MLS is increasingly a young man’s league. For someone like me, I'd generally prefer it to trend even further in that direction, but to ignore its steps in getting this far would be to ignore a blatant reality.
The more that MLS academies soak into the ground and saturate the roots ever deepening in regional length, the more young players we’ll see populating Homegrown lists and USL rosters and everything else. There are myriad ways to chart the league’s growth these many years since its inception, but for my money the best way is to look back at the card-carrying members of the MLSsoccer.com 24 Under 24 list. From its inception through now, see how it’s grown and you’ll see the league’s vitality progress in marching lockstep.
And so here we are, spilled out into an August of 2017 full of young players delving deep into their respective teams’ playoff pushes. MLS has miles to go before it sleeps on the young players front, but at least in terms of teams leaning on them, life has never been better.
For five specific young players, life is poised on a critical edge with the MLS postseason looming overhead. And they’re doing about as much as their respective coaches could ask.
Jonathan Lewis (NYCFC)
Had you been sleeping on Jonathan Lewis prior to this week, those moments are most likely dead and buried underground.
Lewis was perhaps the least widely known of the Generation adidas class that splashed into the league in 2017. He’d played just a year of college ball at Akron, and while his numbers were stellar – particularly on the distributive end with 10 assists – his profile and the fact that he was added late contributed to make him a bit of a shadow. And the fact that Patrick Vieira played him 23 minutes of the first available 1,800 of the season seemed to echo those wonders.
The fact that Lewis has logged 219 of NYCFC’s last 360 available minutes with the postseason bearing down should tell you something.
Lewis is a winger with an itchy trigger finger, and he has a goal and an assist in that jet-engine 219 minute span. He’s a danger in space and is something so many MLS teams so desperately seek with such inconsistent results: a dribble-forward winger with fearless instincts and a heady cross. Lewis will have more words to speak into NYCFC’s playoff push. Count on it.
Alex Bono (Toronto FC)
MLS was perhaps inured to Alex Bono’s true talent and prospects by no fault of Bono’s own. A year before Bono was the first 'keeper taken off the MLS SuperDraft board at No. 6 in 2015, Andre Blake went first overall to the Philadelphia Union. And Blake, most draft analysts will noisily tell you, is probably the best 'keeper prospect to come out of college in modern college history.
Bono was the Blake, in essence, of the next draft cycle, and despite a record-setting college career at Syracuse he didn’t quite have the same cachet. He was steady where Blake was flashy, and while he went just five spots below Blake, the hype didn’t quite follow him to Toronto in the same way.
The returns from Bono’s brief but stunning pro career to date pulled the curtain back on how hasty so many of us were, and 2017’s been the flashpoint. Twenty-three is exceptionally young for a 'keeper, and yet Bono’s been arguably the calmest head during a run that could see TFC set records for MLS dominance in an era that would seem to repudiate such runs.
Bono’s started all but four games this year for TFC, and while the shutouts haven’t necessarily fallen like rain, he’s still shown an aptitude for mixing spectacular saves with a cool collective head defensively. There’s a reason why TFC’s paradigm-shifting 3-5-2 works the way it does, and Bono’s central organizational ethos certainly plays its part.
Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Montreal Impact)
At 24, Anthony Jackson-Hamel probably isn’t much of a youth by the global definition of the term. At least not in purely age-centric terms. But in actual first team game minutes entering 2017, he was practically a rookie. Since first signing a Homegrown deal in 2014, Jackson-Hamel had just 459 first-team minutes and one goal to his name entering the current season.
And then came 2017.
With 553 minutes played this year, Jackson-Hamel has already surpassed his entire career total with two full months left to play. And he rolls into Week 25 sporting seven goals and three assists, bolstered by his magisterial performance against Real Salt Lake over the weekend. He managed a goal and two assists against RSL, contributing directly to each Montreal goal in a 3-1 victory.
The Jackson-Hamel we’ve seen this season is markedly different from the one in limited minutes over previous years, and there are few out-and-out target forwards who’ve displayed more cunning, ruthlessness and know-how in front of goal. Jackson-Hamel still looks like an on-and-off contributor for the Impact, but when he hits the field he’s about as clued in as any pure scorer in MLS.
Mauro Manotas (Houston Dynamo)
I think it’s fair to say Wilmer Cabrera was a coaching key to a Dynamo lock that remained stubbornly unyielding in recent years. After taking over last offseason, Cabrera recognized his side was already built like a sleek Corvette. So why not add engine lubricant in the form of players like Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto? Combined with a rapid to-the-goal tactical style, Houston’s resurgence in Cabrera’s first season is perhaps MLS’s least surprising surprise.
And yet Mauro Manotas, the leftover talent bristling at more chances, has perhaps been as critical as anyone to Houston’s rocket rise.
Manotas has been in Houston since 2015, a year when he was a disappointing sub and failed to register on the score sheet. But he was perhaps Houston’s most dangerous weapon during the club’s lost 2016, banging in six goals in just north of 1,000 minutes. But with Cubo Torres’ return to grace in 2017, there was some question whether Manotas’ role as a skilled foot-forward goal-getter was in precisely the same place as it was last year. And the question has been a resounding yes. It certainly is.
Manotas has a rollicking eight goals and five assists in Cabrera’s roaring setup this year, and his form of late has been shocking. In his last 372 minutes stretching back six games, the 22-year-old Manotas has three goals and an assist. No joke. While Houston’s most easily recognizable attackers might have different nameplates, its most dangerous as the playoffs loom might just be Manotas.
Yordy Reyna (Vancouver Whitecaps)
The Vancouver Whitecaps are fond of little-known if creatively-influenced signings. Height and weight are necessarily less important than on-field impact, which is why men like Cristian Techera will always have a place in coach Carl Robinson’s setup. Creativity and technical ability trumps size every time.
This was, more or less, the thinking with Yordy Reyna, a deeply experienced European player who arrived in Vancouver at all of 5-foot-7 with creative dreams far taller. Those were dashed early on by an injury that kept him out some months and delayed unveiling his true possible impact until after he’d recovered. And boy has the 23-year-old Peruvian excitement machine proven his worth since moving into the starting lineup for the first time.
Reyna, a versatile attacker who likes to dive into pockets of space vacated by inattentive defensive minds, logged his first MLS minutes on July 1. In the space since, he’s racked up a pair of goals in just 462 minutes in MLS. For smaller players the league can take a minute to adjust to its paces. Reyna’s been a menace in a notably short period of time, working his way into the Whitecaps bitter playoff chase with aplomb. If Vancouver manages to make the playoffs, there’s a good chance Reyna’s fingerprints will be all over the effort.