WASHINGTON – Who has been the best young player during the 2023 MLS season?
This year’s MLS All-Stars, just like the fans, have some opinions. And those feelings are often home-leaning, favoring club teammates they compete for trophies with.
Props for the youngsters
Among them is Philadelphia Union center back Jakob Glesnes, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. He shouted out midfielder Jack McGlynn, their 20-year-old US youth international who’s progressed massively in recent years.
“I've trained with [McGlynn] for a few years now and the steps he's taking from a boy to a man are huge,” Glesnes said, preparing for Wednesday’s marquee showdown with Arsenal FC at D.C. United’s Audi Field (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
“It's fun to watch that every day because he's putting in the hard work and now it's paying off. We'll see how long we see him in the league because if he keeps playing and stays away from injury, he can do big things.”
The question is a subjective one and depends on how you define the age cut-off. There is also the imperfect science of balancing first-team impact, long-term potential and a player’s résumé thus far.
But Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris, a Golden Boot presented by Audi contender, had a quick answer: Obed Vargas, their 17-year-old homegrown midfielder who’s already been linked to some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
“[Vargas] has done really well after coming in at such a young age in Seattle where we're fortunate to have a lot of good players and he inserts himself into the lineup, has big moments for us,” Morris said.
“Comes into the [Concacaf] Champions League Final, a big stage, and he doesn't let it get to him and just stays true to his game, has so much confidence and quality on the ball. He's a good player and he'll only develop from here, he has all the right tools. He's are really good kid too so we're proud of him in Seattle.”
New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil, the 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, flashed his trademark smile when praising Noel Buck, the club’s 18-year-old homegrown midfielder who’s enjoying a breakout year.
“Every day he’s training hard and he's improving all the time,” Gil said. “He's very good and wants to continue to learn. His future will be brilliant.”
“The direction is going great – you see more and more guys are moving to Europe, more and more guys are getting minutes here in the league,” said Tolkin. “You can see it with my team in Red Bull and we just played Salt Lake and they have Luna, who had a hell of a game. They even have this All-Star event for MLS NEXT guys this week – that was never a thing when I was younger.”
Tapping the well of young talent
Ask all 28 MLS All-Stars this week, and odds are you’d get 28 different answers. It’s a window into the reality MLS academies and youth development energies have created: an influx of academy-reared players that isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and will likely only soar in the years ahead as more players join first teams, MLS NEXT Pro finds its footing and top talents get transferred abroad.
Some of the veteran MLS All-Stars were quick to note, though, that MLS youth development wasn’t always at these levels.
“The access that these youngsters had is something that I never had growing up,” said LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead. “I have guys from our MLS NEXT squad, our LAFC 2 team, that are training with us full five, six days a week. To have that access at 15, 16 years old is life-changing. You get to understand the speed of play at a younger age.
“When I was 15, 16 I'm playing club soccer in a small town outside of Sacramento, I'm training two or three times a week maybe. That's what football was here in the States and it's changed now drastically. Every year now it's gotten more and more developed. It's where the league is going.”
There’s still room to grow as well, St. Louis CITY SC goalkeeper Roman Bürki noted. The longtime Swiss international joined the 2023 MLS expansion club from German side Borussia Dortmund, offering a unique lens.
“A lot of these younger players have more talent than players from Europe, but maybe the whole school of how we teach them how to play is still one step ahead than in MLS,” said Bürki. “But I think MLS is still growing and the soccer in America will change one day.”
As those dynamics unfold, and more players come through, MLS looks set to become a bigger player in the international transfer market. The answer to the initial question will likely only get harder, too. And, with room to grow, this new normal will be even more rooted in MLS’s future.
“The continued growth of the academies is going to be huge for the first team,” said St. Louis defender Tim Parker. “A lot of investment goes into it and you're seeing the benefits of the homegrown process. It's been fun to watch.”