Since I am still coming off the longest hiatus of my professional career and don’t really remember how to write just yet, I am going to rely on bullet points and the good faith of you, dear reader, to get the idea that I’m trying to convey here:
• Developing young players (especially ones who come through the academy) remains the most exciting thing most MLS teams can do, because talent development is the golden ticket to global relevance and, eventually, sustained excellence.
• Some MLS teams are better than others at this part of club building, though nobody’s quite mastered it. That’s because it takes time and vision and infrastructure and institutional knowledge and on-the-ground knowhow, and oh yeah, as you’re building all of that other teams – some in MLS, some from elsewhere in the world – are seeing what you’re building and are doing their best to hire away the people who are building it.
Which is to say it’s all a delicate dance and it’s easier to say “We want to be Ajax or Sporting CP!” than it is to go out there and become Ajax or Sporting CP.
But it’s been fun to watch a few of our locals give it a try, and even more fun is we’re seeing more teams take up the baton passed down by the youth development trend-setters: FC Dallas, RBNY, CF Montréal, Real Salt Lake, NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union.
Ok, that’s enough preamble. The 2023 22 Under 22 list drops in mid-October, and keep in mind that players are ineligible if they turn 22 on or before Decision Day, which is October 21. The “22 Under 22” title always has folks asking a lot of questions answered by the title.
Let’s take a look at some (not all!) of the frontrunners from this year so far. I’m going to group them into three, uh, groups (see, I told you I forgot how to write):
These are guys who I’d bet against ever commanding a $10 million transfer fee or starring for their national teams, but who I think will be, at the very least, above-average MLS players for a long, long time.
When he came into the league two years ago, everybody (myself included) thought Vite was going to be a No. 10. But instead he’s turned into more of a line-breaking passer from deep who then has good instincts for late runs into the box.
Needs to work on: If he’s going to play deeper he needs to, you know, defend occasionally.
I will admit I’m surprised Tolkin is still in MLS, as I thought he’d have moved to RBNY’s sister club in Salzburg by now. He’s good enough as both a soccer player and as an athlete, and he’s fearless in those physical duels the Red Bull system demands.
Needs to work on: I’d actually love to see him in a system that asks for a little less physicality and a little more soccer, a la Kai Wagner in Philly.
He is not a classic No. 10 who makes the game at his feet, but more of an all-purpose attacker who gets the ball off his foot quickly and makes absolutely killer passes on the move (arguably a more important skill in today’s game than the ability to dictate tempo). Two more assists will make him one of the youngest players in league history to hit 10+ on the season.
Needs to work on: And he’s got one goal to go with it. Anyone who spends all their time at the 10 or on the wing needs to provide more than that.
Morris is a true ball-winner whose year-over-year growth has been mostly linear now that he’s managed to stay healthy. Part of that comes down to staying healthy.
The other part – the non-linear part – comes down to playing for Wilfried Nancy. The Crew manager demands every one of his players be comfortable and brave with the ball, and while that’s not exactly a strong suit for Morris at this point, he’s made a big jump from 2022.
Needs to work on: Receiving in traffic is obviously the big one, but he’s been weirdly slow on the re-press at times this year, both for the Crew and for the USMNT. That can not happen.
Edelman is never slow on the re-press and is even more willing to get into those physical battles than Tolkin. The kid is a throwback destroyer who has no regard for life and limb, and while I understand why other fanbases kind of hate him, I also understand completely why RBNY fans love him.
Needs to work on: Comfort with the ball.
One of the most pleasant surprises for me this year has been seeing Luna blossom both with the US U20s (he was awesome as a false 9 and a left winger) and with RSL. I will admit that I never, ever thought he’d be a Pablo Mastroeni guy – he didn’t defend much/at all in USL or with previous iterations of USYNT groups – and expected him to waste on the bench for a long while.
It’s been the other way. Luna has bought in to being a two-way player and is actually good at it, to the point where he’s actually taking minutes and starts from U22 teammate Andrés Gómez.
His numbers are modest at just 3g/3a in 659 minutes of league play, but he’s leveraged his on-ball comfort into becoming one of MLS’s best pass-before-the-pass guys.
Needs to work on: Pure chance creation should come next, right? We saw it from him two years ago in USL, so we know it’s there.
There are two sides to Jack McGlynn. Let’s start with that glorious left foot:
The only No. 8 in the league who’s better at tilting the pitch is Keaton Parks.
