigel Prince - CB - 2004 - U-18/19
Nigel Prince is one of the best defensive prospects in the entire Atlanta United organization and defense seems to be the strongest pool of prospects in the whole academy. Prince regularly ranks near the top of a group that includes Ephrain Morales, Andrew Durkin, Caleb Wiley, Matthew Edwards, Kobey Stoup, Brian Casanova, and Remi Okunlola.
He is part of the highly talented 2004 class that has already produced Ephrain Morales and seems likely to yield at least a couple more first-team players. Now with the U-18/19s, Prince seems likely to make his first appearance with the 2’s in 2021 after making the bench a couple of times in 2020. Prince has gotten a lot of interest at the USYNT level and should be getting attention from European clubs soon enough. With Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza set to depart the MLS team in the near future, a strong group of young centerbacks seeks to claim their place as regulars for their hometown side.
Kobey Stoup - CB - 2003 - U-18/19
Kobey Stoup is one of the overlooked central defensive prospects of the Atlanta United system. With Andrew Durkin and Matthew Edwards garnering most of the attention on the defensive side of the 03’s, Stoup has not gotten nearly the coverage he has deserved. The Duluth-native has played for Atlanta United since joining the team for the 2017-2018 season where he started 29 or 31 matches for the U-15s, scoring 8 goals along the way. Stoup’s impressive performance for Atlanta United earned him a call-up with the US U-16s in 2018 where he captained the US’s 2-0 win over Croatia in the Torneo Delle Nazioni. Just a few months later, he joined the U-17s as a 15-year old to take on Liga MX’s Atlas, playing the full 90 minutes.
Stoup went on to earn All-South Region honors in 2018 and 2019. He and Nigel Prince are arguably the most developed central defenders who have yet to sign a professional contract with Atlanta United, and both seem to have strong potential. With the centerback position becoming crowded at the 2’s level and above, Stoup may need to play in college or on loan for a year or two but he will be back.
Vicente Reyes - GK - 2003 - Atlanta United 2
Atlanta United may sign two Homegrown Goalkeepers by the start of the 2022 season. With Justin Garces nearing the end of his college career with UCLA and Vicente Reyes nearing the end of his Academy career, the pool of competing successors for Brad Guzan and Alec Kann’s jobs may be coming into view.
At 16-year-old, Reyes is already 6’2”, so it stands to reason he will add a few more inches in height while adding a lot more muscle to his gangly frame. He is quick and has above average feet at the back to play the kind of facilitator Atlanta United requires from the goalkeeping spot.
Reyes enters 2021 as the primary backup for Ben Lundgaard with the 2s and the 4th Keeper overall in the organizational depth chart. That is a lot of responsibility for a young player but he is not phased by playing above his age group.
“They’ve always pushed me to play with older players. I would play with the 15s when I was 13,” Academy goalkeeper Vicente Reyes voiced. “They always pushed me to play with bigger, stronger and older players.”
Reyes, may require Atlanta to act quickly in securing his professional services since he is already receiving interest from the Chilean and American youth international systems.
Brendan Lambe - DM - 2004 - U-18/19
Brendam Lambe is Atlanta United’s next promising defensive midfield prospect. As a 16-year-old Lambe made his professional debut with the 2s in place of Will Reilly against the Tampa Bay Rowdies last September. While the young player showed his age, he rarely looked overmatched or undeserving of his opportunity. Lambe went on to make a couple more sub appearances with the 2s in 2020 and seems set to claim Reilly’s role at the #6 position if Reilly departs for Stanford in 2021.
Lambe joins Atlanta United from the Raleigh area where he trained with the North Carolina FC academy (formerly the Railhawks). Soon after joining Atlanta United, Lambe traveled with the U-17s to England where they competed in a tournament against Manchester City Tottenham, West Brom, and other top English clubs. While has proven to be a strong defensive force for his U-17 and U-18/19 teams, he has also shown the ability to beautifully rocket a shot on goal and has been called upon to take penalties for his academy sides.
Lambe has already represented the United States at the U-15 level and will likely receive more call-ups once international youth soccer resumes after the pandemic. In the meantime, look for Lambe to make more of a name for himself in 2021 and to challenge for opportunities at the USL level and eventually with the first team.
David Mejia - M/F - 2003 - Atlanta United 2
David Mejia made a massive impact for the 2s in 2020. Acting primarily as a super-sub, Mejia scored 3 goals in 198 minutes mostly off of the bench. Mejia is a scrappy, high-energy midfielder who can play on the wing and who has a poacher’s nose for the ball. What is so impressive about Mejia is his ability to be in the right place at the right time to score on rebounds or turnovers.
Mejia has the kind of joyful insanity on the pitch that you love to see in a young player. That kind of energy is contagious for a team and will continue to fuel the youthful swagger the 2’s side will carry in 2021 as they continue to prove that they belong.
Italo Jenkins - F - 2005 - U-16/17
Italo Jenkins plays alongside a strong group of U-16/17s for Atlanta United including Elijah Buford (goalkeeper); Mathieu Brick and Remi Okunlola (defenders); Alan Carleton, Johann Chirinos, and Jonathan Villal (Midfielders); and Danial Sebhatu and Ty Wilson (forwards). All of these players have extensive experience in the US Youth National Teams and seem destined to be in consideration for international competition at the senior level.
Jenkins began his development with Inter Atlanta before joining the Atlanta United U-14s in 2018. He quickly jumped to the U-15s and played a full season between these two age groups. He is currently playing up with the U-16/17s and will likely split his time between the U-16/17s and U-18/19s for the 2020-2021 season. Jenkins is a scoring machine. Jenkins was one of 9 Atlanta United players invited to the U-14 Talent ID Mini-camp in Frisco for national team scouting a development.
There are so many honorable mentions who did not make it on this list. As the age groups of players advance through the academy, we are starting to see players who have been with the team from 11 or 12 years old through the end of their high school eligibility.
Though we did not cover them in this article, other players to watch include Andrew Durkin (CB - 2003), Bryce Griffith (F - 2003), Riley Cullum (F - 2004), Dagoberto Romero (GK - 2004), Danial Sebhatu (F - 2005), Owen Wolff (M - 2004), Alan Carlton (M - 2005), Elijah Buford (GK - 2005), Jonathan Villal (M - 2005), and Ty Wilson (F -2005).
Let us know which players you are most excited about in the comments below.