Omir Fernandez - Wake Forest - New York Red Bulls academy product
Wake Forest University

College Homegrown prospect rankings: Tabbing up NCAA's top HGP contenders

MLS academies are some of the most prominent suppliers of top-tier talent in NCAA Division I men’s soccer. This past college season was no different, and a slew of promising professional prospects are poised to join MLS sides as the offseason hot stove heats up.

But which players are set to provide the biggest impact in this season and beyond?

Below is a look at the Top 15 Homegrown-eligible players in the college game from the 2018 season, and speculation on whether or not they will leave school in the coming weeks.

15. Erik Holt - CB/DM - UCLA - SIGNED

  • MLS Academy: Real Salt Lake
  • College Years: Holt spent three of his four seasons as a starter for the Bruins, earning back-to-back All-Pac-12 first team honors in 2017 and 2018.
  • Skill Set: His versatility is a huge asset on the field, as Holt is capable of playing in central defense or as a defensive midfielder. If he can catch up with the speed of MLS attackers, he could see plenty of minutes in the upcoming season.
  • Projection: After finishing his senior season at the Pac-12 program, Holt signed with RSL on Jan. 3 and should start out as a depth piece or option for the Real Monarchs.

14. Antonio Bustamante - CM - William & Mary

  • MLS Academy: D.C. United
  • College Years: A goal-dangerous attacking midfielder for the Tribe, Bustamante racked up 34 goals and 17 assists in his four seasons at the CAA program. He was named Conference Player of the Year in 2017, scoring 15 goals and adding five helpers.
  • Skill Set: How Bustamante translates to MLS level remains his biggest challenge as he eyes a move to D.C. United. If he can hone his defensive abilities centrally, he could develop into a dangerous box-to-box threat.
  • Projection: D.C. might have a crowded central midfield, but Bustamante should sign and provide an immediate option for Loudoun United, D.C.’s soon-to-launch USL side.

13. Sam Raben - CB - Wake Forest - SIGNED

  • MLS Academy: Colorado Rapids
  • College Years: Raben’s a perfect example of how playing college soccer can benefit a player’s development. He slotted into a starting role for the Demon Deacons during his freshman season in 2015, and provided a constant presence in central defense across 91 games.
  • Skill Set: Competing in a possession-oriented team, Raben is comfortable on the ball and plenty capable of man-marking and defending in one-v-one situations. Whether he is physical enough to play as a center back in MLS is going to be a big question, although he has the look and makeup of a defensive midfielder at the professional level.
  • Projection: The four-year senior was signed by Rapids on Jan. 15.

12. Jeremiah Gutjahr - CM - Indiana

  • MLS Academy: Indiana Fire (Chicago Fire affiliate)
  • College Years: Few players flew under the radar like Gutjahr has the past two seasons. Part of that was due to the ACL injury he suffered in 2017, but before that he showed enough quality to earn a spot on the US Under-20 national team’s qualifying roster for last year’s World Cup. He bounced back in a big way this year, playing in all 24 matches for Indiana.
  • Skill Set: Capable of playing in various central midfield roles and displaying poise and calmness with the ball, Gutjahr’s a fierce competitor and can handle the demands put upon MLS central midfielders. At just 21, he’s still relatively young for a four-year college player as well.
  • Projection: The Bloomington native came up through the Indiana Fire Academy, the Hoosier-state club that has an affiliate with the MLS side. His exclusion from the Combine list hints that a Homegrown contract should be coming and he’d be a good depth piece behind Dax McCarty.

11. David Loera - CAM - NC State

  • MLS Academy: Orlando City SC
  • College Years: Through two seasons at the Wolfpack, Loera’s thrived as one of college soccer’s best attacking midfielders. His production took a step forward with three goals and seven assists this past campaign, giving him 12 helpers in his first two seasons of college ball. He earned First-Team All-ACC honors in 2018.
  • Skill Set: Astute with the ball at his feet and capable of playing defense-splitting passes, Loera displayed a bit more end product in his game at the college level. As far as No. 10s go, he edges more towards a facilitator and chance creator than finisher.
  • Projection: Given the challenges college attacking midfielders typically face in translating to MLS, staying another year in school is the expected outcome this offseason.

