22u22_early_tiers-16x9

We’ve got just about a quarter of a season in the books, so now feels like a good time to crack open the spreadsheets and take a look at the 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR race. We put our heads together and broke the field down into six tiers, as well as an invisible seventh tier known as “guys who have no shot either because they’re too young to know if they’re any good, or because we’ve seen enough to know they aren’t any good.”

While this isn’t a hard and fast ranking – it’s the tier designation that really matters – we’re putting these guys in a specific order here for a reason, right?

NOTE: Players must be under 22 years old on Oct. 10, 2022 to be eligible for 22 Under 22

We tried to get J. Sam Jones to write an intro under the condition he had to say one (1) nice thing about Tom. He refused. So let’s dive in:

Tier 1
Top spot contenders
  • Gaga Slonina (Chicago Fire FC)
  • Mamadou Fall (LAFC)
  • Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)
  • Talles Magno (NYCFC)

Tom Bogert (TB): For me, fighting for the top spot comes with three strict criteria:

  1. Proven MLS difference-maker over a representative sample size
  2. Elite potential for a lucrative transfer— Or among the best for those eligible
  3. Eye test (let’s not overthink it, right?)

All four of these players have sky-high ceilings. All four are MLS-proven. All four have the quality where it doesn’t exactly take a world-class scout to spot them. The top tier is straightforward and defined at this stage.

Look back at previous winners – Alphonso Davies, Brenden Aaronson and Ricardo Pepi – they all had that blend of proven track record, obvious quality on any given match and room for growth. Eventually, lucrative moves to Europe arrived.

Matt Doyle (MD): This is roughly where I’m at and it does a nice job of explaining the difference between 22 Under 22 now and 22 Under 22 even three years ago. Back then there simply weren’t enough proven (relatively speaking) young players in MLS to make this list without diving completely into guys who are only being judged based on potential. Now, the vast majority of this list is guys with potential… but also with some meaningful MLS (and perhaps some Concacaf Champions League and national team) minutes under their belts.

This shift came slowly, then all at once. MLS is now one of the top leagues in the world in terms of giving minutes to young players, and as this selection shows, those kids are just as likely to come from next door as they are from South America or Africa.

TB: Ferreira already has experienced breakout, disappointment and bounce-back campaigns (all by his age-20 season!), then earned a first-of-its-kind Young DP contract extension this winter. Magno was acquired by NYCFC for around $9 million and has 3g/3a in just under 1,000 minutes this year. He’s not quite the same level of MLS-proven in terms of stats, but the eye test carries a lot of weight here. He’s clearly a starter in MLS and has flashes of being a difference-maker.

Fall became the first-choice center back for LAFC before his 19th birthday and Slonina became a first-choice goalkeeper for Chicago before his 18th birthday. Those are two positions that do not typically lend to teenagers winning constant minutes.

Which player do you think is sold for the most lucrative deal? And how long?

MD: Of these four, I’ll put my money on Fall and will just toss a dart at “next winter” as for when it happens. And truth be told, I think this tier can kind of be split into 1A (Fall and Slonina) and 1B (Ferreira and Magno).

I just think in terms of potential + productivity, Fall and Slonina are already there. Ferreira, meanwhile, has great productivity, but doesn’t have the same sky-high, Juventus/Bayern/Chelsea potential that the other three guys do, while Magno, for all his potential, hasn’t been quite as productive.

Where are you at re: Ferreira’s overall potential? It’s pretty clearly a notch below the other three guys here, right?

TB: I mean, I guess? But then you step back and…Ferreira is arguably the current starting center forward for the US men’s national team.

So perhaps Ferreira doesn’t quite have the ceiling that will make Slonina the most expensive teenage goalkeeper since Gigi Buffon two decades ago or that of Magno, who feels like will be on a legitimate Champions League club one day, but it’s certainly nothing to overlook. (... which I overlooked this time last year because I read way too much into an inconsistent year in his age-19 season. Idiot!)

Also, while I agree Magno hasn’t had the same MLS production/clear path as the other three, he’s also an attacker (more expensive), Brazilian youth international (more expensive) and has already transferred once for an $8-10 million fee (more expensive on the next one). So, keep that in mind too.

MD: Ok, thanks Tom. I’ll keep that in mind. Good note.

TB:

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No expression
Tier 2
Locks
  • Ismael Kone (CF Montréal)
  • Thiago Almada (Atlanta United)
  • Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (Toronto FC)
  • Alan Velasco (FC Dallas)
  • Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy)
  • John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)
  • Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union)

MD: Once again, I think there are two sub-tiers here. The first six guys in this group could, potentially, blow up to the point they actually top the list. It’s not precisely likely for any of them, but it’s an outcome that’s somewhere out there in play.

I don’t think that’s the case for the last two guys in this tier, Tolkin and Flach, since the upside isn’t quite there. But what is, is on-field proof of their quality. Tolkin and Flach are already proven, week-in week-out starters for two of the better (or in Flach’s case, one of the very best) teams in MLS. So even though neither has the type of ceiling that makes fans drool, both have the type of floor that makes good coaches put them on the team sheet every single week.

