Earlier this week I looked at the best 22 Under 22 contender on each team, and embedded right at the top was my explanation of how 22 Under 22 eligibility doesn't necessarily denote "prospect" status. To sum it up: if you've played more than 2000 first-team minutes – be they all in MLS, or spread out between MLS and Uruguay, or Argentina, or wherever – you are no longer a "prospect."
Even if you are age-eligible for 22 Under 22 (born October 5, 1998 or later), once you have that many minutes under your belt you've graduated up a level to something beyond just "prospect." And thus you are not eligible for this column.
So with that in mind, here is the best prospect on each MLS team, along with a stylistic comparison to an MLS veteran. Understand I'm not saying these kids are as good as those vets, but am just trying to give you a framework for how they play, and something of the level they can aspire to.
Away we go:
One of the few bright spots for Vancouver last year was the emergence – at least somewhat – of Theo Bair. This was one of the goals of the season:
The problem is there's not really a clear path to playing time for him at the moment, as he's behind new arrival Lucas Cavallini and veteran Fredy Montero on the depth chart. But he has the tools to be a very, very good No. 9.
MLS Comp:CJ Sapong
"Gio Reyna-level prospect." That's the description I've heard from people who watch a lot of youth soccer, and a lot of USL, about 15-year-old winger Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty. He's almost certainly not going to get on the field this year for Toronto, but next year might not be too soon.
MLS Comp:Cristian Espinoza
Gianluca Busio, as I wrote on Monday, remains a mystery. But he's a mystery who played 1,000 MLS minutes for a very good team before he turned 18, and is attracting legitimate European interest.
If he could figure out how to be more aggressive in his passing – which he's shown glimpses of – then this becomes a no-brainer. And at that point he's not only Sporting's best prospect, but easily one of the best in the league.
MLS Comp: You've seen him play a bunch, right? Do you really need a comp? Force me to make one, and I'll go with Danny Royer.
Danny Leyva is something of a litmus test for folks who watch a lot of the game here. Some feel he's can't-miss, given his obvious game sense and skill on the ball. Others see a physically awkward kid who doesn't win his duels even at age-group play, let alone against grown men. Leyva was dominated at last autumn's U-17 World Cup and it wasn't pretty.
But growing pains happen to lots of players. I'm going to choose to be optimistic about both Leyva's potential to grow into his body and become a smoother athlete, as well as his ability to understand that in the modern game, if you're going to play in the middle of the park you have to win the ball.
MLS Comp:Jackson Yueill
San Jose Earthquakes
Cade Cowell was the youngest signing in Quakes history, and two months after putting pen to paper he scored in a friendly against Monterrey:
He played a good chunk of minutes for the Quakes' USL affiliate, Reno 1868, in 2019, and in 2020 made his MLS debut as a 16-year-old, playing the second half of San Jose's second game of the season. He damn near scored, too.
Cowell is a direct, explosive athlete who's mostly played on the wing, though he plays it more like a "wide forward" than a true winger.
MLS Comp:Jordan Morris
Real Salt Lake
The best young goalkeeper in the USYNT pool is 19-year-old RSL Homegrown David Ochoa, who backstopped Real Monarchs to the USL Championship championship (heh) last year, and probably would have been in the pipes for the US U-23s in Olympic qualifying if COVID-19 hadn't happened.
Ochoa is big, aggressive and good with his feet. He's also not at all afraid of a little gamesmanship.
MLS Comp:Sean Johnson
By default it goes to Marco Farfan, the 21-year-old LB who is the only 22 Under 22-eligible player on the team. Farfan's looked out of his depth at times, but has also had moments of real promise – including his first two starts last season. He looked legitimate good, as if the game had slowed down a bit for him.
MLS Comp:Joseph Mora
It's difficult with Philly because their blue-chip prospects begin playing right away – guys like Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. Anthony Fontana is not widely seen to be a prospect at that tier, but having talked to a bunch of his current and former teammates, there's a respect for his approach to training and a quiet confidence among the group that yes, he's going to be a factor as a pro.
He's probably not going to be a game-breaker or a match-winner, but there's a sense he's going to be a scrapper who will mean a lot to the Union for a long time.
MLS Comp:Cristian Roldan
Orlando City SC
I thought Daryl Dike was going to be the No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick. I understand why Robbie Robinson went No. 1 instead, but I am enamored of Dike's soft feet, giant frame and passing vision. He is legit:
It's going to happen for him.
MLS Comp: Young Conor Casey, but since most of you don't remember young Conor Casey, I'll go with Kacper Przybylko.
