Armchair Analyst: The best 22 Under 22 contender on each MLS team

This was originally going to be a "best prospect on each team" column, and then it was going to be a "best 22 Under 22 prospect on each team" column. I then realized that those two things aren't necessarily the same, and they're not necessarily different, and that you, my loyal readers, would probably be best served by having those two ideas broken up into two explicitly different columns. Here's my rationale:

  • Players such as Ezequiel Barco and Paxton Pomykal are still young enough to be considered "prospects" on the world stage, and both are still just prospects for their respective national teams. But for MLS purposes, are they prospects anymore? No, they're really not.
  • Players such as George Bello and Ricardo Pepi, on the other hand, very much are prospects, and very much will be considered for 22 Under 22 ... but are they the best bets on their respective teams? Obviously not, since Barco and Pomykal are.

I've gotta break it up. Today's column is each team's best bet for this year's 22 Under 22 (born October 5, 1998 or later). Later this week I'll do a column on pure prospects – guys who are eligible for 22 Under 22, but have also played fewer than 2,000 MLS minutes.

Let's do this alphabetical order in reverse just to make all those Atlanta fans scroll. Away we go:

Vancouver Whitecaps

Vancouver had a truly terrible year in 2019 that flew very much under the radar, all things considered. A consequence of said truly terrible year is that they went into this offseason and engaged in a second straight rebuild, which included signing new DPs, new TAM players, taking a couple of guys on loan ... and making one shrewd-looking draft pick.

It's a secondary assist, but the pass-before-the-pass matters:

I really, really like the looks of Ryan Raposo based upon film from his final season at Syracuse, the preseason and his 23-minute, decisive cameo in Vancouver's second game of the season. He's not blazing fast, but he's quick, has good vision and plays with real intent and inventiveness in the final third. 

Toronto FC

TFC doesn't have any great bets for 22 Under 22 since their roster is so stuffed with veterans, and none of the kids are that close to breaking through. Like Vancouver, their first-round pick (Achara) had an excellent first appearance, but Raposo just turned 21 while Achara's a few months from his 23rd birthday, and thus isn't eligible. 

I'm going to go with giant, 19-year-old CM/DM Noble Okello as the best choice. He's already getting call-ups for Canada's senior national team and he checks the boxes necessary in terms of the physical characteristics needed to play at the top level.

Sporting KC

Gianluca Busio has 4g/2a in about 1100 MLS minutes, and those numbers for a 17-year-old are very, very good. He has moments where he just chews up ground defensively and looks like he can be an integral part of that press. He has a knack for finding space – and the ball – around the box, and then putting it in the net. There is justifiable European interest.

He has not, however, progressed much as a passer of the ball, to the point where it's hard to conceive of him as a No. 10 prospect. For the U-20s at the most recent camp he actually played as an inverted, off-the-ball pseudo winger. That seems like a good spot for him, but the flip side of that coin is he doesn't really beat defenders off the dribble, and there aren't many wingers these days who don't/can't beat defenders off the dribble.

He's a confusing prospect. I see how he fits in the final third, and I know how he fits defensively at a couple of spots. But there's the whole rest of the game that's just ... a mystery.

Seattle Sounders

This tweet about Danny Leyva is from just over a year ago:

Leyva's meteoric rise continued in the six months after that tweet, as the then-16-year-old not only started making Seattle's bench, but he actually got on the field at d-mid for a touch over 400 minutes last year. Most of those were pretty promising.

His one start this year was less so, as he was yanked at the half. Leyva, who just turned 17 this month, looks like he's grown a few inches and is still trying to figure out his body a bit. He's also not a great ball-winner or athlete, which is why when you talk to Sounders folks about him, they see him more as a No. 8 than a No. 6.

Regardless, he's brave about getting on the ball and gifted at receiving it in traffic. The physical part is a question mark, but the soccer part isn't.

San Jose Earthquakes

The answer should be Marcos Lopez, but the 20-year-old Peruvian international left back/left wingback struggled terribly in 2019 and didn't get on the field in either of the first two games of the season.

