Brenden Aaronson. Tyler Adams. Reggie Cannon. Alphonso Davies. Mauro Manotas. Mark McKenzie. Bryan Reynolds. Joe Scally.
MLS’s list of big outbound transfers has gotten longer over the past few years as the league cranks up its flow of young talent.
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic imposing a stiff global headwind, that evolutionary process looks likely to continue in 2021 and beyond, quickly prompting this obvious rejoinder:
There’s now a deep pool from which to construct responses to that, composed of homegrowns and imports alike. MLS executives are investing more resources in younger players than ever before, while coaches are growing more comfortable entrusting them with significant responsibilities. That attracts overseas suitors in greater numbers, especially given the premium that the international transfer market places on promising prospects in or near their teenage years.
As difficult as it can be to gauge upside and trajectory, the following is a list of 10 outstanding young players who have earned enough minutes in MLS or on their youth national teams to show their potential, but remain young enough to command high long-term value both home and abroad. Most of them are already on the radar of notable clubs in Europe, Mexico and beyond, and many have even been the subjects of unsuccessful transfer offers.
That sweet spot tends to be fleeting, however, which underlines the importance of swift, consistent progress on these shores before interest fades or contracts ebb. So there’s some urgency among this group, too, especially with the pandemic having stolen so much time at this critical juncture of their careers.
Some notes: While many readers will be familiar with many of these names by now, I have chosen to focus on players who have not entirely “broken out” yet in what I would consider the conventional sense of the term. I have also bypassed players who, despite a tender age, have been acquired in circumstances that strongly suggest they are a finished product, or something closer to it, and/or are expected to perform as such. That adds up to no George Bello, Brenner, Gianluca Busio or Santiago Sosa, for example.
We’ll stick to alphabetical order.
The enormity of the homegrown creator’s talent has been obvious for years now. Most of you have seen his highlights and read the glowing praise from former teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who called him “the best talent in MLS by far." What’s less clear is how he and his club – LA Galaxy and any others he joins in the future – harness it to full effect with the right tactics and deployment.
Can he be an everyday starter on the wing? Can Greg Vanney afford to build a place for him in a traditional No. 10 role? Can Alvarez track back, press, play on short rest and do all the other unglamorous labor that is expected of even the most skillful players in the modern game?
I’m leery of the idea of “now or never” when it comes to players, or people in general, because there are many paths to self-actualization. But it just about applies for Efra’s Galaxy career in 2021.
He turns 19 in June, it’s his fourth year in the league and his career MLS stat line reads one goal and five assists in 1,236 regular-season minutes (30 appearances, 10 starts). For his sake and everyone else’s, it’s time to see some sustained end product.
In his own words:
“I always try to prove those who believe in me right," Alvarez told LAGalaxy.com back in 2018.
Akinola can run the channels and attack service, his movement is clever beyond his years and his back-to-goal abilities are underrated. Driven and hungry, he’s the flagbearer for TFC’s academy-fueled youth movement and with Jozy Altidore’s durability an open question, he should get plenty of chances from new coach Chris Armas. He just has to stay healthy.
Some would say that TFC’s young matador already broke out in 2020, pointing to his haul of nine goals in 15 matches (nine starts), which made him the youngest player in the top 10 of the league scoring chart. But five of those came in two explosive games at the MLS is Back Tournament, and injuries hampered his efforts to consolidate that progress in the ensuing months, limiting him to about half of his team’s available minutes overall.
Those woes continued in the offseason, as medical issues prevented him from taking part in either the US (his current national team) or Canadian (who want to convince him to shift his allegiance) national teams’ winter activities, including Concacaf Olympic qualifying. So the Detroit-born striker still has a ways to climb before getting even close to his lofty ceiling,
In his own words:
“All the coaches told me, my mom told me, that if you really want to pursue this sport, there's a lot that comes with it and if you're prepared, then you're ready. But if not, then don't take this sport seriously,” said Akinola in a TSN video feature about the childhood hardships he overcame. “And in my mind, I thought this is my way out and I've got to pursue it. So I was willing to do anything it takes.”
Being a regular starter for FC Cincinnati, the last two Wooden Spoon winners, hasn’t framed Amaya in the most flattering light. But it’s given him the chance to broaden his toolkit, and at his best moments he’s looked like a comprehensive modern central midfield with the ability to impact matches on both sides of the ball.
My hope is that he slots smoothly into the New York Red Bulls’ growing cadre of energetic kids, and becomes a relentless destructive force in the engine room with the quality to advance the ball quickly and intelligently once he wins it – something along the lines of a Brenden Aaronson or Latif Blessing.
