Nashville SC academy roundup: Top prospects, potential homegrowns, and ones to watch

The MLS Academy Playoffs are right around the corner, and Nashville SC have plenty of talent coming through the development pipeline. Ronan Briscoe and myself are taking a look at the “Goldmine”, answering some questions, highlighting some rising stars and giving them their flowers for an impressive season.

In 2024, we’ve seen a Home Grown signing, multiple players in preseason with the first team, over ten academy kids available for Huntsville minutes, and a U.S. Youth National Team callup.  After a relatively slow start, the Gold Mine is starting to produce some gems.

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Who’s next to receive a Home Grown deal?

Jeff Remlinger: For me it’s Scott Cheevers (’07 center back). The 17-year-old North Carolina commit has been on the path to a Home Grown contract for some time now, and I really think he’s getting close. In 2022, he was called up to a U.S. U-15 camp. This past winter, he was in preseason training with Nashville and started 5 out of Huntsville’s first 6 games before he unfortunately broke his wrist in a 1-0 loss to Chattanooga FC.

Cheevers is a solid all-around center back who towers over the opposition.  He reminds me of Jack Maher in many ways, with a higher ceiling due to his age and development path. He’s quickly adapted to the professional game in Next Pro, and I can’t wait for him to return to the pitch. 

Ronan Briscoe: Chris Applewhite (’07 center back) seems like a pretty easy choice for Nashville’s next homegrown to me.

After a good U-17 season in 2023, he’s stepped up to MLS Next Pro and become a nailed-on starter in the Rocket City. He’s played 582 minutes for Huntsville, starting seven of their 11 matches and playing 52% of possible minutes for Rocket City so far this season. He’s seen the 19th-most minutes of anyone in his age group (Scott Cheevers is at 22nd) and genuinely looks like the most capable center back Huntsville has right now.

Jeff: Another player worth mentioning is Jake Grekowicz (’06 goal keeper). Breaking through as a ‘keeper is challenging, but Grekowicz is making all the right moves. Currently committed to Michigan State, Nashville will likely allow him to gain valuable playing time at the collegiate level for a year or two before considering a Home Grown deal.

Who has the highest ceiling in the academy?

Jeff: Adem Sipić (’06 striker) continues to show the highest potential in the academy.

Despite some initial struggles in front of goal in the 2024 season, he has significantly improved in other areas of his game. His style, characterized by his athleticism and physicality, remains unchanged. However, his hold-up play and dribbling have notably improved.

At time of publication, Sipić has three goals in Next Pro – only four teenagers currently have more.  I could see him getting minutes with the first team relatively soon and eventually making a move abroad. His Bosnian passport opens up a lot of avenues, and seemingly played a part in his higher-than-normal salary.

Ronan: Liam Devan (2009 center back/left back) is already firmly in the U.S. Youth National Team picture within his age group, and that’s usually an indicator of supreme talent. Like Sipić, Devan has the kind of talent that suggests an overall ceiling that sees him play his prime somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic.

I’ll be very (very) interested to see how much he, and other younger players like Charly Dealmonte and Tristan Tropeano are involved in the Huntsville setup once MLS Next Cup concludes later this month.

Who are under the radar players to watch?

Ronan: Tristan Tropeano (’07 forward) is an interesting player.

As I mentioned, Liam Devan and Charly Dealmonte are taking a lot of the shine, but it was Tropeano who led the club in scoring at the Generation Adidas Cup with two goals in three games and was the second leading scorer for the U17s with eight goals.

With all the injuries (and first team movement) at the front line for Huntsville, I don’t think it’s unlikely that Tropeano sneaks a handful of appearances in this summer for Huntsville and uses it to propel him in 2025. He’s already earned a spot in the matchday squad for HCFC this season.

Jeff: Owen Bland (’08 center back). Admittedly, I don’t have many notes on Bland, but that’s the premise of this question.

Charly Dealmonte (‘08 fullback) became the first ’08-born player to appear on the bench for Huntsville this past season, but Owen Bland followed him up with a bench appearance against Orlando 2. He’s a nice player who has stepped up with Applewhite and Cheevers playing in Huntsville. Only 29 players born in 2008 have played in MLS NEXT Pro this season. Bland or Dealmonte could join that list when the academy season ends.

What’s the deepest position in the academy?

Ronan: At the older age groups, it’s center back. Shocking, I know… Nashville has lots of good defenders. So much for breaking stereotypes, huh?

As both of us have mentioned, the Goldmine has produced the likes of Scott Cheevers, Chris Applewhite, Owen Bland, and Liam Devan. The list goes on and on. The pipeline is just really deep at that group.

Jeff:  I think forward is Nashville’s deepest position. Sipić, Cannon Scretchen (06 winger), and Dominic Wilson (06 Winger) currently play for Huntsville, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Scretchen or Wilson sign a Huntsville contract instead of a HG deal before they go off to college in a few months.

