Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Who's next? Forecasting MLS' new wave of transfer targets in Europe

There’s a clip from 2018 – in other words, a different lifetime entirely – making the rounds on USMNT Twitter.

If you don’t have time to watch or the means to listen discreetly, Taylor Twellman dropped this prescient nugget at the MLS studios almost four years ago: “[European clubs are] coming. They are coming for young Americans. Tyler Adams is not the end of it. Weston McKennie is not the end of it. Four or five of the top agents from the big clubs in England have told me that there will be 20 Christian Pulisics in Europe by the end of 2020. You do that math.”

The timeline might have been slightly delayed and the math might not quite be at Pulisic levels, but this transfer window is delivering the kind of critical mass that Twellman was talking about. European clubs are coming, the transfer fees are rising to previously unseen levels, and American and Canadian players are in demand in a big way.

More could be moving this window, too. It’s not official, but Kevin Paredes appears to be on his way to the Bundesliga from D.C. United (EDITOR'S NOTE: It's now official). The Colorado Rapids and Atlanta United already have cover in place should transfer offers for Auston Trusty and George Bello meet valuations (EDITOR'S NOTE: Same for Bello and Trusty). Gaga Slonina, just 17 years old and just 11 starts into his professional career, reportedly has eight-figure offers from the Premier League to mull while with the USMNT for the Octagonal.

Put it this way: When you watch MLS in 2022, you’ll be doing so with legions of European (and South American) scouts.

Those scouts know what Twellman knew back in 2018. This might be the first crop of prospects to truly ride the MLS developmental pathway to stardom, but they won’t be the last. Europe is coming, but so are more and more players ready to make the jump.

It’s fun to root for the young guys. My advice is to choose a couple to follow for 2022. Watch them up close while you can. It makes the league outside your chosen club more interesting. I’ve put forth some candidates below, separated by categories of my own choosing, from the ranks of MLS academies and the SuperDraft. The list is long, and I chopped it down big time, even excluding Paredes, Trusty and Bello (too easy). Tell me who I am missing…

I didn’t even consider young stars brought over from South America and Europe. That’s a whole different column and the list is just as eyebrow-raising, even if a consistent European pathway is still materializing…

Facundo Torres, Brian Rodriguez, Jose Cifuentes, Talles Magno, Santiago Rodriguez, Thiago Andrade, Santiago Moreno, Pedro Vite, Deiber Caicedo, Caio Alexandre, Santiago Sosa, Federico Navarro, Brenner, Kevin Cabral, Szabolcs Schon, Jhon Duran and Leo Chu. Plus, Thiago Almada and Alan Velasco, should the deals to Atlanta United and FC Dallas go through, and all the other U22 Initiative and Young DP signings this window.

We’re spoiled. It’s nice.

He’s doing what at age 17?!

Tony Meola recently said Slonina reminds him of Gigi Buffon, who the former USMNT backstop trained with at Parma back in the day. EPL clubs are circling like vultures and the kid hasn’t even played a dozen pro games. He’ll be the starter in Chicago this year, and perhaps the starter of the future for the USMNT. That’s reason enough to watch the Fire.

Look, not all transfer gossip is fact, but Marshall-Rutty has already been linked with both Manchester clubs, Juventus and Bayern Munich. He’s reportedly trained with Liverpool and Arsenal. He got 11 games last year (four starts) and could feature more prominently for Bob Bradley, likely at right back or central midfield. Enjoy him while you can.

They can vote now!

Hey, wait! He’s already been sold to RB Leipzig after scoring six goals (golazos only) and dishing out five assists in 31 MLS games! It’s not official yet, but it seems like we’ll get at least another six months to monitor Clark up close.

  • 2020: 490 minutes (five starts)
  • 2021: 801 minutes (10 starts)
  • 2022: ???

It’s a big year for Nyeman, who appears to be a starter in central midfield if the season started today. He does two things very well: hit progressive passes and disrupt opponents defensively. Both have big value in D.C.’s direct, physically-demanding system.

