The inaugural MLS NEXT season has been significantly impacted by the same COVID-19 pandemic that helped prompt its creation, but the fledgling youth competition’s players, coaches and clubs have persevered. And now that journey reaches its finale when the first MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs and Showcase begin Friday in the Dallas area.

MLSsoccer.com and the MLS app will stream 27 matches, and you can read up on the streaming schedules, participating clubs and other details here. It’s a big event comprising 128 teams across four age groups, with both MLS sides and elite youth academies represented. The idea is to provide both teams and individual players with valuable tests and stages to assert their credentials as future professionals.

A word of caution, both for reading this and watching the games: Performance and potential are intertwined, but they are not the same. This list is essentially a small snapshot and does not claim to be a comprehensive rundown of the event field.

Gauging who’s most likely to become the “best” as an adult, then properly nurturing them along the path, is both art and science. Comets like Alphonso Davies aside, the development process is a slow and painstaking one. And on a continent as large and varied as North America, sleepers can always arise and surprise from lesser-known or lightly-scouted places. Some of these prospects will turn out to be early bloomers or incomplete at the top levels, while others may take years still to truly find their feet, or not at all.

In compiling this list, we’ve given extra weight to those who have already shown enough to earn significant opportunities at a professional club or clubs, in the form of contract offers, first- and second-team training experiences and/or playing time. For those curious about the team outlooks in the knockout tournament, I recommend Travis Clark’s preview at TopDrawerSoccer.com.

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Efrain Morales
Atlanta United, D/M

A member of Atlanta's inaugural U-12 academy team in 2016 and the first to sign a pro deal from that group, Morales became a homegrown player last August. Ever since, he’s spent most of his time playing with their USL Championship squad. Tall, cerebral and assured with the ball at his feet, he can play holding midfielder, though seems to project as a center back at the next level. A training stint with Manchester United in January 2020 hints at the 17-year-old’s massive potential.

Dantouma “Yaya” Toure
Colorado Rapids, F

If you’re looking for sheer entertainment value, peep Yaya, who (unlike his namesake) is a livewire winger who loves to skin defenders. Born in Guinea before settling in Trenton, New Jersey, Toure rose through the PDA and New York Red Bulls academy systems before breaking into RBNY II’s rotation last summer. He ultimately bagged three goals and three assists in 13 USL Championship appearances.

The Rapids liked what they saw enough to ship RBNY $50,000 in GAM, a share of any future transfer windfall and other performance incentives to acquire his rights and sign him to a long-term homegrown contract. He’s been on loan at Colorado Springs Switchbacks this season.

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Beckham Sunderland
FC Cincinnati, GK

What’s in a name? You might surmise FC Cincinnati’s first-ever homegrown player was destined to become a pro, but his last name is more of a factor than his first. The son of Cincy’s director of player development Larry Sunderland, Beckham has already experienced several academy environments by playing for Chicago and Portland’s youth teams during his father’s coaching stints there.

His mother (Jen) played college ball at Central Florida and his older brother (Lawson) plays in Spain for Barcelona lower-division club Sant Andreu; earlier this year Beckham got invited to train with La Liga side Espanyol while visiting. He’s a modern goalkeeper with calm distribution, as well as quick feet and good shot-stopping.

Diego Hernandez
FC Dallas, M

These days it’s fiendishly difficult to pick just one name from FC Dallas’ talent-stuffed youth ranks, but here we’ll pluck Hernandez, an attack-minded No. 8 in the Paxton Pomykal mold. He made his professional debut last year for North Texas SC in USL League One play at the tender age of 15, though he’s been more focused on the U-17 level in 2021 and should be well-positioned to shine in this event. A 2005-born prospect, he’s part of the US youth national teams pool and participated in a regional ID camp in April.

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Juan Castilla
Houston Dynamo FC, M

FCD have generally led the Texas academy scene, but the picture is changing fast in the Bayou City under academy director Paul Holocher. Perhaps no one epitomizes that more than Castilla, a crafty, technical center mid who first joined Houston at age 11, then spent a season in the Columbus Crew’s system. He returned to La Naranja to help them qualify for the 2020 Generation adidas Cup final, eventually becoming Houston’s youngest-ever signing last year.

Tab Ramos has brought Castilla along on first-team preseason camps, where he seems to have held his own. And while Castilla’s optimal position at the pro level is still to be determined, he could become a standard-bearer for the Dynamo’s #PlayYourKids revolution.

Santiago Morales
Inter Miami

Brace yourselves, seasoned MLS watchers: The latest second-generation talent is here to make you feel older than ever, as “Santi” is the son of Real Salt Lake legend Javi Morales. He’s accompanied his father as Javi’s blossoming coaching career took him from FC Dallas’ youth system to south Florida, where he’s playing a foundational role in Inter Miami’s academy construction project.

The younger Morales, who flashes skill and creativity reminiscent of his dad, is just 14 and only one prospect among several in Miami’s fledgling but rapidly advancing youth setup. While it would be both risky and unfair to burden a kid of his age with expectations, those who’ve watched him tend to say there’s just something special about him.

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Alex Alcala
LA Galaxy, M

You could argue that any top young dual-national talent gets extra attention when eligible to represent both the United States and Mexico. That’s just the start of the hype around Alcala, though. The Stockton, California native is just 15 and stands the proverbial 5-foot-nothing, yet his twinkled-toed wizardry on the ball has earned him the keen attention of Manchester City, FC Barcelona and Pachuca, among others. There’s also a hefty measure of Instagram notoriety thanks to his skill-check videos.

It was seen as a coup that the Galaxy brought the midfielder into their academy, and even more so when he signed a pro deal with Los Dos in February. Is the El Tri (so far, at least) youth international the one to light up the first MLS NEXT postseason?

Thomas Williams
Orlando City, D

Orlando City’s renewed focus on academy productivity under Oscar Pareja and Luiz Muzzi has Lions supporters dreaming of a Dallas-like youth powerhouse rising out of the orange groves. Williams, a commanding left-footed center back with all the tools, is exhibit A.

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His 10 USL League One starts with Orlando City B last year showed he was ready to step up. Plus, years of a 110-mile commute to and from Titusville on the Space Coast paid off with an MLS homegrown contract earlier this month that makes him the youngest signing in club history. Inking Williams ahead of the MLS NEXT postseason – like the Revs did with Buck – could turn out to be serendipitous timing on Orlando’s part.

Osvaldo Cisneros
Sporting Kansas City, F

Few clubs in MLS have been more forward-leaning in the youth recruitment space than Sporting Kansas City, whose sweeping Midwestern network helped them spot Cisneros in Omaha, Nebraska at age 12 and bring him to KC as part of their homestay program. He got some prominent screen time in last year’s “The Academy,” a five-part documentary series from Audi and Bleacher Report about SKC’s academy project.

A son of Mexican immigrants, “Ozzie” has a promising blend of skill, daring and spirit that meshes well with Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3 approach. He’s shown the ability to thrive in all of Sporting’s attacking roles; is he a Gianluca Busio-like utility man on the rise?

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