Since first cracking open its doors to MLS partnerships in 2013, the USL has become a vitally locked-in piece of the league’s development landscape. And it’s still expanding.
To date, 10 teams own and directly operate their own USL teams, granting them unprecedented access to the identification, signing and development of their own MLS pipeline. Another two – San Jose and Houston – have a USL arrangement called a hybrid affiliation, which grants them full technical control of their respective USL arms without ownership. Which means more than half the league now oversees all technical aspects of their own USL operations.
If you’re in favor of more scouting, more avenues for player development and an essential doubling of each team’s player pool, this is quite good news.
For each of those 12 teams with direct control of their USL apparatuses, this list represents my estimation of the most promising young USL player on the up-and-up as the start of the 2017 USL season bears down on us this weekend. In each of these 12 cases, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see each in MLS sooner rather than later.
Rio Grande Valley FC (Houston Dynamo): Christian Lucatero
You hate to think this way with a player as young as Lucatero, but 2017 could be make-or-break in regards to his future in Houston. After signing a pre-contract midway through 2015, the mega-talented attacker saw his USL minutes limited to fewer than 300 in 2016, in part due to injuries. Still, he has the tools you want out of a guy who unlocks space in the final third. There might be some questions about his best position – like Christian Pulisic he’s a No. 10 who transitioned out wide on the pro level – but the questions about his technical ability are far fewer in number. Will he get his shot in 2017? One hopes.
LA Galaxy II: Ethan Zubak
When Ethan Zubak signed for LA Galaxy II in 2016, he became the first to sign after emerging from the Galaxy’s own high school, called the Blended Learning Environment. It was a watershed moment for the club, but the real brass tacks of it was Zubak’s skill. And there’s a lot of it. Zubak clocked 819 minutes in his first season at the next level after starring with the Galaxy academy, and his unique blend of close-quarters dribbling and vision in the build-up were immediate assets. At 19, Zubak is still young, but he should step into more of a starring role with Los Dos in 2017. Beyond that? Dare to dream.
New York Red Bulls II: Junior Flemmings
No USL team was more dominant in 2016 than Red Bulls II, which sashayed its way to the championship with a swashbuckling 5-1 win over Swope Park Rangers in the final. And no player on the Red Bulls was more individually dominant in 2016 than the 21-year-old Junior Flemmings, who has his sights firmly set not only on the Red Bulls first team but on appearances with the Jamaican national team as well. Before his season was cut short due to an injury in September, Flemmings logged 23 games and put in seven goals and four assists as an irrepressible attacking force. Considering Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch previously said Flemmings is “earmarked” for the first team, it might not be long now.
Orlando City B: Zach Carroll
By his own admission, Zach Carroll modeled his game after former Manchester United legend Nemanja Vidic, and you can see the general resemblances. Carroll was snapped up by the Red Bulls with the 38th pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, and he was an integral piece of the Red Bulls II run to the USL championship later that year. Carroll’s deep US youth international experience certainly tells in his calm as a ball-playing center back – he started U-17 World Cup games in 2011 – and he wasn’t on the market long when the Red Bulls released him last November. Orlando City B pounced on Carroll almost immediately, a coup for one of the best center backs in all of USL. If he continues developing, he has first team quality.
Bethlehem Steel (Philadelphia Union): Auston Trusty
Even if you’d never seen him play, Trusty has the sturdy, well-built look of a center back. At 6-foot-3 and still 18, Trusty has room to fill out still, incredibly enough. But when they roll the ball out, you realize why the Union were so keen to get him under contract as quickly as possible. Trusty logged 19 games and 1,710 minutes with Bethlehem Steel in 2016, and his form was good enough to earn him a call-up to the US U-20 national team for World Cup qualifying in February (he even started a game at left back, believe it or not). Trusty’s probably the single most promising player to yet emerge from the Union’s YSC Academy since its 2013 foundation, and first team minutes probably aren’t that far off.
Portland Timbers 2: Villyan Bijev
Villyan Bijev had a hard-knock life in European soccer. He signed for Liverpool in 2011, spent three years there without ever appearing for the first team, went on loan to two different clubs and then played for two Bulgarian first division clubs in two years before returning home to California in 2015. The Timbers adroitly scooped him into their USL setup to see what he had, and all Bijev did as a 23-year-old was win the USL assists crown in 2016 with 10 to go along with his eight goals. The Timbers have a few promising youngsters coming up at the moment, but none look so close to first team minutes (and so close to fulfilling long-held promise) as does Bijev.