TB: In my evolution in voting on these, I’ve come to value on-field proof of quality more than the elusive, seductive notion of “potential.” If Tolkin and Flach don’t get better from here on out (which, to be clear, they will get better) they'll have 15-year careers in MLS. That’s the floor!

MD: Let’s flip to the right side because we should talk about Marshall-Rutty. European scouts love him – TFC could sell him for eight figures tomorrow – and he’d probably be in the first tier if he’d stayed healthy. As it is, though, he’s one of the few guys we’re listing whose presence is almost entirely potential rather than productivity.

TB: I do think Marshall-Rutty would have had a chance to play into this top tier given his sky-high potential, but an injury that will keep him out around eight weeks after just a handful of MLS starts won’t give him the chance to show further whether he’s a difference-maker in MLS just yet. He’s also still learning to play right back (or wingback) after spending his youth career as a winger. He trained with Liverpool and Arsenal this past offseason and is regarded as the next huge talent to come through the Canadian men’s national team.

Cowell, Velasco and Almada can probably jump into the top tier if they demonstrate a high-level, consistent run of form in MLS. None of that would be surprising.

MD: Yup, though I do think you’re sleeping on Kone a little bit. He’s going to go to the World Cup, and based upon how good he’s been for Montréal thus far… I really think the dude’s going to play a role. Not a lot of 19-year-old central midfielders can claim that!

TB: Yeah, that’s fair. He’s been so legit, and Djordje Mihailovic has (rightfully) been getting so much attention in Montréal, meaning Kone might be a bit overlooked.

And I can’t wait for Cowell to just play… in a normal system and his correct position now that San Jose has, erm, made a philosophical change on the coaching staff.

Tier 3
Inside track
  • Nathan Harriel (Philadelphia Union)
  • Ben Bender (Charlotte FC)
  • Tayvon Gray (NYCFC)
  • Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Cesar Araujo (Orlando City SC)
  • Thiago Andrade (NYCFC)
  • Brian Gutierrez (Chicago Fire FC)
  • David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
  • Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy)

MD: In general, this tier seems to be for guys who are already getting minutes, but maybe don’t quite have the upside as guys in the first two groups, with the exception of Vargas. The 16-year-old has been one of the early stories of the season, getting minutes in both CCL and MLS play for the Sounders, but now that his team is healthy he’s been getting less run. And with that, he’s fallen out of the public consciousness a bit.

That said, I have him as a lock. Why did you knock him down a tier? Do you hate Sounders fans?

TB: You had 17 locks on an incredibly fluid list of 22 two months into a seven-and-a-half month season.

We probably had Danny Leyva as a lock at this time after his Generation adidas Cup excellence/Homegrown contract/MLS debut/USYNT pedigree in 2019. Perhaps Josh Atencio at this time last year. Things can change!

Cesar Araujo has been a pleasant surprise for me this year. It shouldn’t be surprising an Uruguay youth international is playing MLS minutes and playing well, but that midfield group he broke into is so crowded. DP Junior Urso, Ecuador international Jhegson Mendez and one-time US international Andres Perea are all competing for minutes in Orlando. He’s recorded more minutes than all of them, starting all nine of the Lions’ games.

MD: He’s earned them. Araujo’s been super fun as an old-fashioned hard man in there.

TB: Speaking of earning it… No. 1 SuperDraft selection Ben Bender has had a really encouraging start to the season for Charlotte. Folks at the club truly believe his long-term ceiling is the USMNT.

MD: If he keeps playing like this, he’ll eventually get a look. What makes him so good right now is he’s brilliant off the ball – Cole Bassett-style movement and energy. If you’re good off the ball then you’re going to actually become more useful as you’re surrounded by better players.

In other words, it’s a skill set that scales.

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Tier 4
Bubble
  • Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union)
  • Paxten Aaronson (Philadelphia Union)
  • George Campbell (Atlanta United)
  • Jayden Nelson (Toronto FC)
  • Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union)
  • Moses Nyeman (D.C. United)
  • Pedro Vite (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
  • Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls)
  • Ralph Priso (Toronto FC)

TB: This group comes with a mix of productivity and potential, but not quite enough for the category above. If you’re counting at home, the three tiers above this have 21 players. So, truly on the bubble.

Anyone you’re particularly excited about in the near-term?

MD: Of the guys on this list, McGlynn has, thus far, been my favorite player to watch. He does Haris Medunjanin stuff and by god do I love Haris Medunjanin.

The issue, though, is he’s really not much of an athlete, to the point I have a tough time imagining him excelling in Philly’s system. Maybe that’s wrong, though – Keaton Parks isn’t an incredible athlete, and he’s great in NYCFC’s high-pressing system. The issue there, though, is NYCFC press to win the ball, while Philly press to win field position.

Anyway, I’m getting lost in the weeds a little bit, but he’s the one who’s my favorite. Aaronson, on the other hand, is the one who I think is most likely to make a big splash this year, which will most likely come after U-20 World Cup qualifying is over. Pretty clear path to significant playing time for him after that, right?

