After arriving at No. 3 last year, Diego Rossi would not be denied: The budding LAFC star topped MLSsoccer.com's 2019 22 Under 22 rankings. He beat out the likes of Ezequiel Barco, Paxton Pomykal and Brian Rodriguez, who finished Nos. 2-4.
Rossi hit another level in his sophomore MLS season as the Uruguayan helped push LAFC to a record-breaking campaign. The 21-year-old had 16 goals and seven assists while attracting plenty of interest from overseas.
The list was as strong as ever, as young talent continues to push through in MLS. But did our voters -- including members of the MLS digital staff, a handful of MLS technical staffers, two current MLS players and three from the MLS Player Department -- get it right?
MLSsoccer.com spoke with a number of MLS technical staffers under anonymity, so they could speak freely and worry not about potential tampering issues. These are their biggest takeaways from this year's 22 Under 22
Which player has the highest ceiling?
Brian Rodriguez battles with Ike Opara | USA Today Sports
The debate centered exclusively around Rossi, Rodriguez and Barco, with a few mentions of Taty Castellanos in that group. Rossi and Barco have been regularly linked with moves abroad, with strong interest coming from Serie A for both players. Rodriguez, who recently arrived with LAFC from Uruguay after a strong U-20 World Cup, is already a full Uruguayan international and made seven MLS appearances after he was signed.
Technical Staffer 1: “There is no question, it’s Rossi. There are a lot of people from Europe asking about that player. He’s a ‘98, it’s really terrifying. He’s the one with the highest ceiling, he’s so good at this age. Barco is not really consistent, I’d say Rossi, no question.”
Technical Staffer 2: “The highest ceiling would probably be Brian Rodriguez. A lot of people haven’t seen a lot of him because he joined late. I don’t know how many games he played, but I had familiarity with him, and he might have the highest ceiling. He’s got more physical qualities and soccer qualities than Barco and Rossi, he’s a big prospect.”
Technical Staffer 3: “Rossi. You never know what the end product is going to look like, but in terms of body of work and projection moving forward, I think Diego Rossi has to be at the top of the list. He’s exceptional. Clubs around the world pay a lot of money for what he does. He’s done it at big clubs. Peñarol is a big club, LAFC are a big club with what they’ve done. He’s done really well.”
Technical Staffer 4: “In regards to potential, Rossi and Barco are excellent prospects. If you look at resale value, I don’t think there’s anyone higher than those two. You can make a case for Barco higher than Rossi, but it’s relative. ... I guess maybe just the attention Rossi and Barco have gotten from big clubs on the market. I think Rodriguez is in their same category, you’re just hearing more about Rossi and Barco, but a year from now I think Rodriguez will be in the same category.”
Technical Staffer 5: “There are some really high-quality players that are international. They’d have never been on this list seven or eight years ago.”
Which domestic player has the highest ceiling?
Paxton Pomykal celebrates | USA Today Sports
Behind that quartet of South American stars, who are viewed in their own tier by many, the discussion for domestic players with the highest ceiling was split. Some said Paxton Pomykal, others Gianluca Busio with some shouts for Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon and Jesus Ferreira.
Technical Staffer 1: “In terms of the domestic players, none of them have the body of work at the highest level consistently than some of the other guys like Rossi and Barco. Next year will be a big year for Aaronson, Pomykal and Cannon to accurately project their ceilings.”
Technical Staffer 2: “I like Paxton, he has a great mentality and all that. The only problem is because he’s American, it’s tough to go overseas as an attacking midfield because we don’t have that pedigree as a country in that position yet. He might be best suited as a winger – he’s really good at finding spaces when coming in from the wing, as well as doing the work defensively because he has a good engine – but you can never count Paxton out because his mentality is second to none.”
Technical Staffer 3: "I think Brenden Aaronson probably has the highest ceiling, because of his age and the fact he’s not mature physically. He probably has the best game understanding of these players. It's tough looking into the future, because Pomykal is also a really good player but is probably physically almost finished and I don't know where he's going to end up, and Aaronson got better and better throughout the season.”
Technical Staffer 4: “Busio’s age, soccer IQ and having a European passport gives him a high ceiling. Paxton is a little bit ahead of him in his career, obviously he’s a couple years older. Another kid I like is Brandon Servania. His size and technical ability, he could find some teams in Europe interested in him. He could slide up the list.”
Technical Staffer 5: “I get the Paxton hype train, but I look at guys like Aaronson, Castellanos and Reggie Cannon, who is a borderline starter for the national team, I’d have a tough time thinking Pomykal would be higher than those guys. ... I'd have Busio in a similar category to Ferreira and Alvarez. Those are three really bright talents. You could make a case that each of those three guys will have a higher resale value than Pomykal.”
Technical Staffer 6: “Someone like a Reggie Cannon, where we have proven Americans in those positions, has a high ceiling.”
Which players could make a jump?
Efrain Alvarez celebrates | USA Today Sports
Peering down the list past the obvious candidates, sit a number of highly regarded prospects. Efrain Alvarez, Mark McKenzie, Luis Diaz, Mason Toye and Cole Bassett were a few players who stood out from the bottom half of the rankings.
Technical Staffer 1: “When you look at who has the highest ceiling, I don’t know how Efrain Alvarez would be 13th. To me, outside of Rossi, Rodriguez and Barco, Alvarez might have the highest resale value on that list. ... I was concerned with Alvarez’s athleticism when he was younger, but then you watched him at the U-17 World Cup and he was outstanding.”
Technical Staffer 2: “I didn’t see anybody that jumped out to me where it was like ‘oh my gosh how was this guy left off or low down on the list.’ Maybe Cole Bassett. For me, because of the position he plays and he has a lot of game experience, he could have been around the top 10.”
Technical Staffer 3: “Mason Toye came on strong at the end of the year. A lot of European teams like a big body, similar to Cyle Larin. He could be interesting to somebody.”
Technical Staffer 4: “Cristian Casseres could have been higher. He’s a really good player. If he’s going to develop more physically, and focus on his endurance, he can end up towards the top of this list.”
Who are the biggest snubs?
Ricardo Pepi on his MLS debut | USA Today Sports
Technical Staffer 1: “The one thing I’d say, there’s no Canadian players. I thought maybe Liam Fraser would have a chance to be included – a Canadian senior national team player who got minutes with Toronto FC’s first team – but everyone has a different perspective when it comes to young players. … He’s probably someone in the 'others deserving votes' group."
Technical Staffer 2: “I don’t think many people know him because he only played like 50 minutes, but Diego Palacios has got big potential. He’s good, he’s dynamic.”
Technical Staffer 3: “You can take half of Dallas’ team — they have so many good young players. I really like Thomas Roberts, for instance, but he hardly ever played. Also Toronto has a player who was outstanding, a great holding midfielder, Noble Okello. He was in the Homegrown game and was the best player.”
Technical Staffer 4: “It’s a difficult question—there are so many good players. You know how it is with lists like this, it’s difficult to compare different players in different positions."