Do you feel that? Good. That’s the righteous rage boiling inside of you as you realize a worthy 2023 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR candidate didn’t make this year’s final cut.
Believe me, I’m right there with you. The voters just can’t seem to get it right, can they? Okay, I’ll fess up here. I was one of the 22 Under 22 voters – and I certainly didn’t nail my list.
Narrowing down this league’s pool of young talent is a virtually impossible task, with no clear No. 1 selection (Thiago Almada just aged out), and ranking them in an ordered list is even more difficult. Even since we submitted our 22 Under 22 ballots in early September, various young talents have risen and fallen as the regular season comes to a close.
So, between all of us who voted, some players got lost in the cracks. That’s why we’re giving some of the biggest snubs from the final cut some love.
Under Steve Cherundolo, LAFC’s front three has chopped and changed as this season has progressed. With Dénis Bouanga, Carlos Vela, Cristian Olivera, Mario González, Nathan Ordaz, Stipe Biuk and others (at times) fighting for minutes, Bouanga is really the only one to light up the box score.
He’s gotten lost in the personnel shuffle at times in 2023, but Biuk has proven to be an impressive talent. The 20-year-old Croatian winger, who joined LAFC during the offseason, brings a balanced skillset to the table. He’s fourth in Cherundolo’s squad in non-penalty xG+xA, according to FBref, and is in the top eight in both xG and xA per 90 minutes.
Biuk is still developing as a passer, but he’s shown promising flashes on the dribble in his 1,300 minutes and brings plenty of energy in defensive transition. The game seems to move slowly for Biuk, which is a great sign for such a young player. He rarely seems frazzled. Instead, he can bide his time, take quick, controlled touches with his right foot, and make things like this happen:
Biuk isn’t the finished project: He needs more reps in tight spaces and more opportunities to make plays in the final third. But his talent is undeniable. If Vela’s role decreases, Biuk’s should increase.
After lighting up MLS NEXT Pro in 2022, Jacen Russell-Rowe hasn’t played a ton for the Crew – just 508 minutes in 2023. But what he lacks in on-field exposure, the 21-year-old more than makes up for in efficiency. With four goals and two assists, Russell-Rowe has been a game-changer off the bench for Wilfried Nancy.
And it’s not just the counting stats that love Russell-Rowe. It’s the underlying numbers, too. Per FBref, the Canadian international, who earned his first cap over the summer, is in the 85th percentile or higher among his positional peers in…
- xG per 90
- xA per 90
- progressive passes per 90
- progressive passes received
…and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Russell-Rowe isn’t a super physically imposing forward, but his ability to find space and combine between the lines makes him a hugely valuable young player. This assist to former Columbus No. 10 Lucas Zelarayán provides just a taste of his skill in the final third.
Sure, he didn’t crack the final 22 Under 22 list, but Russell-Rowe is clearly one of the biggest early success stories for the MLS NEXT Pro-to-MLS pipeline. Props to the Crew for making the absolute most of their club’s development pathway.
Speaking of MLS NEXT Pro success stories…
After shining for Minnesota United 2 in NEXT Pro last year, St. Louis snagged Aziel Jackson in a trade with the Loons ahead of their expansion season. It’s safe to say the move has paid off for Lutz Pfannenstiel and the rest of CITY SC's front office.
Jackson has been maybe the most energetic energizer bunny on a team chock full of energizer bunnies. Under Bradley Carnell, St. Louis use one of the most aggressive pressing styles in the entire league – and Jackson fits right into that style with his never-ending motor. Even when the 21-year-old doesn’t get the final pass right (and quite often at this stage of his career, he doesn’t), Jackson makes amends with determined defensive work. You’ll pick up on that theme in this clip:
Jackson has some polishing to do on the ball, but his lower center of gravity makes him difficult to stop in transition and in tight spaces. Don’t believe me? Well, just ask the Galaxy:
When you see Jackson’s mixture of top traits, it’s easy to see why St. Louis made it a point to acquire him from a Western Conference foe. He’s grown into a bigger role as the season’s progressed, which points to even more improvement and involvement in 2024.
Signed during the offseason, the 21-year-old Colombian winger has a delightful mixture of physical and technical ability. We still don’t have an overwhelming amount of data on Gómez (or any of these young players!), but the underlying numbers really like him. Even in just ~1,300 minutes this year, Gómez is second in Pablo Mastroeni’s team in non-penalty xG + xA and fifth in that category on a per-90-minute basis. He also leads RSL in progressive carries per 90, according to FBref.
The biggest thing Gómez needs to work on to take his game to the next level is his efficiency. Though he likes to dribble, the winger has actually detracted value with his dribbling in 2023, according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. If he can improve his current take-on percentage (40%), Gómez will become an exponentially more threatening option out wide in RSL’s 4-4-2 shape.
For now, potential abounds.
Tomás Avilés was, no doubt, penalized by this year’s 22 Under 22 voters for arriving so late in the season (and the presence of so many other talented young players in Inter Miami’s squad). Still, he deserves some time in the spotlight.
Since he arrived in Miami during the Secondary Transfer Window, Avilés has become a key starter for Tata Martino on a team with Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, and Lionel Messi. At just 19, that’s a crazy impressive accomplishment. Usually, teams are protective over their center back spots and prioritize older players over potential. Tempted by Avilés and his well-rounded skill set, however, Martino has defied convention – and for good reason.
Avilés’ mixture of defensive range and comfort on the ball is elite for his age. The young Argentinian defender can break lines with his right foot in one moment before sweeping up a mess in Miami’s own half in the next moment. Per FBref, Avilés is in the 95th percentile among center backs in through balls per 90, which points to his vision. He’s also in the 99th percentile among his positional peers in tackles plus interceptions per 90, which points to his aggressive defending.
Now, Avilés will want to refine his choices on the ball and sharpen his defensive reads to shut more plays down with his positioning rather than his studs.
Even after just nine MLS appearances, though, it’s clear Avilés is the real deal. If he’s still in MLS by the time next year’s 22 Under 22 list comes out, don’t be surprised if he’s near the very top.