AMSTERDAM – The time has come once again to unveil the best 24 players younger than age 24 in Major League Soccer, which means our European desk is also back with another ranking of the top five Americans stationed overseas.
Making the list became tougher this year, what with the addition of two young dual-citizenship talents to the US national team rotation, Hertha Berlin defender John Anthony Brooks and AZ Alkmaar forward Aron Jóhannsson.
To boot, injury woes (Will Packwood, last year's No. 2 Josh Gatt) and form struggles (Timothy Chandler) have conspired to keep prime candidates just outside our list. Another name among the honorable mentions for this edition is Stoke City winger Brek Shea, who topped the MLS 24 Under 24 rankings back in 2011.
As with the currently unfurling ranking for MLS players, we have scored all eligible American exports in five categories: technical, tactical, physical, personality and potential upside.
5) Terrence Boyd, Rapid Vienna
Last year: No. 5
The rowdy Rapid fans have grown fond of the goal shark since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund without a single minute of professional first-team experience last summer. They may wish to soak up Boyd's presence and production while they can, because he has quickly outgrown the Austrian Bundesliga.
Several clubs out of England and Italy have noticed, with the likes of Lazio, Udinese and Watford monitoring the 22-year-old Bremen native. Boyd has thrived in the glare of scouts, striking five times in just 510 competitive minutes this term.
In all, Boyd has notched 22 goals and 11 assists in his 50 Rapid matches. How has he done it? Largely by stealthily popping up in the right place for headers, rebounds and tap-ins. And even though the Green-Whites have no interest in letting him go, some club might soon pay to test those preying skills in a better league.
4) Aron Jóhannsson, AZ Alkmaar
Last year: N/A
It's been barely more than a month since the former Iceland youth international had his FIFA allegiance switch approved, and already he's setting off heated debates in the US soccer bubble.
Does Jóhannsson have the quality to start or will he merely be a potent bench weapon at the 2014 World Cup? Is he best used as a forward next to Jozy Altidore, underneath him or as a winger? Most pressingly, should his nickname be "A.J." or "Iceman" or "Bacon" for his footloose playing style and similar appearance to famous actor Kevin?
You shouldn't blame fans for being overly excited by the new recruit. Jóhannsson might already be good enough to wear two roles, three positions and a trio of nicknames. The 22-year-old is as nimble as you'd like on the ball, as cool as a frozen peppermint patty and comes equipped with a Swiss Army knife array of skills, all of which he's used to ring up nine goals and two helpers in his last 14 AZ outings.
3) Mikkel Diskerud, Rosenborg
Last year: No. 3
Like Boyd, the Rosenborg BK string-puller has stateside supporters wondering when he'll get to move up a weight class or two in league play. It's possible they may need to wait until Diskerud enters the final months of his contract late next summer, by which time he aims to have gained one Norwegian championship and some pitch time for the US at the World Cup.
Charming and quirky off the field, Diskerud ranks high on this list again because he also provides something special and unique for the US on it; witness his dos a cero assist in last week's key win over archrivals Mexico.
Two minutes into his first-ever World Cup qualifying match, the 22-year-old used a cheeky lob touch to bamboozle two defenders and find the space to beat another with an inch-perfect low cross that Landon Donovan bagged for the game's insurance tally.
"Mix" has repeatedly shown a knack for such late heroics with both Rosenborg and the USMNT, as well as plenty of steady possession work. It's becoming very easy to envision Jurgen Klinsmann assigning key World Cup minutes to the best true attack locksmith in his player pool.
2) John Anthony Brooks, Hertha Berlin
Last year: N/A
As is the case with Jóhannsson, many US fans are unsure how geeked to be over the addition of Brooks. With a jazzy center-back skill set unlike any other in the current national team picture, those fiendishly rubbing their hands together with an evil cackle over the German-American's capture are not out of line.
Though just 20, Brooks is effectively a backline mutant rarely seen in US colors: He's a Bundesliga-caliber man marker who anticipates problems before they happen, and a 6-foot-4 smooth criminal with ample dribbling skills.
He's also one of the only US center back currently starting in one of Europe's big four leagues (and for that matter, the top 18 first divisions in the UEFA coefficients). And like Jóhannsson, Brooks instantly became a threat to make the roster and see crunch World Cup time upon committing to Klinsi, Inc.
Want to see how the prodigy might fare against a world-class opponent? Hertha visit Bayern Munich on Oct. 26.
1) Jozy Altidore, Sunderland
Last year: No. 1
Though still in search of his first English Premier League goal for the Black Cats, the first US space-age striker remains atop our list for the second straight year. Were it not for an impetuous whistle from referee Martin Atkinson, Altidore would have ticked that box against Arsenal last weekend using his exciting blend of on-the-ball bullishness and final-touch delicacy.
There's a very good reason for why he's been slow to heat up at Sunderland, since he's one of 14 new faces at the Stadium of Light this season. Two of the newcomers, Italy winger Emanuele Giaccherini and South Korea playmaker Ki Sung-Yueng, have been brought in specifically to provide chances for the strikers.
Given a little time, it says here Altidore should prove the top reason why his new club improves on last season's miserly sum of 31 goals in 38 Premier League games, tied for the third-lowest output in the league. As displayed in his recent USMNT outings, the 23-year-old greatly improved and expanded his game in two seasons with AZ Alkmaar.
Klinsmann figured out the best way to set the table for Altidore, and now it's Paulo Di Canio's turn.