10. Brandon Williamson - CM - Duke

  • MLS Academy: D.C. United
  • College Years: After coming just shy of the 1,000-minute mark his freshman season in 2016, Williamson’s been a key player for Duke during their past two campaigns, which saw the team make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. He started 38 games across 2017 and 2018 and was a massively important piece of the team’s central midfield during that time.
  • Skill Set: A rangy central midfielder who can go box-to-box or sit in front of a backline, Williamson is very good with possession and can control the ball in tight spaces, while connecting play at a rapid pace.
  • Projection: While D.C. are launching their USL affiliate, providing a spot for Williamson should he earn a look from United, staying in school is inevitable given the first team’s crunch in central midfield.

9. Tate Schmitt - F - Louisville - SIGNED

  • MLS Academy: Real Salt Lake
  • College Years: One of the best forwards in college soccer during his four seasons at Louisville, Schmitt’s showed the ability to both lead the line as a No. 9 and drift underneath to facilitate the offense. The Arizona native finished his college career with 26 goals and 17 assists, earning All-ACC honors three out of his four seasons on campus.
  • Skill Set: While not the biggest striker, Schmitt has enough size and physicality to lead the line in MLS, provided he can make the adjustments to the improved defenders he’ll face. Clean with his touch and able to create with his passing, Schmitt’s not a striker who will race in behind, but he’s more of a connector who can occupy defender/post/2019/01/03/real-salt-lake-sign-tate-schmitt-erik-holt-homegrown-contractss and create problems on and off the ball.
  • Projection: With his NCAA eligibility used up, Schmitt signed with RSL on Jan. 3. He can get minutes right away with the Real Monarchs in the USL Championship.

8. Benji Michel - F – Portland - SIGNED

Benji Michel | University of Portland

  • MLS Academy: Orlando City SC
  • College Years: Ever since moving from central Florida to the Pacific Northwest, Michel’s been a picture of consistency for the Pilots. In 53 games, he scored 31 goals, hitting double-digits in all three seasons on the Bluff.
  • Skill Set: A striker who can provide both an option in behind defenses and play with his back to goal, Michel’s proven that he can score big goals at the right times. Seven of his 11 tallies as a senior were game-winners. While he’ll need to make the requisite adjustments against MLS defenders, Michel has the tools to be an effective player as a rookie.
  • Projection: Michel signed a Homegrown deal with the Lions on Monday. He’ll be a good depth piece behind Dom Dwyer.

7. Justin Rennicks - F - Indiana

  • MLS Academy: New England Revolution
  • College Years: After a foot injury limited Rennicks in his freshman year, the Revolution academy product enjoyed a much stronger 2018 season. Part of his college season was lost to competing at the Concacaf Championship with the US U-20 national team, but that also didn’t hurt his pro stock either. For Indiana, Rennicks finished the season with six goals in 2018 despite missing four games for qualifying.
  • Skill Set: Deployed as No. 9 for both IU and the U-20s, it remains to be seen if that is his position at the pro level. Rennicks is more of a second striker or winger in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 setup, where he can play out wide or underneath a forward. He has a solid finishing touch and is a smart player, while he demonstrated with the U-20s the ability to combine well and lead the line.
  • Projection: At this point, Rennicks is heading back to school. Plenty can change between now and preseason, of course.

6. Matt Hundley - M - UCLA - SIGNED

  • MLS Academy: Colorado Rapids
  • College Years: In his first season at UCLA, Hundley emerged as danger on the flank, both as a goalscoring threat and creator. While the team had an uneven campaign, Hundley showed he could make an impact as both a starter or off the bench. He finished 2018 with five goals and seven assists.
  • Skill Set: A dangerous scoring threat from wide areas, if Hundley can fine-tune his defensive approach he seems a lock to succeed as a pro. He can beat defenders off the dribble, play the killer pass and he’s also a relatively reliable finisher in front of goal.
  • Projection: After exiting the NCAA tournament in the first round, Hundley chose to sign with the Rapids heading into 2019.

