Shoring up the depth
The 2022 MLS Superdraft is nearly upon us and the biggest surprise was the inclusion of Charlie Asensio’s name on the list of draft-eligible players. Clemson’s senior left-back Charlie Asensio was widely expected to join Atlanta United on a homegrown contract, especially with rumors swirling about George Bello’s European interest. With Caleb Wiley and Andrew Gutman waiting in the wings and Aidan McFadden impressing with the 2s, the club may be less inclined to bring in a fullback though right-back remains an option.
Earlier this week, TopDrawerSoccer picked a goalkeeper for Atlanta United in their first mock of the upcoming MLS Superdraft, and I could not disagree more with their pick. They correctly point to Atlanta’s current razor-thin depth at goalkeeper but fail to realize that Atlanta United has several internal options and free-agent options at the position. Atlanta United still retains the rights to USL standout Rocco Ríos Novo and could look to bring him back on another loan or a permanent transfer in 2022. The club also has retained the homegrown rights to UCLA’s senior captain Justin Garces who has as much talent and experience as any of his peers in the draft. Signing Garces would be like an extra first-round pick for Atlanta United.
For our purposes, the greatest value at the #19 pick in the Superdraft could be achieved by shoring up the depth in Atlanta United’s formational spine. We shall look at a center forward, central midfielder, and centerback, who could all offer valuable depth at positions of need.
Based on recent history, these players will likely be technically savvy players who are also mentally advanced in understanding the game and their role in it. Versatility is a plus as is a proven track record of leadership on and off of the field since these players will likely be interacting with a lot of academy teammates with the 2s.
Mohamed Omar – #6/#8 – Notre Dame
Atlanta United has done extremely well drafting athletic leaders from Notre Dame. Following in the footsteps of Jon Gallagher and Aidan McFadden is a former teammate of theirs, redshirt senior team captain Mohamed Omar. Omar is a towering 6’3” (1.91 meters) and does well to command the center of the field. Omar plays primarily as the team’s deep-lying distributor and disruptor but can range forward in the attack to pull off some highlight-worthy goals like this stunner against Wake Forest in the playoffs last month.
— Notre Dame Men’s Soccer (@NDMenSoccer) November 28, 2021
In many ways, Omar brings a lot of the style of play that many fans came to love from Chris Allan last season with the 2s. He’s calm and capable on the ball, merciless yet calculated in his tackles, and strong in positioning himself to be part of plays that his lack of blazing speed may have otherwise limited him in.
If selected, Omar would likely begin the season with the 2s, filling the same role as Allan alongside Robbie Mertz and Jay Fortune, with his ceiling being an inexpensive role-player to fill Mo Adams’ now-vacated roster spot and challenge Amar Sejdíc for minutes.
Tristan Trager – False-9 & Attacking Midfielder – Air Force Academy
Once again, Atlanta United finds itself extremely thin behind Josef Martinez. Though hope remains for homegrown Jackson Conway, that same luster seems to have dimmed greatly for U-22 signee Erik Lopez who has recently been shopped out for loans. The club needs a proven scorer with the ball control and athleticism to loosely replicate Martinez’s role on the field. While that will be extremely challenging to find in the Superdraft, let alone this late in the first round, the Air Force Academy’s senior attacker Tristan Trager could be that player.
Trager can play as both an attacking midfielder and as a False-9. He can help with build-up play if needed and can also occupy the attention of opposing centerbacks to open space for teammates to run in behind him. His senior year was easily his best season statistically with 13 goals (4 game-winners) and 7 assists across 18 starts but it remained consistent with his pre-COVID sophomore campaign when he scored 12 and added 4 assists in 16 starts. Overall, Trager would bring an experienced and athletic attacking presence to the club and could be an affordable depth option to start the season with the 2s alongside Darwin Matheus.
A second-round version of Trager could end up being Princeton’s Kevin O’Toole who possesses a lot of the same skillset and was twice named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year. His numbers are not eye-popping but 7 goals and 9 assists for a #10 or False-9 across 1450 minutes is still impressive.
Three other more traditional center forwards who I do not expect to be there at #19 but would offer strong value would be Wake Forest’s Kyle Holcomb, Duke’s Thor Ulfarsson, Notre Dame’s Jack Lynn. Ulfarsson would likely be a Generation Adidas player since he is an underclassman and Holcomb may be the best all-around forward behind Ousseni Bouda in the class.
Ryan Sailor – CB – Washington
Just a month ago, I would not have guessed Atlanta United would be having depth challenges at the centerback position. The club has two of the best starters in the league in Miles Robinson and Alan Franco, plus a proven #3 in Anton Walkes and an ascendant #4 George Campbell pushing for minutes. Alex De John, Josh Bauer, and Bryce Washington rounded out a very deep 7-player centerback rotation with Efrain Morales still developing at the 8th player in the group. The club also had Franco Escobar returning from a loan with the potential to bolster a deep and talented group. The month of December saw Escobar traded to LAFC, Bauer cut and then signed by Nashville SC, and Anton Walkes selected by Charlotte FC in the Expansion Draft. Now that 8-deep group looks a lot thinner.
The club needs another polished and capable centerback ready to challenge Alex De John and Bryce Washington for the #4 centerback spot while bringing needed leadership with the 2s when paired with Noah Cobb and Efrain Morales. The best player for this need is PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Ryan Sailor of Washington. In a big redshirt senior season that saw the Huskies lose in the championship against Clemson, Sailor started all 22 matches, scoring 6 goals and adding 2 assists in what was a First Team All-America season. Sailor is a calming presence at the left centerback position.
Jasper Löeffelsend – RB – Pitt
Josef Martinez and Atlanta United have had a good history with German right-backs. Jasper Löeffelsend is a very good German right-back who generates a ton of assists. In just two seasons, he is also Pitt’s all-time leader in assists-per-game and 3rd all-time in total assists (18 over 35 starts). He only played in college for two seasons but in that time he was a First Team All-ACC player twice, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year twice, a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist twice, and an All-American.
Petkovic Precision ⚽
— Pitt Men’s Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) September 4, 2021
During his first season at Pitt, Löeffelsend was Atlanta United homegrown Bryce Washington’s right-sided defensive partner and teamed well with the athletic defender to dominate opponents on both sides of the field. Löeffelsend is the perfect kind of exciting right-back or right-wingback for Atlanta United because he loves to get out on the flank and run. Similar to how we saw Bello high up the field last season, Löeffelsend makes lung-busting sprints from the centerline in behind the opposing defense to collect switches from the left centerback. Imagine Alan Franco serving up a ball like this:
— Pitt Men’s Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) September 10, 2021
The 24-year-old would come to Atlanta United with plenty of experience, playing extensively in the German 4th and 5th divisions before coming to America in 2020 to pursue a collegiate career as a graduate student.
Atlanta United already has a pair of talented young right-backs in the system in Brooks Lennon and Aidan McFadden, and Bryce Washington was used extensively at right-back with the 2s to rotate McFadden and move him further up the field last season. The depth is there, but it is not as robust as on the left side behind George Bello so this could be an ideal spot to inject an already-proven young player.
An alternative to Löeffelsend is Clemson’s Justin Malou who was selected last year by Columbus Crew last year as the 27th overall pick but returned to Clemson unsigned to win the championship. Since a year has passed since he was drafted, Columbus no longer has any right to Malou.
Let us know which of these guys you are most excited about and which you feel could best address the club’s needs.