Real Monarchs (Real Salt Lake): Danny Acosta
There are only a few USL teams you can point to sight unseen and make a safe assumption that they’re well-stocked with former academy kids. Real Monarchs is one of them, and none look quite as enticing at the moment as does Danny Acosta. RSL’s robust academy also means a robust USL roster, and Acosta should be in for major minutes in 2017 thanks in part to a smart position switch. Acosta came up as a defensive midfielder, but he moved to left back last year, and the returns were so good that he ended up landing there as the starting US U-20 left back in World Cup qualifying. That had to be music to RSL’s ears, and a standout 2017 could mean an MLS promotion at a continual position of need.
Reno 1868 FC (San Jose Earthquakes): Boxi Yomba
For a good while in 2016, no one was quite sure where Boxi Yomba was. The former U-17 residency attacking player was once a jewel of the US youth international scene, so much so that he joined the vaunted Atletico Madrid academy in Spain in 2014. When he returned to the US two years later, he latched on with Orlando City B, but that only lasted until mid-summer 2016, and since then it’s been silence. Until this month, that is, when newly organized Reno 1868 FC announced it snapped him up for the 2017 season. Yomba is still a hugely enticing prospect with an unclear talent ceiling, but when you watch him play you realize why scouts the world over were salivating at his talent two years ago. If Reno is a good environment, San Jose could be in for a major windfall.
Seattle Sounders 2: Shandon Hopeau
Not long ago, the Sounders announced they were in control of Hawaii as part of their Homegrown territory. The islands don’t pump out pros with regularity, but there are certainly hidden gems there, and they just pulled up the shiniest one yet from the surf. On March 22, Sounders 2 announced they’d signed Shandon Hopeau to a contract before he’d even finished high school. It was a startling admission about the high value they placed on his development ceiling, and after the 2017 preseason you could understand why. Then a Sounders U-18 academy player, Hopeau dazzled as a guest player with the Sounders first team in a few preseason matches, and the wide midfielder should be immediate value added in the USL. And with how much the Sounders’ first team needs width at the moment? You never know.
Swope Park Rangers (Sporting Kansas City): Kevin Oliveira
Perhaps no injury to any player in the league in 2016 was felt so heavily as Kevin Oliveira’s at Swope Park Rangers. The USL side signed Oliveira from Benfica B before the 2016 season, and he proceeded to rip into the league with virtual impunity: 13 games, three goals, four assists. Unfortunately, the 20-year-old suffered a season-ending knee injury in June that cut short what was otherwise an outstanding first year in the league. What he does for an encore is of significant interest to the Sporting KC front office. Oliveira is a categorical string-puller, and he can fit into the senior team in a variety of ways. If he recovers adequately and regains his form from the first half of 2016, he’s MLS quality, full stop.
Toronto FC II: Shaan Hundal
It had to be heartening for Toronto FC to see so many of their academy kids called up to the Canadian U-20 team for World Cup qualifying in 2017. And it had to be even more encouraging when Shaan Hundal (pictured, top) put in a series of quality individual performances that significantly raised his stock back home. Hundal is the youngest player on this list at just 17, but his mighty impressive 2016 with TFC II clearly showed age is just a number in this case. In his 27 matches he managed to bag six goals, and the skilled center forward can fit into a variety of niches at the next level. He could possibly even play out wide if necessary. In any case, there aren’t many purebred scorers this talented this young in the USL. The sky’s the limit.
Vancouver Whitecaps 2: Kadin Chung
There’s something about the Whitecaps and young fullbacks. Vancouver just pushed out talented left back Sam Adekugbe, who’s currently on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion in the English Championship, and it certainly appears like Kadin Chung is next up. Chung is comfortable on the other side of the field, at right back, and in the midst of Canadian U-20 call-ups he was starring for Whitecaps 2 as their regular right back at the tender age of 18. Chung was an integral part of the team’s playoff run in 2016, and there’s a case to be made that he was the team’s best overall player. Senior teams are constantly looking for quality on the defensive edges, and there aren’t many right backs in USL with a seemingly brighter future than Chung’s.