Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about “MLS 1.0”, “MLS 2.0”, and other various and sundry “point-0s”. It’s a way for people to chart the growth of MLS from the league’s inception to today. I must admit that I have a hard time tracking the “point-0s,” so I’m not entirely sure what numerical era MLS is in at the moment. However, I do have my own preferred title for the league’s current evolutionary stage.
MLS is in the “Lernaean Hydra stage”. What on earth is a Lernaean Hydra, you might ask? It’s that monster that Hercules has to kill as one of his 12 labors in ancient Greek mythology. The Lernaean Hydra had a bunch of heads, which is already scary, but to make it even worse, for every head that Hercules chopped off, it would regrow two new heads.
That whole “one head gone, two heads grown” thing was a real issue for Hercules, but it’s a great thing for MLS. Even while European clubs are signing some of the league’s young, high-potential players (see: Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Bryan Reynolds, Tanner Tessmann, etc), plenty of teenagers are still shining in MLS. It feels like for every player that heads off to Europe, two more step into the spotlight in his place.
Now that we’re nearly halfway through the MLS season, it feels like the perfect time to look at a handful of youngsters who have performed particularly well this year. Using data from Second Spectrum, we can peer under the hood and dive into the underlying numbers to see which teenagers are really shining – and what statistical areas they’re really shining in.
Greg Vanney’s Galaxy have been a very capable offensive team this season. They move the ball in possession and currently average more passes per possession than any other team in the league. They don’t create chances at an insanely high rate (they’re currently 10th in MLS in xG per 90 minutes), but Vanney’s tactical philosophy is clearly visible when the Galaxy have the ball. A big part of LA’s attacking game-plan is Julian Araujo’s passing ability from the right wing. In possession, Araujo will step forward from right back and create danger high up the field. Among defenders in 2021, Araujo has the 12th most shot assists in the league (32) .
With his quality right foot, Araujo has completed more passes than any of his teammates this season – and he’s also played more passes between the lines than any of his teammates (47). At just 19 years old, the US-Mexico dual-national is bringing real value to the Galaxy’s attack.
This won’t come as a surprise to those who have watched him play for the San Jose Earthquakes this season, but Cade Cowell is the fastest teenager in MLS. With a top sustained speed of 10.005 meters per second, only five players in the entire league have moved faster than Cowell in 2021. With his speed, Cowell has been an asset to San Jose this year. He leads the Quakes in goals (4), he’s second in xG (2.65) and he’s fifth fourth in terms of shot assists (21).
Cowell is still raw, which is to be expected of a 17-year-old; he’s no stranger to heavy touches and he sometimes over-dribbles. That said, the teenager has shown glimpses of bright technical ability this season. This lovely first touch and backward flick to Shea Salinas from San Jose’s 2-2 draw with Minnesota United is a perfect example.
Even when he’s not on the ball, Cowell uses his speed to his advantage. He’s put together the 14th most off-ball runs in MLS this season and the 20th most off-ball runs per game. Between his on and off-ball contributions, Cowell has been a hugely important player for San Jose this year – and it looks like the sky is the limit.
There’s a reason that RB Leipzig has already swooped in and signed Caden Clark after the 18-year-old has played for the New York Red Bulls for less than a calendar year. It’s because he’s a perfect fit for the aggressive, hyperactive Red Bull system.
A key part of the Red Bull tactical philosophy is consistent defensive pressure from front to back. Without it, their high-pressing system falters and opposing teams can easily break into space and create chances. Clark, who has played on the left side of a midfield diamond, as the tip of that diamond and as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-2-2, is exactly the kind of player you want pressing high up the field. Among midfielders and forwards with at least 100 pressures this season, Clark is in the 93rd percentile for pressing efficiency, forcing a turnover on 47.9% of his on-ball pressures.
When the Red Bulls are in control of the ball, Clark likes to find opportunities to slip a teammate into space behind the opposing backline. He isn’t the most accurate through-ball-threader just yet (his 40% completion percentage is lower than most top-tier playmakers), but he can dazzle with a ball like this one:
With an expiration date on his New York stay within the Red Bull global soccer network, we need to enjoy Clark’s penchant for through balls and his aggressive on-ball pressure while we can.
While Atlanta United have fallen below their standard, the club’s outside backs have been strong performers in 2021. Two weeks ago, I included Brooks Lennon on my MLS All-Star underlying stats XI and now it’s George Bello’s turn to receive some credit.
Despite missing a few weeks while helping the US men’s national team win the 2021 Gold Cup, Bello has put up some impressive MLS numbers this season. He’s 39th league-wide in successful dribbles (18) and fourth among fullbacks and wingbacks in successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Bello still has room to improve his forward passing and his 1-on-1 defensive ability – he defended relatively well against Mexico’s Jesus “Tecatito” Corona in Sunday’s Gold Cup Final – but his dribbling has helped Atlanta break down opposing defenses.
This clip from the Five Stripes’ 0-0 draw with the Red Bulls back in June is Bello at his best: driving forward, drawing defenders and laying the ball off to a teammate.
As he returns to Atlanta and slots back into the starting lineup, be sure to watch Bello when he gets on the ball.
Since becoming Gerhard Struber’s starting left back at the end of May, John Tolkin has put up some of the best underlying numbers of any fullback in MLS.
Statistically, Tolkin is in the 82nd percentile in terms of shot assists per 90 minutes among all players in MLS and is in the 88th percentile among fullbacks and wingbacks in the same metric. When the Red Bulls are in possession, Tolkin helps out with his team’s chance creation. He’s dangerous on the overlap and can hit a strong ball into the box with his left foot, as you can see in this clip from the RBNY’s 1-1 draw with Toronto FC:
Tolkin isn’t just a valuable piece of RBNY’s possession setup: he’s important to their defensive work as well.
Like his teenage teammate Clark, Tolkin is an excellent presser. According to the numbers, there isn’t a single outside defender in MLS who is better at winning the ball after pressing than Tolkin. The 19-year-old has the highest pressing efficiency among fullbacks and wingbacks in MLS with at least 100 pressures, forcing a turnover within five seconds of stepping to the ball 62.4% of the time. Zooming out a bit, Tolkin is also in the 92nd percentile in terms of pressing efficiency in the entire league.
A lockdown defender who can also contribute in the attack? Sign me up.