New York Red Bulls
Homegrown left back John Tolkin looked for a time like he would be Homegrown defensive midfielder John Tolkin. The 17-year-old is comfortable at either spot, which should give you an idea of his ability with the ball and overall game sense. In age-group competitions, he has been plug-and-play.
Against grown-ups in the preseason he struggled. His overall athleticism is a question, which is why his final position is a question.
Regardless, expect to see a lot of him in USL. And nobody has been better about leveraging USL minutes into MLS contributors than the Red Bulls.
MLS Comp:Jorge Villafana
New York City FC
I know Joe Scally is younger and has already been sold for multiple millions of dollars to a Bundesliga team, and I know James Sands is just two years older and is already a fulltime starter for the Cityzens, but on this roster, the best prospect is Tayvon Gray. Even though, as seen here, they've primarily used him as a center back – a position he's unlikely to play as a pro:
Gray has also played a lot of right back, which is probably his best bet as a long-term, professional home. Though I personally am holding out he gets a crack at the No. 6, where he'd be a wrecking ball.
MLS Comp:Nick Lima
New England Revolution
I know Justin Rennicks missed that sitter in Week 2, and I know Bruce Arena was not pleased. I know that Rennicks is going to have to work very, very hard to earn another look. I know the Revs have depth at his position(s). I know he is not the smoothest or most elegant of players.
I also know in a U-20 World Cup knockout round game against freaking France, Rennicks came on and wasn't just a difference-maker, he was a match-winner. He is a pressing maniac, and also has a knack for popping up in the right spots in the box. He will never, I don't think, be a lead-the-line center forward, but there's a ton to work with there in the modern game thanks to his pretty good skill on the ball, very good game sense and excellent work rate.
Center back Jack Maher is one of just two 22 Under 22 eligible players on this roster, and he was drafted ahead of the other one, so...
Maher's a smart and smooth center back who can distribute. He is also still pretty skinny so he'll need to hit the gym and fill out, and given Nashville's CB depth, there's not a ton of playing time in sight for him in the short-term. But in the long term, he's a guy who can be a foundational piece.
MLS Comp:Drew Moor
Zachary Brault-Guillard was one of the revelations of the early season:
The ability to just clear out a sideline and leave it all in the hands of one guy is such a luxury, and Thierry Henry's done well to do exactly that in the first few games of his tenure.
MLS Comp: A right-footed Justin Morrow
Minnesota United FC
All due respect to Thomas Chacon, who has a DP deal and Uruguayan pedigree, but we've never seen him do anything like this:
Those are two thunderbolts, and while they were part of a hot streak, it's not like they stood entirely on their own: Mason Toye scored eight goals and added two assists across all competitions in the second half of last year. When Minnesota's attack was dying, he revived it.
In 2020, however, he didn't get off the bench in either of the first two games. He will have to earn his minutes, but it's obvious to everyone who's ever watched him kick a soccer ball or, you know, run, that he has incredible talent. Putting it together for 90 minutes – and learning how to be a better outlet in possession – have to be on his checklist.
MLS Comp: There isn't really a good one but I'll with with "a much faster Christian Ramirez."
I'm on the Robbie Robinson train. If you search for his college highlight video you will find literally every conceivable finish – one-time near post, diving header, smooth from the spot on a pullback, dribbled two guys and slotted home, hammered in from outside the box, etc. etc. And he did it with either foot. He also picked up a half-dozen assists, mostly on clever combination play in the build-up. We saw a little bit of that in his half of action vs. D.C. United.
Robinson's going to end up being very, very good.
There are two 22 Under 22 eligibles on LAFC's roster who've yet to crest 2000 first-team minutes: central midfielders Bryce Duke and Jose Cifuentes. Early in the season and in the CCL, it was Duke who'd seemed to win the battle and edge up the depth chart and into the rotation.
But I'm giving the nod here to Cifuentes, who broke US hearts 12 months ago:
I'm not sure why he struggled in the early going, but long-term I think he's going to be a problem for folks.
MLS Comp:Jan Gregus
The Galaxy have been more aggressive about signing their best academy players in recent years, and started to show a little bit more willingness to play them a bit last year. Eighteen-year-old RB Julian Araujo got almost 1,000 minutes, and while he struggled at times, he also did this at other times:
He has an elite combination of athletic and technical gifts. The Galaxy have to figure out how to bring those along and make him a weapon.
MLS Comp:Kelvin Leerdam
Neither center back Erik McCue nor playmaker Marcelo Palomino, both Homegrowns and the only two 22 Under 22-eligible players on the roster, are considered blue-chip prospects, and neither made the 18 for either of Houston's games this winter.
That said, McCue has the physical prerequisites – he's 6-foot-3 and is not skinny – you look for in a center back, and from the few games I've watched of him, he's not a bad communicator for his age. There is a path for him.
