National Writer: Charles Boehm

The next MLS homegrown star? Breakout candidates for 2023


Ready or not, the 2023 MLS season kicks off on Feb. 25 with a full slate of Matchday 1 fixtures – all of which you can watch for free on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV this weekend.

From our season preview guide to our list of new faces you need to know, fans have just about all the information they need heading into the new season. However, we'd be remiss in not sharing the goods on some of the league's most promising homegrown players who are primed for a breakout year.

Here's your chance to jump on the bandwagon before these youngsters (possibly) became bonafide stars by season's end.

Odds are you’ve probably watched some of Philly’s favorite transplanted New Yorker by now. McGlynn, 19, logged 1,641 MLS minutes over the past two seasons and in November the clever central midfielder became the third-youngest player to start in an MLS Cup final. Yet that opportunity was mainly the product of an injury to captain Alejandro Bedoya; only 19 of his 48 league and postseason appearances to date have been starts.

It’s not easy to carve out minutes in the Union’s rugged, athletic midfield. That said, McGlynn has logged time in just about every one of its spots this preseason. Then consider this: Bedoya turned 36 in April, Philadelphia will compete on several fronts this season – starting with Concacaf Champions League – and McGlynn’s “wand of a left foot,” in head coach Jim Curtin’s words, is what makes him truly special.

“Of any player we’ve had at the Union, his ceiling is the highest,” Curtin told the Philadelphia Inquirer for a piece that labeled McGlynn Philly’s “must-watch” player this season. “I say that not to put pressure on him, but because it’s true. He does things with the ball, that left foot, that – I’ve seen [Hristo] Stoichkov, I’ve seen Haris Medunjanin, he has that same kind of quality.”

Wait a minute, some of you may be thinking. Hasn’t the Quakes’ wunderkind winger ‘broken through’ already? And yeah, ‘23 is Cowell’s fifth pro season since becoming the youngest signing in club history at 15 years of age; he's currently standing on 9g/12a in 81 career MLS appearances (33 starts, 3,677 minutes). He earned a USMNT cap just last month, via a man-of-the-match outing vs. Serbia.

But that was a January camp cap, and only his second one. And San Jose’s chronic underachievement has limited him to just 33 career playoff minutes, one of many indicators of the unfulfilled potential in both Cowell and the Quakes at large. Now the surrounding circumstances have brightened, with new head coach Luchi Gonzalez arriving by the Bay and a heretofore spend-leery ownership shelling out for new Designated Player Carlos Gruezo and, perhaps, other squad investments to come.

Cowell’s physical gifts and aggressive attacking mentality have long been evident; his consistency and optimal tactical deployment, less so. As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle noted in naming him as San Jose’s breakout player candidate for 2023, his USMNT performance suggested he’s got clarity and purpose in that inverted left wing role. He’ll be crucial to hopes of a Quakes revival, and conversely, would improve his own prospects for a big European transfer move in the process.

In our reckoning of Canadian contenders for this list, CFM’s 19-year-old central midfielder narrowly edges his fellow Montréal homegrown Rida Zouhir and Toronto FC’s highly talented – but possibly Europe-bound at a moment’s notice – Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty. Buzz out of Quebec suggests that Saliba has impressed during Hernan Losada’s first preseason in charge, earning looks at both his usual No. 8 role and a more advanced attacking remit.

Montréal’s lucrative winter sale of local kid Ismaël Koné to Watford has opened up opportunities in the engine room, and given how well the club has coached up, then sold on prospects like Koné and Alistair Johnston, we expect them to give Saliba a chance to show why he can be the next one on that assembly line. Veterans Victor Wanyama and Samuel Piette look to be the midfield starters, but they’ll need platooning in the busy season ahead.

“For me, Nathan has always been a player that I have found to be very talented, but above all someone who is attentive, open-minded to receive advice,” Piette told RDS after Saliba scored in a preseason win over a Premier League Soccer of Quebec All-Stars side.

“He has made good progress and I think he has great potential. He has both physical and technical qualities. Today, we saw him in a role to which he is less accustomed, but if he is able to progress at this level, a bit like I did when Thierry Henry was here, it will be one more string to his bow.”

Selling Jhon Durán and Gaga Slonina to English giants for a combined $28 million or thereabouts was impressive business by the Fire. We’d venture to suggest that it might be nearly as impressive to replace the latter with another teenage homegrown starting goalkeeper who some evaluators reckon might have even bigger upside than Gaga.

That’s the level of Brady’s promise, with shot-stopping a particular strength. As the excellent Fire blog Hot Time in Old Town – which due to SB Nation’s cuts recently re-organized in newsletter form as The Lantern. Make sure you check it out – noted last fall, the US youth international was by some margin the elite ‘keeper of MLS NEXT Pro last season: Incredibly, Fire II conceded a mere 0.83 goals per game with him in net and 3.09 gpg without him. A glance at American Soccer Analysis' advanced data drives the point home.