Needs to work on: Here is the other side of McGlynn:
Either he needs to up his defensive instincts in transition moments or work on his quickness, or preferably both.
If you could combine Cremaschi and McGlynn, you might have the perfect central midfielder. As it is, though, Cremaschi comes in second only to Robert Taylor among players who’ve most benefitted from the arrivals of Leo Messi and Sergio Busquets.
Cremaschi’s skillset is perfect for what Miami need out of a No. 8 – he’s got a huge engine and is smart (for an 18-year-old) about the runs he makes.
That means 1) he’s now getting on the ball in good spots when Miami have possession, and 2) he’s become an indispensable defender who does the running of two guys.
Needs to work on: Like so many domestic players, Cremaschi’s got to get better at receiving in traffic on the half-turn.
In spite of that, I’m very comfortable with Wolff in this group given his youth – the kid will be eligible for the next three editions of this list – and the two-way competence he’s already shown.
Needs to work on: Third-line passes into the pockets. Wolff sees ‘em, and he tries to hit them, but too many go to the guys in the wrong color uniforms. I think the game’s moving just a touch too fast for him at this point.
Velasco has been poor as a winger this year. Then he stepped foot on the field last week against Inter Miami as a true No. 10 in front of a double pivot and put forth the best performance of his MLS life. Look, some random dude wanted to trade kits after the game:
Needs to work on: The difference between Velasco and, say, Thiago Almada isn’t just that Almada’s gotten to play as a No. 10 all year: it’s that Almada has the burst to create instant separation. I don’t know if Velasco can get there – some of that is just innate – but he can definitely learn more tricks of the trade (Emanuel Reynoso, for example, is not a better athlete than Velasco) on body position, feints and fakes if he’s going to become a classic No. 10.
I might be buying high on Ordaz, who was brutal in USL last year. But he’s been one of the best players in MLS NEXT Pro this season and in his limited minutes with the first team in Leagues Cup, he seems to have bought into who he actually is: a highly mobile center forward who’s at his best when making good runs and allowing the game to come to him instead of drifting out wide, getting on the ball and trying to make the game.
It reminds me a little bit of Taty Castellanos’s development for NYCFC, when he went from “atrocious winger” to “Golden Boot presented by Audi winner” over the span of three seasons. I don’t think Ordaz will hit those heights, but he knows where the goal is now.
Needs to work on: Get off the ball sooner when out wide, and remember where goals come from.
Neal reminds me of Mark McKenzie or Tim Ream: good-not-great size for a CB; good-not-great athlete; prefers to defend on the back foot; excellent passer, especially for his age.
It’s worth noting McKenzie went from a below-average aerial CB in MLS to an excellent one in Belgium over the past three years, so Neal’s not doomed to a lifetime of losing headers. His path from here, as a matter of fact, seems pretty clear.
Needs to work on: He’s got to get stronger, got to get better in the air and got to get better at reading the game so he’s not always dropping deep.
Malanda is bigger and faster than Neal, and makes more front-foot reads to cut out danger. He’s also, like Neal, super comfortable on the ball and able to hit accurate, line-breaking passes with regularity. One of the most fun CBs to watch in MLS.
Needs to work on: He’s so physically weak that he gets picked on every match. Hit the gym.
++ athlete who’s got decent feet and vision, as well as a knack for combining around the box. Looks the part of a high-level contributor in select moments.
Needs to work on: Those moments are few and far between, and he hasn’t effectively harnessed those decent feet and ++ athleticism to become an effective dribbler of the ball, nor an effective finisher. This has been a disappointing season for the 19-year-old.
Kamungo put up 16 goals in MLS NEXT Pro last year, and has followed it up with 5g/5a in 947 minutes across all competitions for Dallas and North Texas so far this year (all five of those goals, by the way, have come with the first team in Dallas).
My guess is he’s a starter coming out of Leagues Cup.
Needs to work on: Off-ball box arrival. I need to see more one-time finishes from Kamungo.
The 20-year-old, like Cowell and Kamungo, is a physically gifted winger who’s better in the open field than he is in possession at this point. He gets forward well and understands patterns of play – with 1g/5a in a shade over 1000 minutes, there can’t be many complaints on the early ROI, even if he is a bit one-dimensional at this point.
Needs to work on: He’s got to mix some change-of-pace into his game.
So far he does two things really, really well: progress the ball upfield into good spots via the dribble, and commit good fouls after turnovers (his own or a teammate’s) that stop opposing counterattacks. (If you don’t think that last thing is super important, you haven’t been paying attention to Pep Guardiola’s teams over the past 15 years).