TB: That would make sense. I also don’t think it’s necessarily a binary Aaronson-or-Daniel Gazdag discussion. Jim Curtin has been creative in finding minutes for these guys (like regularly playing with two of Jamiro Monteiro/Gazdag/Aaronson at a time last year).

Paxten for sure will be in Europe before long, by the way. I still love the idea of RB Salzburg moving Brenden to Leeds and taking a chunk of that money and funneling it to Philadelphia for another Aaronson. They’ve sent reps to Philadelphia to watch him before, but the Union made it abundantly clear they weren’t going to move him before this year. We’ll see how that develops.

As for another potential for a big splash, Pedro Vite is super talented. There’s a scenario in which Vancouver steadies the ship with him, Ryan Gauld and Brian White leading the attack.

Tier 5
Want to see more
  • Kosi Thompson (Toronto FC)
  • Marinos Tzionis (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew)
  • Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United)
  • Rida Zouhir (CF Montréal)
  • Max Alves (Colorado Rapids)
  • Niko Tsakiris (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Griffin Yow (D.C. United)
  • Danny Leyva (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Josh Atencio (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • David Ayala (Portland Timbers)
  • Cam Duke (Sporting Kansas City)
  • Gabriel Pereira (NYCFC)

MD: I just straight-up love Aidan Morris and wish he was in a club situation where he’d get more minutes. I don’t think it’s an accident the one time he got a look in a big game – MLS freaking Cup in 2020 – he had a masterclass of a performance, thoroughly outplaying Nico Lodeiro in the Crew’s 3-0 win over Seattle.

But as always, how a player develops, as well as how quickly, has as much to do with fit and opportunity (and health) as they do with that player’s talent. Some coaches are eager to shape younger guys and get them out onto the field as much as possible, but Caleb Porter’s always preferred veterans.

TB: I think about sliding doors all of the time in MLS, soccer and all sports. Aidan Morris starting — and bossing — MLS Cup 2020 out of nowhere as a teenager should have been his launching pad. He tore his ACL in his next competitive game (CCL 2021) and is almost an afterthought here now.

Yet, still, he’s only 20 and there’s plenty of time left to get back to that trajectory.

Elsewhere: Wiley, Marinos, Thompson, Alves and maybe Ayala seem like they could get a good run of minutes at their current club situations over the next few months and make a move here.

MD: Yup. Basically everyone in this tier has shown us something to be excited about. Now we just need to see more of it and on the regular.

Tier 6
Lurking, could jump with minutes
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  • Darren Yapi (Colorado Rapids)
  • Dantouma Toure (Colorado Rapids)
  • Jhon Duran (Chicago Fire FC)
  • Noah Allen (Inter Miami CF)
  • Reed Baker-Whiting (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Serge Ngoma (New York Red Bulls)
  • Wikelman Carmona (New York Red Bulls)
  • Daniel Edelman (New York Red Bulls)
  • Noel Buck (New England Revolution)
  • Jackson Hopkins (D.C. United)
  • Jude Wellings (Real Salt Lake)
  • Thor Ulfarsson (Houston Dynamo FC)

TB: Why did you put so many names? That’s a lot of people lurking. Starting to feel uncomfortable with all the lurking.

MD: It’s a cross-section of really young guys with high upsides, virtually all of whom have either been stars at the youth national team level and/or who have already shown at least some competence at the MLS level.

This is where we would’ve put Bryan Reynolds two years ago, because this tier is for guys who everybody knows has talent then get there and show it. And then if that happens with one of them this season, we look like geniuses and get to say that we called it.

It’s simple #brand strategy, Tom.

Anyway, of this group I think the one most likely to play a significant role this year is Carmona, the 19-year-old Venezuelan who got himself a touch over 1200 MLS minutes for the Red Bulls last year, but who’s been sidelined with an injury so far in 2022. He’ll eventually get fit and when he does, he will play.

TB: ​​Well, my favorite lurkers of this group are Jhon Duran, Darren Yapi and Yaya Toure, for talent plus (maybe) path to minutes. Both Yapi and Toure saw their cases hurt by the Gyasi Zardes’ signing, though. Colorado are a deep team unafraid to rotate and certainly unafraid to play young players if they’re ready.

Yapi (Arsenal, Club Brugge) and Toure (Rangers) each spent time training at big clubs in Europe this past offseason. They are both highly-rated US youth internationals, too.

Duran, meanwhile, is a big rising talent from Colombia, signed in the 2021 offseason, but unable to join Chicago until he turned 18 this winter. They’re bringing him on slowly, but the kid already had nine goals in 46 senior appearances in Colombia before arriving. He’s blocked by Kacper Przybylko at center forward, a player who can’t play another position, in a team that looks locked into a 4-2-3-1 given the personnel. That’s a tough spot for a developing forward. Just ask Dejan Joveljic in Los Angeles.

Duran should get plenty of chances, though.

MD: We’ll see. It feels more to me like he – and everyone else in this tier – is a year away.