As of this writing we’re still awaiting final, official confirmation of Amaya’s widely-reported trade from Cincinnati to the Red Bulls, a move that looks like a win-win for all parties given the way his relationship with FCC has soured and the tantalizing possibilities of his place in RBNY's high-press system.
Whether that deal reaches fruition or he stays in Cincy, Amaya’s 2021 parameters are much the same: It’s time for the 20-year-old to take a step forward in year three.
What they’re saying:
“It’s not about age because everywhere in the world there are a lot of experienced soccer players by looking at their age, but they don’t have the quality of Frankie Amaya,” FCC coach Jaap Stam said last summer. “You’re always looking at the ability of a player that can make a difference, that can feel comfortable in your way of playing and your philosophy. That’s [Amaya’s] game.”
If you’ve allowed the Mile High Club’s “Rapkids” project to fly under your radar, now’s a good time to catch up. The Colorado Rapids have simultaneously gotten younger and better over the past year or three and Bassett, 19, is the centerpiece of that renovation.
His elite ground coverage (he ranked fifth in distance covered per 90 minutes -- 11.29 kilometers/90 minutes -- among players with at least 500 minutes in 2020, per tracking data via Second Spectrum) and his nous for timely late runs into attack (7g/7a in 40 league appearances since 2018) both jump off the page.
The Rapids have reportedly already declined multiple transfer bids for Bassett from Bundesliga side Freiburg, and the likes of Hoffenheim and Rapid Vienna are also tracking him. Extending the productivity he showcased in 2020 would surely bring in more offers, and eventually Colorado -- who are ready to let him go for the right price -- will get the numbers they want.
What they’re saying:
“Cole can be a national team player and can certainly play at a high level in Europe,” Rapids general manager and executive vice president Padraig Smith told MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert in October. “When you have a midfielder with the type of engine he has, the intelligence he has and the ability to contribute goals, that’s a potent combination. If he continues to do that in a consistent manner, it’ll take him right to the top.”
MLS clubs aren’t just nurturing youngsters from their own catchment areas. They’re also shopping around the world for high-upside signings capable of contributing here before moving on in mutually beneficial sell-ons, a practice epitomized by Miguel Almiron at Atlanta United.
That was the idea with Carranza, one of the first signings in Inter Miami CF’s history and a pupil under the iconic Hernan Crespo at his former club, CA Banfield. But injuries, the pandemic and the south Floridians’ rough expansion experience put a few dings in the master plan for the striker. The former Argentina youth international is still just 20, however, and the Herons have already invested millions in his success.
Even as he faced a steep cultural learning curve, he netted two goals in 542 minutes last season, both coming in the club’s first-ever victory, a cherished 3-2 win over in-state rivals Orlando City SC on Aug. 22. While veteran star Gonzalo Higuain is the clear starter up top, the condensed 2021 schedule and the physical demands imposed by their tropical climate should open up opportunities for Carranza.
In his own words:
“I’m always looking to exploit space with a diagonal run when a teammate is in possession,” Carranza told The Athletic last year. “I try to get inside the box and finish. I’m a team player when it’s time to defend. I have no problem chasing down the ball or recovering possession. In fact, I enjoy it.”
Blink and you just might miss him.
That’s more than just a tribute to Clark’s quickness, technique and exuberant work rate; it’s also a reflection of his career’s steep upward trajectory. The Minnesota native is a prodigy by most measures, having shown exquisite potential as a preteen before leaving home at age 14 to join the Barca Residency Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona.
When director Sean McCafferty moved to the New York Red Bulls system in 2019, he invited Clark to make the same move. After impressing with RBNY II in the USL Championship, he made an immediate impact when promoted to the first team last season. Clark has proven a perfect fit for the club’s high-octane philosophy,
He’s expected to contribute significantly for RBNY in 2021, and widespread reports indicate that his near future is already set with a move to RB Leipzig, their sibling club in the Bundesliga, next winter.
In his own words:
“I like to create, pass, integrate myself into the play and make things happen,” Clark told Transfermarkt last year. “I look up to someone like [Manchester United’s] Bruno Fernandes, who reminds me of myself in some ways.”
A clever creator with a well-rounded game, Ferreira enjoyed a breakout 2019 marked by a team-leading eight goals as well as five assists. Last season he regressed from that level, tallying just once in 19 appearances (13 starts, 979 minutes) as coach Luchi Gonzalez searched for the most productive way to use him. Ferreira became a US men’s national team darling over the same period, mainly deployed as a false No. 9 by both Gregg Berhalter and Under-23 coach Jason Kreis.