Those are some very good building blocks for any fullbacks.
Needs to work on: The final ball has to be better, especially from a guy who’s so often in good spots.
Buck is good defensively, excellent in possession, and very good going forward. He packs all of that into a good frame (6-foot, 160 pounds and still growing) with a cultured left foot, and is a plus athlete with a superior first touch and ability to receive in traffic. He also has a European passport.
Buck, who just turned 18, is an Ismaël Koné-level No. 8 prospect, and given he’s two years younger than Koné was after last season, I suspect the transfer fee the Revs command for him will be a decent chunk larger.
Needs to work on: I want him to use his size to win the ball more and draw more fouls in great spots. And please, dear god, don’t go to the Championship.
Borrero was destined for the top spot on my list this season before his injury. He’s naturally a winger but was doing excellent work as a second forward in the Revs’ 4-4-2 diamond, flaring out wide to open the central channels and attacking at pace.
Let’s hope he makes a full recovery.
Needs to work on: End product.
He’s fallen off the face of the earth in the past year, but Magno’s a guy whose name still comes up any time you talk to folks around the league about the best and most talented young players in MLS. The expectation of most is that now, with a real No. 9 to work off again, he’ll once again look like he did at the start of the 2022 season.
Needs to work on: Off-ball movement. He’s not a great athlete, but he’s fast enough to get in behind and put the fear of god into the opposing defense. He spends too much time these days coming back to the ball instead.
Brady had a couple of howlers early in the season, but since then the 19-year-old has been one of the very best goalkeepers in MLS. As per American Soccer Analysis’s all-in-one “goals added” stat, Brady is at +0.17 per 90 this year – that’s fifth in the league, and that matches the eye test.
For reference: Gaga Slonina’s number last season was -0.02. The Fire Academy’s done it again, folks.
Needs to work on: This kid just needs reps.
Wiley is still very young (he turns 19 in December) and has been useful-to-good at three separate spots for a pretty decent team this year. That’s a good starting point, and here’s even better news: left-footers with fearlessness, blazing speed and some level of final-third competency don’t just grow on trees, and occasionally they grow into Alphonso Davies.
I’m not expecting that much of a leap from Wiley, but there’s a reason some of the biggest clubs in the world are watching him.
Needs to work on: Defensive understanding. He can be way too aggressive when pushing up from fullback, and tends to leave the back door open.
Guys with his attacking gifts don’t come around all that often, and certainly not in the type of physical package Mosquera brings to the table. The 20-year-old got his first Colombia cap back in January, and my guess is there’ll be at least 50 more of those coming over the next decade.
He’d be a standout athlete even in the Premier League, and yes, Premier League clubs are watching.
Needs to work on: His defensive instincts are nil.
I’m shocked he didn’t break through at Villarreal, but I’ll just repeat the same thing I said last year: He’s the best teenage CB I’ve ever seen in MLS, is physically gifted at an elite level and, by all accounts, has the type of work ethic you need to succeed at the highest level.
His career path confuses me, to be honest. But if you told me that, three years from now, he’s starting for AC Milan, I’d say “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Needs to work on: Sticking with a club (LAFC) that would’ve played him real minutes and developed him instead of chasing the European dream at a bad landing spot.
These are guys who came to MLS (or came out of MLS academies) with big reps, but we just haven’t seen enough yet to judge.
I see a kid with good speed who gets on the ball in decent spots and drives the game forward. So far, though, he lacks the eye for the killer final ball, which has limited his effectiveness (and thus limited his playing time).
Seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s just turned 18. Still doesn’t look like the same guy he was early in 2022 before the injuries hit.
Considered by most to be a big talent, you can see it when the ball’s on his foot. But he does seem to be a bit of a ‘tweener right now. My guess is “attacking right back” is his future.
A pleasant surprise that he’s played regular minutes, and so far in those minutes he looks the type to fit snugly into STL’s Red Bull-esque physical system. Hasn’t shown much technique with the ball yet.
Gifted enough, both physically and technically, to play real MLS and USL Championship minutes as a 16-year-old. That’s rare at any spot, but especially in central defense.
The Herons just set a league record by spending $7 million on the 19-year-old CB, who has repped both Chile and Argentina at the youth level. Great things are expected.
The oldest of Miami’s trio of U22 signings was outstanding for Colón de Santa Fe a couple of years ago, but has stagnated a bit since then. Chances are he’s Robert Taylor’s backup for the rest of this season.