Neither did 18-year-old CM/AM Gil Fuentes, and I am potentially jumping the gun by including him here. Fuentes was once one of the prized prospects from the 2002 birth year, but has fallen so far off the radar that he wasn't in the most recent U-20 camp and didn't even rate a mention in the latest episode of Scuffed. I get it.

But I also thought he came on strong at the end of last season with Reno in the USL, and then opened the 2020 season by going 90 minutes with a nice goal against Tacoma. Fuentes would be a Latif Blessing-esque attacking midfielder if Matias Almeyda decided to play him as a No. 10 – more of a disruptor than a creator. I'd argue that a little more defense and energy is exactly what the Quakes needed in the first two weeks, and I bet Fuentes gets onto the field a good bit once play resumes.

Cade Cowell actually did get on the field for the Quakes in their second game of the season. You'll get to read about the 16-year-old on Thursday.

Real Salt Lake

RSL went out and got themselves a new Young DP in Jeizon Ramirez, a 19-year-old Venezuelan winger who played two minutes in the first two games of the season. That's literally all the soccer I've ever seen him play, so I can't give you a scouting report or anything like that. What I can say is that DPs get on the field, so by default that makes Ramirez the best 22 Under 22 bet for this side.

Portland Timbers

The Timbers have exactly one player on the entire roster who is 22 Under 22 eligible: Homegrown left back Marco Farfan, who turns 22 a month after the season ends.

Farfan, like all Timbers youngsters, has been brought along slowly, but looked like he'd earned meaningful time by early last summer with three starts in four games (and he'd played well). He got hurt 10 minutes into that final start, which cost him the rest of the season, so 190 minutes is all he got.

He should get more this year once play resumes.

Philadelphia Union

Flip a coin between 21-year-old center back Mark McKenzie and 19-year-old attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson, both of whom are full-time starters and capped by the US men's national team

I'll go with Aaronson. Here's a simple analysis of his 2019: He's great at checking his shoulder and finding space to be an outlet for his teammates in build-up play, and he's very good at receiving the ball. But once he did receive the ball, his decision-making was far too deliberate/conservative/non-No. 10-like. All that great work he did to find killer spots didn't matter much if he was unwilling to make the killer pass after getting on the ball. That's why he didn't produce much in terms of goals or assists last year.

It's a small sample size, but that was definitely not the case through two games in 2020. He actually makes a hesitation-free killer pass and scores a goal in one sequence here:

He was also a legitimate defensive asset in both games, spearheading the Union press.

This happened much more quickly than I thought it would. I didn't have much Aaronson stock heading into this year, but the early returns say I was wrong about that.

Both McKenzie and Aaronson will be on this year's 22 Under 22, I'm certain. But Aaronson might well win the damn thing.

Orlando City SC

I wonder how many folks out there know about Andres Perea? He was a central midfielder for Colombia's U-20 national team at the Youth World Cup last spring, and now he's with Orlando City. This is him with a lovely little primary assist in Orlando's 2-1 loss to Colorado, in which Perea went 90 minutes:

Here's the fun part, USMNT fans: Perea was born in Tampa, which makes him a US citizen. He's only played for Colombia at the youth ranks thus far and I haven't heard anything about an allegiance switch – nor have I seen enough of him (he's played 91 minutes in MLS, plus last year's U-20 World Cup, and that's all I've watched) to say how good he can be.

But so far, so promising.

New York Red Bulls

Years of being out-recruited by NYCFC for the best talent in the New York region means that RBNY don't really have any blue-chip prospects coming through, so they've gone out of market to sign some. The best thus far is 20-year-old Venezuelan box-to-box midfielder Cristian Casseres, who was 11th on last year's 22 Under 22.

Casseres is a full-time starter now during his third year in New Jersey. He should crack the top 10 at the very least.

New York City FC

While NYCFC have done a better job of getting top local talent than the Red Bulls, their lack of a USL affiliate means they've struggled to develop much of it for the first team.

However, they have had one unabashed success in the form of 19-year-old James Sands, a no-frills center back/defensive midfielder who's now been a regular at either spot under both Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila. He finished 12th, one spot behind Casseres, last year.

