The Generation adidas Cup approaches. And as far as an all-in-one stop for scouting the next big thing in MLS goes, it doesn’t get any better.
The 2017 GA Cup runs from April 7-15 in Frisco, Texas and serves as a showcase tournament for the league’s top Under-17 teams. To honor the occasion, I’m running through the players I consider today to be the top academy stars for every MLS club, whether or not they'll be at GA Cup.
And yes, the future is bright.
As a brief caveat, I’m excluding players who’ve signed pro deals but who might still be getting academy minutes in the interim. FC Dallas’ Jesus Ferreira, for instance, ripped it up during FCD’s preseason but has gotten some Under-18 games since signing his MLS Homegrown deal last year.
Atlanta United: Lagos Kunga
When Atlanta United called up seven academy kids to train with the first team this preseason, you needn’t have even looked to know Lagos Kunga was one of the names. He’s a live-wire winger with pace and technical ability for days, and his 10 goals for the U18s this season is no surprise. Kunga is committed to Furman this fall - the former home of one Clint Dempsey - but will he make it there before contract-happy Atlanta United extends Kunga a contract? We’ll see.
Chicago Fire: Nick Slonina
Last week, US Soccer announced its last Under-17 residency semester would be this current spring crop, which means Nick Slonina’s part of a history-making group. As part of the current residency group, Slonina’s developed as a versatile defender/holding midfielder hybrid with quality feet and a good sense for the flow of the match. The Fire have been cranking out Homegrown central midfielders for a while now, and whether the Fire see Slonina as a defender or a midfielder, the youth national team prospect has a future.
Colorado Rapids: Rhys De Sota
The Rapids’ slow-and-steady academy approach hasn’t yielded a ton in terms of volume, but there’s been some notable Homegrown quality in guys like Shane O’Neill and Dillon Serna. Rhys De Sota should be in that mix as a serious Homegrown candidate given time. De Sota’s been the focal point of the Rapids’ up-and-coming crop of U18 talent, which might be the best they’ve ever had. The 2017 Stanford commit has been a force in the final third as an attacking midfielder with 10 goals from 19 games, and a Homegrown deal doesn’t feel that far off.
Columbus Crew SC: Daniel Wright
Columbus Crew SC's affiliation with Crew Academy Wolves in Michigan has been a massive boon to the club’s ability to scout, identify and fold talent into their pro ranks outside their immediate footprint. At least right now, that’s the case with Daniel Wright, who’s currently one of the Development Academy’s most lethal finishers at the U18 age. Wright’s rate of return of 16 goals from 15 games is unmatched, and the Duke commit should have little trouble developing in Durham, the former home of the Portland Timbers' Jeremy Ebobisse.
D.C. United: Chandler Vaughn
D.C. United’s academy has produced some resplendent talent over the years, including recent signees Ian Harkes and Chris Durkin. If Chandler Vaughn is next up, don’t be surprised. The U17 residency fullback has been an important part of the cycle the last year or so, and his call-up to residency for the spring semester was a national admission of his quality. He’s a 2018, so he still has more refining to do, but hard to find many better fullbacks anywhere in the DA.
FC Dallas: Brayan Padilla
Picking the top academy star at FC Dallas at any given time feels something like picking off the menu of your favorite restaurant. Can’t you just order everything? But as of right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better all-around pro prospect in Frisco than whirling attacking dervish Brayan Padilla. No one in the entire academy at the U16 age has scored more than Padilla’s 21 goals this season, and he’s accomplished the feat with no small measure of panache. Give it to FCD; they always seem to have The Next Big Thing moving up through the ranks.
Houston Dynamo: Marcelo Palomino
You knew Marcelo Palomino was earmarked for bigger things when he made his debut with the Houston Dynamo U18 team as a 13-year-old. Palomino is a prototypical attacking midfielder capable of pulling the strings in the final third, and the Dynamo can lay legitimate claim to his development; he’s been in the Dynamo system since he was eight. He was one of the only U16-aged players called into U17 residency this semester, and the Dynamo don’t have a better pro prospect.
LA Galaxy: Efrain Alvarez
Like FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake or the New York Red Bulls, you can be assured the LA Galaxy’s top prospect fought past a wildly competitive environment to reach the top. So it goes with Efrain Alvarez, who at 14 already might be the single most exciting attacking force in the entire Development Academy. Alvarez has appeared for both US and Mexican youth teams, and you can be assured a player this good will end up in the pros. It’s just a matter of when, not if, Alvarez makes a first team debut.
Minnesota United: N/A
The Loons don’t yet have an academy system set up, but they announced in February they’d officially join the Development Academy for the first time this September at the U13 and U14 ages.
Montreal Impact: Jean-Arnaud Tano
To their credit, the Impact have taken a lot of swings at Homegrown players over the past couple years, but they’ve yet to really connect on one. So Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla’s first-team ascension was a big deal, and Jean-Arnaud Tano might not be too far behind. Tano’s been firmly on the Canadian U17 radar this past cycle, and as far as forwards go there aren’t many better in Canada at this age right now. Tano’s mighty impressive return of 11 goals in 11 games with the Impact U16s in 2016-17 won’t go unnoticed in the first team front office.