5. Issa Rayyan - M/F - Duke

  • MLS Academy: Philadelphia Union
  • College Years: Arguably the breakout freshman of the 2018 college season, Rayyan was an electric starter for the Blue Devils, scoring six goals and adding three assists in 20 games. Few defenders in college soccer could handle his pace from wide spaces, and better finishing from his teammates would’ve boosted his assist total. For his efforts, Rayyan picked up the ACC Freshman of the Year award.
  • Skill Set: A blend of pace and technique, Rayyan toys with defenders when he has space and time to attack with the ball. He can pinch in from wide spaces to combine with his teammate, although he thrives the most in space.
  • Projection: Signing a Homegrown contract after one very good season wouldn’t be a huge shock, but playing another year in the ACC would help the Michigan native’s development.

4. Andrew Gutman - LB - Indiana

  • MLS Academy: Chicago Fire
  • College Years: One of the best players in college soccer the past two seasons, Gutman earned 2018 TopDrawerSoccer.com Player of the Year honors and is the favorite to capture the MAC Hermann Trophy this month. Gutman saved his best for last, scoring 11 times and chipping in nine assists from his left back spot.
  • Skill Set: At the collegiate level, Gutman embodied everything a coach would seek from a modern fullback. Able to get forward and jump into the attack at will, he scored some sensational individual goals this year. He was no slouch defensively either, as Gutman showed he could handle one-v-one defenses duties and was part of one of college soccer’s best defenses.
  • Projection: Gutman spent part of December on trial with Rangers in Scotland; if he’s not signed by the Fire, he’s a surefire pro in Europe.

3. Donovan Pines - CB - Maryland

  • MLS Academy: D.C. United
  • College Years: After two solid seasons at Maryland, Pines was one of the breakout NCAA stories of 2018. His defensive ability and presence at the back was a huge reason the Terps won the 2018 national championship. It was a massive difference for Maryland when he missed a handful of games here and there with a concussion.
  • Skill Set: An athletic and steady central defender, Pines can do it all at the back. He’s capable enough with possession and he plays up to his 6-foot-5 frame. One college coach compared him to Ike Opara at the start of the season.
  • Projection: After capturing a national title, Pines will leave school, whether via a Homegrown deal or Europe.

2. Trey Muse - GK - Indiana - SIGNED

  • MLS Academy: Seattle Sounders
  • College Years: After spending two seasons at the Sounders Academy, the Louisville, Kentucky native moved closer to home to begin his college career at IU in 2017. He’s been arguably the top goalkeeper in college soccer during that time, backstopping an elite defense in 2017 and reaching the College Cup in both years in Bloomington.
  • Skill Set: An all-around modern-day goalkeeper, Muse is calm and collected with the ball at his feet and can make the game-altering save when called upon. Indiana’s defense in front of him was so good during his time, it often left him with little to do, though he was always able to step up in big moments. He has the poise, maturity and the size to be an international goalkeeper.
  • Projection: Muse decided to sign with the Sounders on Jan. 15, joining the club for the 2019 season. You should expect to see him getting a ton of minutes in the USL Championship with Sounders 2.

1. Omir Fernandez - M/F - Wake Forest

  • MLS Academy: New York Red Bulls
  • College Years: During his freshman season, Fernandez (pictured at top) was an effective supersub for Wake Forest, one of the best attacking teams in the country. Provided the chance to start in 2018 as a sophomore, he solidified his status as one of the most electrifying players in the country, scoring 12 goals, adding six assists and earning ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors.
  • Skill Set: Fernandez thrives in one-v-one attacking situations, able to glide past college defenders with the ball. He’s a good finisher and can combine well, offering an outlet on a regular basis while at Wake Forest.
  • Projection: Fernandez seems certain to leave school and sign a Homegrown deal with the Red Bulls, where he’s most likely to get the bulk of his reps with Red Bulls II in the USL Championship this season.

Honorable Mention

GK Drake Callender (Cal/San Jose), M Colin Biros (Akron/Columbus), M Jake Arteaga (Portland/LA Galaxy), D Aboubacar Keita (Virginia/Columbus), M Dylan Teves (Washington/Seattle), GK Johan Penaranda (Pittsburgh/New York City FC), M Isaiah Parente (Wake Forest/Columbus), M Kalil Elmedkhar (Kentucky/Philadelphia Union), GK Ben Hale (Furman/FC Dallas), D J.J. Foe Nuphaus (California/San Jose), F Aristotle Zarris (Wake Forest/LA Galaxy)

Travis Clark covers college soccer for TopDrawerSoccer.com.

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