Sands is one of the least eye-catching players in the league. His game is just lots of little plays like this:

It's a great foundation, since "makes no defensive mistakes" is a great way to get on the field at any age. But he's got to start showing more with his passing, as he's conservative to a fault. That's the big hurdle for him.

Of note: Taty Castellanos is two days too old for this year's 22 Under 22.

New England Revolution

I originally had Henry Kessler, New England's first-round SuperDraft pick and starting CB, as the easy answer here. But it turns out that Kessler is a '98, not a '99, so he's a few months too old for 22 Under 22 (he turns 22 next month).

A pair of '99s, Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan and American winger Justin Rennicks, each got on the field earlier this year. Buchanan had a horrible miss in the Revs' first game of the season, a 2-1 loss at Montreal. Rennicks had a horrible miss in their second game of the season, a home draw against Chicago.

I'm still high on both of them. Buchanan is silky smooth and explosively athletic, and can create high-leverage moments in the attacking third. Rennicks is just a high-energy nightmare to play against – think Paul Arriola, though edging a little bit more toward "forward" than "winger."

I'm giving Rennicks a slight edge, but both of these guys have the talent to finish high up the 22 Under 22 list. Now they just have to finish their chances.

Nashville SC

Nashville have only two players on the roster who are 22 Under 22 eligible, and both were taken in the first round of this year's SuperDraft: CB Jack Maher (2nd overall) and DM/RB Alistair Johnston (11th overall). 

Maher's on loan at Charlotte, while Johnston didn't make the 18 in either of Nashville's first two games. I'm not going that far out on a limb in guessing that Nashville won't have a 22 Under 22 representative this season (though it should be noted that Maher's teammates are high on him). 

Montreal Impact

Zachary Brault-Guillard is a rocketized menace up and down that right flank:

Right back was a weakness for Canada at least summer's Gold Cup. Between Brault-Guillard and Toronto FC's Richie Laryea, it should be a strength for the better part of a decade.

Minnesota United FC

Neither Mason Toye nor Thomas Chacon played a single minute in either of the Loons' first two games. Given how things went you can't really argue with that, though from a developmental standpoint it's somewhat disappointing. Toye was so good in so many crucial moments last year, while Chacon is a Young DP with a big reputation.

Both should get minutes when play resumes. I'll give the edge to Toye, since we've actually seen him produce some stunning moments in MLS before, while we're still waiting on Chacon for that.

Inter Miami

Miami's roster is stuffed with 22 Under 22-eligible players, including a center back from Colombia, a highly rated d-mid from Venezuela, a TAM forward from Argentina and a Young DP winger from Argentina.

Over the first two games, however, it was the No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick, center forward Robbie Robinson, who looked like the most exciting of the bunch. He struggled to complete plays in matchday 1 at LAFC, but on matchday 2 at D.C. United he was superb, including an assist on the team's first-ever goal, until coming off with an injury.

Robinson will have to fight to keep his spot, as Julian Carranza's going to be healthy and there's always the chance that Miami splashes out big on another DP center forward. I don't think they're going to do that, though. And from what I've seen of Robinson, it might actually be Carranza who's in for the bigger fight.

It's worth noting that Matias Pellegrini, their 20-year-old DP winger, STRUGGLED in his first two games.


We asked folks after last year's 22 Under 22 who they thought would be No. 1 in the 2020 version. It wasn't Pomykal or Barco or Aaronson or McKenzie or Sands or any SuperDraft pick. It was LAFC winger Brian Rodriguez. At just 19 years of age he's already a full Uruguay international with three goals in six games, including one against the US.

In MLS, this is his story:

In 842 minutes across all competitions for LAFC he has, somehow, yet to score and contributed just two assists.

He will be fine. In fact, he will be much better than fine – he will be excellent. Remember when Castellanos scored just one goal in his first 1,000 MLS minutes? It happens.

LA Galaxy

One of the more disappointing things about last season for Galaxy fans was that young RB Julian Araujo was dropped as soon as he struggled, and then never again saw the light of day. He hasn't gotten off the bench in their first two games of 2020, either.

Nor have any of the Galaxy's other young players.

I think the 18-year-old Araujo has the clearest path to getting on the field, and is an obvious talent. We'll see if it happens this season.