Could he follow another Aaronson to Red Bull Salzburg at some point in the short-to-medium term? There are some who say Paxten's not just Brenden’s equal as a prospect but has surpassed him at the same age. Given his older brother’s trajectory, that makes his every move one to watch. Like Clark, he’s already scored some truly special MLS goals.

Just watch the kid on the ball. He’s smooth, technically gifted. Watch him off the ball. He understands space and how best to exploit it. The Union midfield is packed, but Jim Curtin is going to have to find a way to get McGlynn on the field as much as possible.

Ho-hum, a 17-year-old homegrown forward/winger put up five goals and six assists in over 1,600 minutes last year. The pool is so deep that a player like Cowell still sort of fades into the larger group. He is a menace in the open field. He is just figuring out how to best use his gifts at the professional level. What’s his ceiling? It’s going to be fun finding out.

Potential Best XI (maybe even MVP) candidates

Mihailovic just turned 23 in November. That feels old by the standards of this group. He was arguably an MVP candidate last year (4g/16a) in his first full season as the attacking fulcrum for Montréal. Is there more to come? I think so, especially if the forwards around him (more on that in a second) can stay healthy.

Ferreira just turned 21 in December. He is in the USMNT. He just signed a lucrative new, Young DP contract to keep him in Dallas (for the time being). He is likely a double-double attacking player in MLS this year. Again, he just turned 21. Europe is in his future. The question is when and what can he accomplish first.

Do you like goals?

Ayo has 13 goals in 2,010 MLS minutes. Is that good? Seems good. Really good. The knee injury that kept him out of most of last year was a bummer, but now he gets to work with Bob Bradley and, in a few months, Lorenzo Insigne. Goals, he is gonna score ‘em.

Yes, Toye is 23, but he was on the precipice of something big last year before injuries spoiled a promising campaign. Is he a prospect for Europe? Not now, but he could be with a big bounce-back year. Or he could be an MLS lifer bagging double-digit goals for the next decade. Why couldn’t he be the next Gyasi Zardes?

Mystery box!

He was the youngest player ever to start an MLS Cup and didn’t look out of place at all. Then the ACL injury happened, and now Morris is working his way back. Don’t sleep on the 20-year-old Columbus homegrown. He could truly break out in 2022.

The good: Efra is still just 19, has magic feet in tight spaces or in a 1v1 situation, and can see/hit a pass nobody else can even imagine.

The bad: all that ability still hasn’t led to much final product or a consistent place on the field in LA.

And that’s fine! He is still 19 years old. Here’s hoping the big breakout comes this year.

Defense absolutely matters…

As an 18-year-old, Mamadou Fall made 16 starts for Bob Bradley at LAFC and scored four goals. He’s not the finished product on the ball, but he’s dominant in the air and unapologetically physical when it comes to defending. The future is bright, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be a full-time or spot starter for Steve Cherundolo.

Do what you’re good at, and work on what’s lacking. Atencio is good at breaking up play from a deep-lying midfield position, scrambling to block shots in and around the box and winning defensive headers. He started 18 games for Seattle, one of the deepest teams in MLS. He’s got a long, successful career ahead.

Outside backs with big games/personalities

Jones is 24, so ancient by this column’s standards. He is, at least in the hive mind of Extratime, the best left back in the league. The Revs just locked him down to a new deal amid reports of European interest and Jones’ first look with the USMNT. With a new deal comes negotiating power for New England should a big offer arrive. If it doesn’t, we get to watch him every week. Win-win.

I jokingly (or not so jokingly) call Tolkin Yung Cletus, an ode to Clint Mathis. They’re different players, but birds of the same feather when it comes to sharing their colorful personalities with the world. Tolkin can play inside in the midfield, but with Andrew Gutman back in Atlanta, we ought to see him get a full season at left back, where he is among the league’s best at 19.

He’s in Tata’s Mexico squads. He’s the best young right back in MLS. The offers, from Europe or Liga MX, are going to come if Araujo stays on this trajectory.

The ‘Caps love (like, all-caps LOVE) the 22-year-old Jamaica international. Brown could absolutely be on the Tajon Buchanan-lite track, which is to say sold for millions of dollars in the next year or two.