MLS Comp:Daniel Steres
I'm just going to throw up the same Moses Nyeman comp I used earlier this week:
MLS Comp:Paxton Pomykal
As with everything related to FC Dallas and "best young player" assessments, we are spoiled for choice. I think Brandon Servania, who's already made his full USMNT debut, can be a very good player. I think Edwin Cerrillo can be as well, and I know that there are some folks out there super high on Bryan Reynolds at right back. At left wing, Dante Sealy's rightly considered one of the best '03s in the entire USYNT pool. Thomas Roberts hasn't come along quickly, but he has obvious talent. Tanner Tessman has come along quickly, and has obvious talent, and man I really hope he ends up as a ball-playing center back.
But the answer is Ricardo Pepi. The ball just seems to come off his foot pure every single time:
The 17-year-old has scored consistently at every single level, and it will surprise me if that doesn't hold true in MLS. He doesn't have much else to his game as of yet – he's not a great hold-up forward at the moment – but he's got the body and balance for it.
I think he's the best prospect on this entire list.
MLS Comp:Mauro Manotas
Cole Bassett is a difficult to pin down prospect because the thing he does exceptionally well – find space off the ball and make himself an outlet for his teammates – is not exactly something that jumps off the page. And he's yet to pair that field sense with other killer attributes, as he is merely "pretty good" on the ball, and has "pretty good" passing vision, and an "okay" nose for goal. He's also not yet much of a defensive presence.
However, he was reportedly excellent for the US U-20s this winter, so perhaps a switch has been flipped. The brain is there and his frame and athleticism are both promising. He can be more than just a guy who makes up the numbers.
MLS Comp:Sean Davis
Aboubacar Keita's left foot is so, so sweet:
I thought the big CB was very good in nearly 1,000 minutes last year as a 19-year-old, and expect him to get at least that many in Columbus's CB rotation this year. Obviously things have changed/are still changing, but he's a future starter at the very least.
There are understandable concerns about the way he moves – he looks awkward and not quick. But so far, both for the US U-20s and for the Crew, he's mostly made the plays he's had to at a very high level.
MLS Comp:Matt Besler
How many times will I write about Frankie Amaya's during quarantine? Who can say! Probably a lot. Here, watch this video again:
I'm going to borrow a line from my friends at Scuffed: The ability to go into the cage and be the guy who comes out with the ball has started mattering more and more to me over the past few years when I assess young players – but especially young central midfielders. If you can't hunt and win the ball, you probably can't play there in the modern game unless you are a James Rodriguez-level chance creator (and none of these guys is that).
Amaya goes into the cage and comes out with the ball. I love it. I'm excited for Cincy fans about this, especially since Amaya + Allan Cruz should be a nightmare central midfield to try to play against.
New signing Ignacio Aliseda, a 20-year-old Argentine winger, has 2,011 minutes according to Transfermarkt, so he's just a little bit too experienced to be a prospect. That leaves it to the fleet of Homegrowns Chicago signed this winter, as well as a couple of other holdovers.
Of that group, 16-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina is the consensus best prospect according to folks who watch a ton of youth soccer. I've only seen him twice, but internally the Fire felt Slonina was a better prospect than Damian Las, and I personally think Las is one of the five best 'keeper prospects I've seen out of the US in the past quarter-century, so...(Yes, he struggled at the U-17 World Cup, but everyone on that team – including Gio Reyna – struggled. It happens.)
If Slonina really is that good, then there you go.
MLS Comp: Who knows? I've seen him twice! He's big, though – 6-foot-4. So I don't know... let's say Stefan Frei.
Two years ago if you'd asked avid watchers of the various USYNT and USSDA games which prospect in the entire pool is the one they're most excited about, the one who's the very best, it wouldn't have been Reyna or Pomykal or Pepi or Aaronson or Busio or Las. It would've been then-16-year-old Atlanta United Homegrown LB George Bello.
He was utterly dominant at the various age-group levels, and even got on the field for Atlanta's first team at the end of their wonderful 2018 season. He didn't look out of place, either:
A lot of that glow has disappeared in the subsequent 18 months. Bello got on the field early in the 2019 campaign, but looked out of his depth and disengaged defensively. Then he got hurt. Then when he got un-hurt, he was only ok at the youth level, not the dominant force he'd previously been. And his defensive errors became more glaring.
He is still considered an excellent prospect, and I don't think we're at a turning point here. Just a big hurdle. He's 18, and he needs to show he can level up. Given his attacking gifts, just becoming an adequate defensive presence would be enough to justify getting him on the field.
MLS Comp:Adam Lundkvist