The U17s had Tropeano and Sammy Byron (’07 winger) score eight goals each this past season. But the attacking talent of the U15s stands out the most. Christian Rodriguez (forward) and Julian Rosales (winger) formed a formidable duo, scoring 18 and 14 goals, respectively, and led the U15s to the MLS Next Playoffs. Rodriguez has been a prolific goal scorer for some time now. He’ll have a new challenge next season at the U17 level, but he’s one to watch for the future.

How does youth scouting work? Is there an emphasis on Tennesseans?

Ronan: Most scouting is done within Nashville’s “homegrown territory”. Essentially, Nashville has exclusive rights among MLS clubs to players from this area. Click here, but for all intents and purposes, Nashville claims the entirety of Tennessee except for the counties around Chattanooga, which belong to Atlanta.

In addition to this, Nashville also gets the counties in Alabama surrounding Huntsville, for obvious reasons. MLS clubs are allowed to set up two feeder clubs in any area that’s not claimed by another MLS club, but to my knowledge Nashville hasn’t done so thus far. The full map can be found here:

Jeff: Ronan answered it perfectly. I want to add that there are some non MLS local clubs that excel at producing talent for NSC to poach, such as Nashville United Soccer Academy (Cheevers, Scretchen, Jones) and Tennessee Soccer Club (Bland, Devan, Salome).

When will an academy product finally play for Nashville SC?

Jeff: Patience, patience, PATIENCE! The game time they’re getting in Huntsville is critical to their development, and it’s far more effective than riding Nashville’s bench. Players have to be ready for the MLS game before they’re thrown into the fire or it will do more harm than good, and can significantly hamper their development down the road.

Scott Cheevers has been a consistent player in Huntsville and, as I mentioned before, looks to be on the fast track for a Home Grown contract. To play professional soccer, though, it’s more than skill. You have to be physically ready as well as technically ready. I think Cheevers needs to get a bit older and stronger before he’s ready, especially given the logjam of veteran center back depth in the first team, but it’s only a matter of time.

Ronan: In my eyes, Adem Sipić looks like he could make the move up fairly soon, most likely next season. He’s still got some finishing work to improve on, but who knows, whoever Nashville’s next first team manager is brings an assistant that completely unlocks him in that area. He consistently gets in the right positions, and it really seems like all that stands between him and really blossoming is firmly mental, which is a much easier fix than technique issues.

Expanding the scope a bit to shine a spotlight on less talked about players, Huntsville actually has another player in the 2005 age group who is incredibly well thought of. When Tyler Pasnik signed in a Friday morning news dump, I can’t lie to you; I really didn’t know what to think.

I’m not super tapped into the full USYNT youth pool, so I have to rely a bit more on the opinions of others than I’d like, but from everything I read, Pasnik was incredibly well thought of in his age group. He’d led Rangers B in scoring and had camped a few times with the national team. He’s come into Huntsville and immediately made himself almost undroppable from the starting lineup. He really looks too good for Huntsville at times. I wouldn’t be shocked if Nashville finds the room to give him a homegrown deal this offseason. His dual national status means he won’t take an international roster slot, too.

Jeff If we’re adjusting this question to include non-Ajago Huntsville players, I think the easy choice would be Julian Gaines (2002 attacking midfielder/winger/right back). In his single appearance for Huntsville, he was the best player on the pitch. Unfortunately, he’s been in a boot ever since.

He got a handful of minutes for LAFC last year, and his contract is with Nashville, not Huntsville. It’s easy to move him up.  Once he’s healthy, he will return to the Huntsville starting lineup and start pushing for first-team minutes.

Final thoughts

Building an academy takes time. Nashville decided not to start early and waited until joining MLS to begin. However, the results have been better than expected.

They have two Homegrowns from this class with a potential third and fourth in Jake Grekowicz and Alejandro Velazquez-Lopez, which is good for a single age group. Looking ahead, they have Cheevers, Applewhite, Tropeano, and others from the 2007 age group, as well as Dealmonte, Devan, and Rodriguez from 2008-09. There’s some decent top-end talent.

But what really excites me is the U13 and U14 teams. Both teams won the South Eastern division in MLS Next this year and are loaded with talent. The 14s have had several USYNT call-ups, and the 13s are well on their way to representing their country once they’re old enough. These age groups have been scouted and trained by NSC from a very young age, and I’m thrilled to watch them develop and hopefully wear the first team shirt in 2030.

The future of the club is in good hands.

    Author: Jeff RemlingerJeff Remlinger, a data nerd from Chicago, IL, fell in love with MLS by watching the Chicago Fire. Some would say he threw his Fire jersey in the trash a little too quickly when Nashville joined MLS. Jeff has a passion for the statistical side of sports, and when he’s not writing about soccer, he can be found watching his beloved Arsenal or Iowa State Cyclones. Jeff can be found @MusicCitySCStat on X, where he shares his statistical analysis of Nashville SC.

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