Houston Dynamo

Center back Erik McCue and playmaker Marcelo Palomino, both Homegrowns, are the only two 22 Under 22-eligible players on the roster, and neither made the 18 for either of Houston's games this winter. 

I do think that the 19-year-old McCue has a clearer path to the first team given Houston's continual issues in the center of defense, but this year feels too soon.

D.C. United

I don't think central midfielder Moses Nyeman's going to play much, if at all, for D.C. in 2020. But he might still make the 22 Under 22 cut because he's going to be a monster in the USL and earn votes based upon potential:

I don't think any of the other age-eligible players on D.C.'s roster are going to play enough minutes to carve out a place on the list, and none are considered to be the same level of prospect as Nyeman.

FC Dallas

Pomykal was third on last year's list. I don't think anybody would be shocked if he was No. 1 on this year's list.

Jesus Ferreira, Brandon Servania, Tanner Tessman and Pepi all have the juice to end up real high on this list, too. So could Edwin Cerrillo, Bryan Reynolds, Thomas Roberts or even young Dante Sealy, though they're all more likely a year or more away.

But Pomykal's the favorite. If he's not top three again this year, something's gone wrong.

Colorado Rapids

Sam Vines is starting and going 90 every game at left back for the Rapids, and absolutely deserved his USMNT call-up. I expect him to be, at the very least, a top-10 player on this year's list, though he has the ability to be higher than that:

There are other talented young players on Colorado's roster, but Vines is the one out there winning the job and keeping it.

Columbus Crew

The Crew went out in the middle of last year and got themselves a Young DP winger in Costa Rican Luis Diaz. He's a blur, and with 2g/5a in about 900 MLS minutes he's been a productive blur. He's also one of the league's best crossers, either standing still or on the run:

This is what he does: stay wide and dime crosses to his center forward. Four of his five assists are primary assists to the No. 9.

Even if he has no other dimensions to his game (for what it's worth, I think he does), being super fast and super excellent at hitting the final ball is a devastating combo.

FC Cincinnati

I've written elsewhere, twice, about Frankie Amaya's evolution into a bulldog of a two-way midfielder, which might end up with him as an Ozzie Alonso or Chris Armas-style No. 6. He's just relentless about getting pressure to the ball, and when he gets there he usually wins it:

He's also brave about getting on the ball, and has good feet and balance. His vision is rudimentary, which is why he's not the No. 10 he was advertised as coming out of college.

But that's fine. He's found a way to be one of better young players in the league regardless.

Chicago Fire

After years of mostly ignoring their academy, the Fire have gone buck wild over the past six months, signing seven Homegrowns since December – six of whom are 22 Under 22 eligible. They also went out and dropped some cash on Argentine youth international winger Ignacio Aliseda, a 20-year-old of whom big things are expected.

It's been the holdover, Djordje Mihailovic, who's delivered. Mihailovic struggled in 2019 and was basically a bit player in the second half of the season, but seems to have found new life out wide as sort of a playmaking winger under new head coach Raphael Wicky, delivering two assists in two games. With Aliseda and other new signings around he'll have to fight to keep his job, but Mihailovic (he turns 22 in November) is in his fourth year as a pro. He understands the basic premise of the gig, which is "You have to fight to keep your job."

He was 15th last year. There's a good chance he ends up higher this year.

Atlanta United

Barco finished second last year despite missing most of the season and failing to score after May 5, but there's no question that Atlanta's record was better when he was on the field and there's little question that he was a more dynamic passer of the ball once the playoffs arrived. His assist vs. the Revs was wonderful, and the same should be said of his assist vs. Toronto FC.

Then he came out on fire in the 2020 season, with two goals and an assist – all of them very, very necessary – in Atlanta's first two league games of the season (let's just not mention the Concacaf Champions League).

With Josef Martinez hurt, even more weight falls on Barco's shoulders. He's 21 now, has over 3,000 MLS minutes – 4,000 across all competitions with Atlanta – and has been a pro for half-a-decade.

This should be his year. As with Pomykal and Rodriguez, if he's not in the top three then something's gone wrong.