Undoubtedly one of the finer quirks of Major League Soccer is the SuperDraft.
An extra route into the professional game, young players can often find themselves going from college soccer to international acclaim in the blink of an eye.
Canada and United States internationals Tajon Buchanan and Daryl Dike are great recent examples, making big moves to Europe this winter just two and three years respectively after they were picked up in the Draft.
One of the latest budding talents hoping to walk this path is Tristan Trager of Air Force Men's Soccer, who was selected 19th in Round Two and 47th overall by Atlanta United in this year's MLS SuperDraft.
“I was just really excited, it’s the kind of day you dream of as a kid," he recalled of being picked by the Five Stripes in an exclusive interview with 90min. "I didn’t know when I was going to get picked, but I got to experience that with some of my teammates and best friends. I was just really blessed and excited that Atlanta United took the opportunity to pick me.”
Currently based in Colorado and more familiar with MLS teams on the West Coast like the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes, Trager still had Atlanta United high on his list of preferred destinations. Air Force teammates Andrew Durkin, Kobey Stoup, and Remi Smith all spent time in the Five Stripes' youth system in the past and spoke highly of the organization, its fans, and the city of Atlanta itself.
"Before the Draft, they wanted me to go to Atlanta," Trager continued. "They were excited and know how well run the organization is, and the fans and the city. So Atlanta were a team I was definitely hoping to get drafted by, they already have a lot of history and success. So I was really excited when they chose me.”
Through the 2021 Western Athletic Conference season, Trager excelled in the No.10 role, notching 13 goals and seven assists in 18 appearances, while he often filled in on the wing. Growing up, the 22-year-old also played as a full-back from time to time, and it's this versatility Trager thinks gives him the best chance of success as a professional.
"I played as a No.10 in college as well as on the wing, but I also played outside-back growing up," he said. "I’ve basically played every position except center-back, so wherever the club needs me to fulfill a role, I’m excited to do that.
“I had great success at Air Force, being able to score goals and get assists as that dynamic attacking presence, but I do have history at outside-back and would be willing to pursue any kind of role the club needs from me.”
Though being flexible is a useful tool for any player, Trager undoubtedly excels in the final third. Over the past two college seasons, he's scored 25 goals and set up another 11 in 34 starts and loves nothing more than pulling opposing defenses out of shape and attacking at speed.
“I love watching Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, both for different reasons," Trager revealed. "I love watching Haaland, just the way he makes runs with pace and is creative, the way he distracts defenders.
“And then Mbappe, the way he plays on the wing or centrally and attacks players with speed. He’s very dynamic off the ball as well.
“Those are two players that I look up to so I can improve my own game.”
Before he joins up with Atlanta United, Trager must first complete his graduation and fulfill some service commitments with Air Force - it'll be summertime before he finally arrives in June.
The forward knows there is a challenge ahead of him to get up to speed with his new teammates, who will already be midway through their season by then. Naturally, he's not taking his place with Atlanta United for granted but is relishing the chance to prove his worth.
“I haven’t been in too much contact with Atlanta United yet, but I have spoken [to them] regarding my situation," Trager said. "My agent has also done a great job of reaching out and letting them know that I’m going to have to fight some hurdles with my academic commitments, being able to graduate, and I do have a service commitment I have to fulfill. But the Air Force giving me the opportunity to be able to play is something I’m grateful for.
“When I get out there to Atlanta, I’m going to have to work my way in, especially as I’ll be a few months behind from the start of their season. But I’m just excited to go there and learn from some great older players and fill in where I can, wherever the club needs me.”
All challenges aside, it'd be impossible for a player in this position to stop himself from dreaming of what he might become and how far he could go in soccer. Trager is firstly grateful for the 'gift' he's been given, but believes he has the 'mentality and work rate' to forge a long and successful career for himself in professional soccer.
“I’m just thankful that the Air Force is even letting me have this opportunity because I did come to this school to become an officer. So professionally, it’s a gift that so few people will have," Trager said.
“But my goals in soccer once I’m there, I want to just get my head down and go as far as I can. Whether that be two years or 10 years, who knows? But I think I have the mentality and the work rate to take myself really far in the sport.”