New England Revolution: Justin Rennicks
There’s no telling how high Justin Rennicks’ ceiling goes, but suffice it to say nobody’s found where it is yet. If Rennicks decides to begin his pro career with the Revolution, then he would become an obvious Homegrown candidate. Rennicks is a game-changing forward who’s scored in buckets for the Revs at every level as well as for a variety of US youth international teams. The 2017 Indiana commit should have little trouble handling the next level - both collegiate and pro.
NYCFC: Giovanni Reyna
Yes, I do acknowledge that James Sands is probably closer to a Homegrown deal at the moment, but in the long run? Giovanni Reyna is one of the safest bets to emerge from the Development Academy and into the pros at a high level. Anywhere. Reyna, of course, is the son of former US legend Claudio Reyna, and he already has his dad’s on-field smarts. Reyna’s played with NYCFC’s fledgling academy since the beginning, and the metronomic midfielder is practically earmarked for a Homegrown deal down the line.
New York Red Bulls: Chris Gloster
A game-shaping left back? Please and yes. Over the course of this past US U17 cycle, Chris Gloster’s emerged as the No. 1 option for coach John Hackworth as a barnstorming left back, and it was in that capacity that he wowed as the team’s best defender at the 2016 Nike Friendlies against top international competition. Gloster, a Red Bulls academy star, should feature at the coming U17 CONCACAF Championships and, should the US qualify, at the U17 World Cup later this year.
Orlando City: Isaque Couto
The Lions have made no bones about their ability to fold in top talent at the academy level, and it certainly appears that Isaque Couto has “next level” stamped all over him. Couto has occasionally trained up with the Orlando City first team in the last year, and the Brazilian attacker has eight goals to his name this season with the Orlando City U18s. Even if the first team isn’t right around the corner, there’s a more than great chance Orlando City B in the USL certainly is.
Philadelphia Union: Rayshaun McGann
Rayshaun McGann has spent the majority of his recent time with the U17 MNT gearing up for the looming World Cup qualification cycle, but the Union don’t currently have a better outside back/winger hybrid in the system. Go back and watch his golazo against Portugal in 2016 and you’ll see why he’s garnering such rave reviews of late. His speed, vision and finishing ability are all top notch after the Union’s recent spate of academy signings.
Portland Timbers: Lucas Cini
The Timbers’ academy has been slow to crank into high gear, but its recent uptick is notable, and Lucas Cini is leading the charge. Cini started his career with Boca United in Miami before moving to Portland for the 2016-17 season, and the returns have been stirring for the skilled center forward technician. Cini has a mighty impressive 13 goals from 24 games playing up a year for the Timbers U18s, and he’s quickly emerged as Portland’s top pro prospect at the academy level.
Real Salt Lake: Taylor Booth
Being named the top up-and-coming star in RSL’s academy is a real honor these days, and I have no hesitation about anointing Taylor Booth with that moniker at the moment. Booth was named to the U16 MNT as a 14-year-old and U17 residency at 15, and his confident, mature play as a tone-setting midfielder validated the choice. RSL is fond of developing technically able midfielders capable of picking apart a defensive line. Booth might be their best ever.
San Jose Earthquakes: JJ Foe Nuphaus
March was a big month for the Earthquakes academy. Defender JJ Foe Nuphaus, a San Jose native and the most promising piece of their academy, left to join Hoffenheim’s U17 team last year. Just this month, San Jose announced the prodigal son had returned to their U18 team, which is a big deal. Foe Nuphaus has had numerous USYNT call-ups and should immediately slot in as perhaps the Earthquakes’ most coveted academy player at the moment.
Seattle Sounders: Jake Morris
No, Jake Morris isn’t related to another famed Sounders Morris, but he’s certainly beginning to generate some hype of his own. Morris was one of a few Sounders academy kids called up to play with the first team during preseason, and he had some overtly promising stints as a rampaging left back with good defensive sensibilities. The Sounders U18 is still a 2018, so he has another year at the academy level left, but make no mistake about the impression he left this MLS preseason.
Sporting Kansas City: Jaylin Lindsey
In 2016, Jaylin Lindsey made a bit of history by becoming the first American born in the 21st century to get minutes in a pro game (on an amateur contract in the USL for Swope Park Rangers). It was a true sign of how highly SKC values Lindsey, who seems to be next in a developing line of academy defenders with serious pro prospects (hello Erik Palmer-Brown). Lindsey is versatile too, and while he’s a natural center back he can splay out wide at fullback as well.
Toronto FC: Ayo Akinola
Thumb through the current US U17 team and one of the first names to jump off the page should be Ayo Akinola’s. He’s arguably the most exciting wide attacking player on a team that also features Atlanta United’s Andrew Carleton, if that tells you anything. Akinola’s played up with the USL team at times and has spent a fair bit of time recently with U17 residency, but he’s still the most promising player in TFC’s pipeline to not yet sign a contract. For TFC’s sake, hopefully that changes soon.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Thomas Hasal
It’s not often you’ll see a goalkeeper on a list of players this young, considering the position ages more like wine than grape juice. But when Thomas Hasal was called up to the Canadian U20 team for U20 World Cup qualifying, and then started, it was an admission the Saskatchewan native wasn’t just a triumph of Vancouver’s extensive scouting network in Canada. It also proved it’s got a heck of a 'keeper prospect on its hands in Hasal, who’s currently starring for the Whitecaps U18s.