Moral and personal victories outpacing team wins
On a hot, humid night on a rain-soaked field in Charleston, Atlanta United 2 reached the halfway mark of the final season in the USL Championship. The match started with a bang as newly signed draft pick Tristan Trager scored an unassisted brace. By the end of the night, this young side would add another brace by Jackson Conway and five yellow cards spread across the squad. While such a high-scoring wild and fiery performance would feel like a rare treat for many fans, this was a sign of a potential emergence for the 2s.
Through the first 18 matches of the season, the 2s sit in 11th place in the East with 14 points (4w-12L-2T). This is a boom or bust side that ranks near the bottom of the league in shots created with 169 but in the top half of the league in conversion rate at 13% (22 goals). The team struggles with stemming the flood of opposing goals, conceding a league-worst 44 goals so far including three against the floundering Charleston Battery and a brutal late-gate set-piece goal against El Paso. Much of that comes from the team’s youth and an inexperienced backline battling the attrition of injuries, international call-ups, and promotions to the first team.
This group can be inspiringly brave in how they fight through physical opponents and try to impose their style of play on older veteran sides. Sometimes that works, but more often that leads to blow-outs. Coach Collison and his staff frame each of those matches as opportunities to learn, grow, and prove that these young players can overcome adversity whether that is that night on the pitch or through the long slow process of development. These coaches expect relentless effort and fearless grit from their young players so they are quick to praise players’ performances but also prepared to call them out for lazy or reckless play like the team’s 0-3 loss to Hartford after the Pachuca friendly. This context is vital for the players and for the fans in order to not grow discouraged by the raw stats and the win-loss record. They try to play a possession-heavy style with passing out of the back and similar philosophies for advancing the ball as we see in the MLS tactics. This style requires a great deal of mental and positional discipline so early struggles and cheap turnovers are predictable for a young side. It also requires a level of roster stability that has not yet come to fruition this season. As the team grows in familiarity, they are increasingly able to break pressure and create some beautiful chances like this:
— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) June 30, 2022
Though this counter began with the defense, the second-half success of this team will come from the midfield. Robbie Mertz returned as the team’s captain and de facto field general, often acting as an additional coach on the field to position and instruct his young teammates. He partners with academy product Ajani Fortune who just signed his first professional contract with the 2s and academy prospect Brendan Lambe who is committed to joining a growing group of academy players at the University of Virginia in 2023. Efrain Morales also gained vital experience both as the holding midfielder and as the lone centerback for a few matches. Newcomer Nic Firmino added a bit of size to the midfield and offers versatility to play any midfield position. Academy product Jon Villal also joined the team on his first professional contract at 16 years old, along with midseason additions Nwogu Emenike (Nigeria) and Toni Tiente (Georgia Gwinnett College).
As you can see from the attacking stats, the club started slowly in their attack. The recent reemergence of Darwin Matheus has helped as has the late addition of Tristan Trager in a two-striker set alongside Jackson Conway. In the match against Charleston, Trager and Conway played as a striker duo ahead of Matheus and linked up expertly with the dynamic flanking runs of David Mejia and Raimar. Trager followed up his quick brace against Charleston with his second brace in a row against El Paso a few days later. If the club can successfully feed Trager and if Conway can continue his strong distribution, the second half could be filled with goals. Jon Villal could be a big part of that with his impressive ability to see the field and thread a killer pass at such a young age. Luke Brennan has added impressive minutes as an academy call-up as has University of Virginia-bound center forward Andy Sullins who earned his debut goal against Memphis 901 FC. Sullins can play as a target forward and as a poacher. He moves well into space between defenders and opens up room for attackers to make runs behind him. He should be one to watch as he continues his development at a top college program.
The first team’s injury crisis has drastically impacted the 2s defense. It is safe to say that the team was constructed with an assumption that Alex De John, Mikey Ambrose, Dylan Castanheira, and potentially George Campbell would be among the reserves logging minutes with the 2s. Caleb Wiley’s emergence in his first season as a Homegrown Player probably surprised the club, too. With those key defenders missing from potential line-ups, the 2s have fully embraced the youth movement with newcomers Nelson Orji (CB) and Raimar (LWB) slotting in alongside future Homegrown player Noah Cobb and a platoon of Aidan McFadden and academy prospect Grant Howard (CB/RB). Orji and Cobb have missed time due to injury and Cobb has also received call-ups to the USYNT U-19 and U-20 teams and the Atlanta United first team. David Mejia and MLS Superdraft pick Eric Centeno are developing as wingbacks on the right side as the team shifts between 3-man and 4-man backlines. Howard has been very impressive, filling in across the entire defensive line and showing clear growth in every match. He has had some howlers but he continues to learn and improve. He could quickly become a premier player for Virginia Tech this fall. A key player missing from this group is Bryce Washington who has battled injuries for most of the season.
The goalkeeping corps has also been a revolving door. Dylan Castanheira was quickly lost to injury so Justin Garces and Vicente Reyes have benefitted as the main goalkeeping duo. Aside from a couple of spot starts by Rocco Rios Novo, Garces has become the guy for the 2s, adding a bit of seniority to the young defensive group while continuing to develop his abilities with the ball at his feet. He is improving but it is still a work in progress. Reyes has looked good in his opportunities and even earned a call-up to the Chilean National Team training camp during the May international window. Reyes also trained with the Chilean U-20s where he seems to have impressed coaches and teammates alike.
So what’s next for the 2s?
After the club’s Saturday night fixture against El Paso, Andy Sullins (UVA), Nigel Prince (Northwestern), and Grant Howard (Virginia Tech) departed to begin training with their new college teams. With no signs of defensive depth relief at the MLS level, the club will likely need to bring in more defensive depth from the academy to fill in for Howard so we could see Mathieu Brick return to the 2s and Remi Okunlola make his debut. Alan Carlton will likely continue his role as a midfield substitute and Malachi Grant of the U-16s may also make his 2s debut at right-back if McFadden remains up with the first team. Several members of the club’s U-19 side that went undefeated in the 4th division USPL Spring season may also join the 2s for the remainder of the season.
For the core players who remain, they will face a brutal schedule filled with challenging opponents like Birmingham Legion, LA Galaxy II, and San Antonio FC. They will need to build off of what worked against Charleston and fix the defensive lapses that led to Charleston nearly pulling off a comeback. Conway and Trager will battle stouter defensive units and Mertz will have to guide his young teammates through some relentless pressing teams like Tampa Bay. The scores and matches probably won’t be pretty but these young players may find a way to steal some points along the way. Tulsa, Miami, Red Bulls II, Indy, and Loudon are all potential fixtures where the 2s could pick up some valuable points. This team likely won’t make the playoffs but they could finish as the top MLS 2s team in the East.