Will he earn, and keep, the starting job under Ezra Hendrickson this year, though? Brady started several, but not all, of Chicago’s preseason matches; veterans Spencer Richey and winter arrival from Sweden Jeff Gal are also in the mix. If the kid is ready to make a step forward, he seems likely to get his shot.

Those seeking an encouraging signpost of US player development may wish to consider this: The shaggy-haired 17-year-old dual national known as “Benja” around IMCF’s Fort Lauderdale training ground has yet to play an MLS minute and has logged just 743 of them in MLS NEXT Pro, yet was called into the Argentina Under-20s’ December training camp by Javier Mascherano, the only overseas-based player on that roster.

A product of south Florida youth powerhouse Weston FC, Cremaschi didn’t make the Albiceleste squad for Conmebol’s qualifying tournament, where Mascherano & Co. crashed badly, failing to reach the FIFA U-20 World Cup. He stands a decent chance of taking part in this year’s main event in Indonesia, though, as a member of the United States’ team – and will still be eligible for the next cycle.

Lots of scouts in multiple countries have eyes on Cremaschi, a skillful center mid with an eye for goal, as shown by his 5g/1a in 13 MLS NEXT Pro appearances in ‘22. And if the Herons kick on from last year’s revival with a competitive campaign across multiple fronts, he should get a chance to prove himself with the first team.

“He comes from a good background, he's super hard-working,” Miami sporting director Chris Henderson told in Fort Lauderdale last week, noting that Benja’s father Pablo was a pro rugby player who represented Argentina at the international level.

“Every day you see he's getting better. And yeah, I think he'll get minutes this year. As the year goes on, our midfield could get tighter and more competition, but he's one of those guys we need to keep developing.”

Neal, 19, is a rangy center back with quality passing range and maturity for his age. But readers don’t have to take our word for it. Witness the fact that the USMNT technical staff rate him highly enough to call him into January camp in Carson instead of letting him go join the U-20s in Florida for their camp around the same time – all before he’s played a single minute in MLS for the Galaxy.

Neal posted some of the top passing numbers at last year’s Concacaf U-20 World Cup qualifying event, and while he made a costly mistake or two against Serbia in his USMNT debut, overall he looked like he belonged in that setting, flashing a modern central defender’s toolkit. After racking up plenty of USL Championship experience with Los Dos over the past three years, he deserves to finally get a real chance to make his mark with the first team.

“Jalen is a guy that we see that is transitioning into the first-team picture,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said last month. “He’s looked great in preseason, he just has a really calm, cool demeanor about what he does. He’s never really frazzled and gives us nice quality with and without the ball. The next step for him is exposure, having to live those moments against top players and work with his teammates.”

The Revs haven’t had a truly impactful homegrown since Diego Fagúndez, and, well, the now-Austin FC winger was also their first-ever HGP, signed in 2010 and gone since 2020. That dry spell’s days may be numbered. All five of the homegrowns on their current roster earned regular minutes this preseason, and Buck appears to be the standard-bearer.

The Arlington, Massachusetts native joined the Revolution Academy at age 12, made his MLS debut at 17 last summer and scored his first MLS goal in just his fifth MLS match. His well-rounded box-to-box skill set makes him a useful foil to New England’s Spanish playmaking talisman Carles Gil, and their chemistry together in the Revs engine room looks like a key pivot point for the team’s prospects of rebounding from a deeply disappointing 2022.

Another notable factor here: Buck, and for that matter his also-talented older brother Joseph, have British heritage and thus would seem to have a direct line to work eligibility in the United Kingdom. One source with knowledge of the situation told that Noel could cross the pond via transfer as early as this summer, after he turns 18 in April. All of which adds up to the first few months of the season being key for both him and the Revs.

You may not be too familiar with “Yaps,” who was the youngest signing in Rapids history when he inked his homegrown deal at age 16 two years ago and has played a modest 165 MLS minutes since, along with a 2021 loan spell at Colorado Springs Switchbacks. That could change in the coming months, as a dramatic physical and psychological maturation has pushed him into the mix at the tip of the spear in Robin Fraser’s frontline.

“I’ve known him now for three years. When he first came to preseason [in 2020] he was 15, about 5-[foot-]10, probably 140 pounds. Now he’s at 6-3, maybe 180, 190 – he’s a big, strong lad now,” explained the Rapids boss to in Florida last week. “Not just his size and strength have grown, but in the last year he’s really focused himself on becoming a good pro. His finishing is better, his understanding of how to defend is better.

“Certainly throughout preseason but then throughout last year, training with us, we could see that he was turning a corner,” added Fraser. “Still young, there’s still things – a lot – that he has to learn. But he's come along, and with his size and strength and now thinking, he's put himself in a position to be a real first-team contributor.”

Diego Rubio presently looks to be Colorado’s first option at the No. 9 spot. He’s an unconventional 9, though, as are other options like Kévin Cabral and Michael Barrios, which gives Yapi a chance to offer a more traditional targetman’s profile. Yapi started the Mile High Club’s final preseason scrimmage on Saturday and could well get playing time right from opening weekend.