Young American and Canadian players are playing an increasingly important role in MLS – just not yet in the attacking end of the field.
Domestic youngsters like Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen, RSL defenders Justen Glad and Danny Acosta, Seattle box-to-box midfielder Cristian Roldan, Toronto FC shuttler Marky Delgado and New York Red Bulls jackknife Tyler Adams thrived in 2017, all earning call-ups to the US men’s national team’s recent January camp.
All six of those players were born after Jan. 1, 1995, and thereby qualified as Under-22s in 2017. All of them have the talent to be key pieces in MLS for years to come, and a few – Adams, most notably – have the potential to star on the world stage.
The development of young domestic players like Adams, Roldan and Steffen into big-time MLS players is a huge positive, but their growth highlights just how much their attacking counterparts are lagging.
As young domestic goalkeepers, defenders and holding and box-to-box midfielders earned team MVP awards, generated transfer hype and led their teams on impressive playoff runs, only six American and Canadian U-22 attackers even played more than 1,000 regular season minutes in 2017.
Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies, New England’s Diego Fagundez, RSL’s Brooks Lennon, New York’s Alex Muyl, San Jose’s Tommy Thompson and ex-Montreal winger Ballou Tabla led the way for young domestic attackers, with a seventh, Paul Arriola, falling just short of the 1,000-minute cutoff after joining D.C. in August. Of that group, only Arriola, Fagundez and Muyl could be considered regular starters. Only Davies, Lennon and Tabla, who moved to Barcelona B last month, are still in the U-22 category this year.
One only needs to take a quick look at MLS salaries to understand why young attackers are struggling to get on the field. Clubs spend an overwhelming percentage of their overall salary budget on attacking players, splashing cash for stars like Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri and Miguel Almiron. With so many high-priced stars in the attacking third, it follows that younger attackers will have a harder time breaking through than players further back on the field, where clubs usually don’t spend as much. That effect may have been magnified this offseason, as the December influx of $2.8 million in discretionary Targeted Allocation Money is allowing clubs to sign dynamic new talent while hanging onto their existing cores.
"I think really the league has changed so quickly, the league has changed overnight that even the players that are being produced and developed at younger ages, I'm not sure it quite translates to what the league looks like right now," one high-level club source recently told MLSsoccer.com.
Of course, production is also an issue. The seven young attackers that got meaningful playing time didn’t exactly rack up numbers last year. Combined, they totaled 17 goals and 26 assists in 177 regular season matches, less than one goal or assist every four games. Fagundez, now 23, accounted for over a third of the goals created by the group, recording seven goals and eight assists in his 32 appearances.
With a new year, however, come new opportunities. Davies, 17, looks like he’s penciled into the starting lineup in Vancouver, while the 21-year-old Lennon will likely to play a significant role for Real Salt Lake. A few other young domestic attackers could start to emerge in 2018, as well. Here’s a look at three other domestic attacking prospects that could take a step forward this season:
Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United
The other teenage winger in Atlanta, Andrew Carleton has been hyped up for the past year as one of the brightest prospects in American soccer. This preseason, the noise around the Homegrown attacker has hit a new level.
It’s not without cause, either. When a 17-year-old can do stuff like this, people are going get a little juiced.
Carleton is by no means a complete player, and, preseason flashes against USL competition aside, he hasn’t yet proven anything as a professional. It’s clear that he’s uncommonly talented, though.
But before this week, it didn’t look like he’d be get many opportunities in Atlanta in 2018. Being on a team with Almiron, Tito Villalba, Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe will do that to a winger. But with news breaking Wednesday that the 18-year-old Barco will be out 4-6 weeks with a quad injury, that prognosis has changed a bit.
There’s no guarantee that Carleton will slot into Barco’s spot on the wing when Atlanta open the season at Houston on Saturday (Tata Martino will have a few alternatives, including starting 2017 Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel), but the injury cracks open the door for the US youth international. If he takes advantage of some potential early run, he could be in line for a true breakout season.
If not, it’s not the end of the world. Carleton is still very young, and he’ll likely get minutes off the bench in MLS, occasionally start for Atlanta's new USL affiliate and potentially get some time in the US Open Cup. If Atlanta sell Almiron in the summer, that’d open minutes for the youngster, too. He should get some chances; we’ll see if he can make the most of them.
Jonathan Lewis, New York City FC
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, Jonathan Lewis only played 342 regular season minutes for NYCFC last year, but he turned heads with some solid play. The 20-year-old winger didn’t figure into Patrick Vieira’s plans much for the first few months of the season, but he had a run of eight straight games in July, August and September in which he recorded two goals and one assist, including this golazo at LA.
Lewis is talented, quick and smart, but, even with Jack Harrison now back in England, he could find minutes tough to come by this year. NYCFC are one of the deeper teams in the league and appear to have a pair of entrenched starters out wide in Rodney Wallace and 20-year-old Paraguayan Jesus Medina, who signed a Designated Player deal this offseason.
Wallace will more than likely miss a chunk of time while with Costa Rica for the World Cup, however, providing Lewis with an opening to make a case for more minutes.
Sebastian Saucedo, Real Salt Lake
Sebastian Saucedo doesn’t get as much pub as his fellow RSL Homegrowns Lennon, Glad and Acosta, but that could change this year. The 21-year-old US youth international forward made 20 appearances, 15 of which were off the bench, in 2017 and has apparently impressed in preseason.
He’ll have to up his production – he had no goals and two assists in 2017 – if he wants to earn significant minutes, but RSL don’t have any lockdown options at the No. 9. If Luis Silva or Alfredo Ortuño struggle or go down with injury, Saucedo could be in line for a major uptick in match time, potentially as early as Saturday's opener at FC Dallas.