It says a lot about MLS’s youth movement that a talent like Ferreira, son of 2010 MVP David, is already entering his fifth full season as a professional. Those years have already taken him on something of a roller coaster, making 2021 a watershed moment for a gifted attacker who's struggled to seize a clear positional role at club level.
He scored the opening goal in the United States’ Olympic qualifying campaign last month, the game-winner in a key victory over Costa Rica, only to go missing for long subsequent stretches as the program failed yet again to qualify for the Summer Games. Now it’s time to show he’s ready to graduate from “intriguing youngster” to “trusted starter.”
What they’re saying:
“We can't control what happens at the club level, we really can't. For us, it's still having faith in a player, believing in the player. And we were excited to get him back into camp this January,” Berhalter said after Ferreira’s man-of-the-match outing in a 7-0 romp of Trinidad and Tobago. “He gives us a lot of options, a lot of flexibility, and we really like how he performs for us at the forward position.”
The Philadelphia Union turned heads around the world when they won the 2020 Supporters’ Shield — their first-ever trophy — and promptly sold off Best XI honorees Aaronson and McKenzie for hefty fees. Now their mission is to prove they can remain in contention for hardware with a new crop of homegrown successors stepping into those vacated slots, and Fontana is one of the headliners in that. Though he’s a different player than Aaronson, slightly more apt to pull the trigger himself than service his teammates, he’s being given the chance to fill those shoes right out of the gates.
Fontana is probably best suited as the advanced midfielder in Philly’s 4-4-2 diamond, though he started up top next to Kacper Przybylko in their Concacaf Champions League series against Deportivo Saprissa. As with Aaronson, his task is to fulfill the duties in the Union’s team-is-the-star pressing scheme consistently and adeptly enough to elevate his own individual moments of brilliance.
What they’re saying:
“We’re going to give the keys to [Fontana],” coach Jim Curtin said a few weeks ago. “He’s done a good job so far in the preseason. Still working on some things, but overall happy with where he is … We’re working with him to get him on the ball as much as possible as well because he’s such a special player.”
Back in December, Columbus Crew SC were rocked by devastating news ahead of their MLS Cup clash with the defending champion Seattle Sounders. Key starters Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos weren't medically cleared for the match, due to what they later confirmed were positive COVID-19 test results.
When the whistle blew, however, the Ohioans dominated to a startling degree, rolling to an emphatic 3-0 victory. MVP playmaker Lucas Zelarayan grabbed most of the spotlight, but his exploits were made possible by the understated engine-room control imposed by Morris, the teenage homegrown rookie who deputized so expertly for Nagbe.
A Fort Lauderdale, Florida native, Morris relocated to central Ohio at age 15 and lived with a host family as the Crew academy’s first out-of-market import. After a standout season of college soccer with NCAA powerhouse Indiana, he signed his homegrown deal and made 10 regular-season appearances last year. Now he’ll have to scrap for every 2021 minute given Columbus’ stacked roster, but if he can step up in the league’s biggest game, who can count him out?
What they’re saying:
“I believe in young players, if they are good enough,” coach Caleb Porter said after MLS Cup 2020. “If a guy is good enough, I’m going to give him the chance. But if he’s not, I’m not. I’m not a lover of playing young guys just to do it, but Aidan Morris is a winner, he’s a fighter. I knew it. I knew it in the games I played him and I’ve seen him in training. When I knew Darlington was out, he was the guy that was going to go in.”
Quietly, unfussily and with surprisingly little hype given his club’s big-market setting and City Football Group ties, this cerebral homegrown has imposed himself as a trusted starter on NYCFC teams full of quality over the past two seasons. Sands rarely makes the attention-grabbing play, though he almost always makes the right one – and that hints at rich possibilities in his future.
Some have pointed to Sands’ usually conservative passing choices as a notable shortcoming, though it can be argued that this was a product of his role with the Cityzens. The offseason departure of defensive mid talisman Alexander Ring to Austin FC may open up more scope for self-expression on his part; rest assured that European clubs of note will be watching along with the rest of us.
What they’re saying:
“There is a reason Dome Torrent fell in love with the kid [in 2019] and there is a reason Ronny Deila has kept Sands in the lineup [in 2020]: he makes no mistakes, and he murders opposing transition opportunities,” wrote MLSsoccer.com’s Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle last fall. “Given how much of the game is actually played in those transition moments, that's a big deal.”
- Ignacio Aliseda – F – Chicago Fire FC
- Josh Atencio – M – Seattle Sounders
- Cristian Casseres Jr. – M – New York Red Bulls
- Moses Nyeman – M – D.C. United