National Writer: Charles Boehm

Who's the next Homegrown Player star in MLS? A top 10 for 2022

The MLS Homegrown Player concept has come a long, long way.

A forward-looking experiment upon its launch in 2008, the initiative has since mushroomed into something closer to the lifeblood of the league, with hundreds of academy products providing vital contributions for their first teams, as well as longer-term value on a fast-growing international marketplace.

Led by Ricardo Pepi’s massive move from FC Dallas to Augsburg, the handful of homegrowns sold abroad this winter reaped somewhere around $30 million in transfer fees, the latest spike in a steady upward trend of foreign interest in young North American talent. Plenty are blossoming into high-level MLS regulars, too, like the two that featured in New York City FC’s starting XI as they won MLS Cup 2021 in Portland last December.

That naturally prompts the increasingly ubiquitous question: Who’s up next?

Here’s a rundown of 10 homegrowns who are young, still on the rise and well-poised to make significant strides forward in 2022.

Those who prefer to carefully manage expectations of young players might well be horrified by the talk surrounding Chicago Fire FC’s 17-year-old goalkeeper: How can it possibly be fair to compare any teenager, however gifted, to the legendary Gigi Buffon?

But consider the source: None other than US shot-stopping icon Tony Meola, who knows a thing or two about the position, and the many facets of stepping into the spotlight awaiting Slonina, a tall, strapping kid with maturity beyond his years.

Last August the Fire homegrown smashed the record for youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS history when he made his first-team debut, then won the starting job down the stretch, his performances a bright spot at the close of a largely disappointing 2021 campaign in the Windy City. 

Now Slonina is the clear (and literal) No. 1 for Chicago. He has a winter World Cup qualifying camp with the US men’s national team under his belt, as well as plenty of overseas interest and a Polish passport in hand to smooth the European transfer that seems a matter of when, not if.

As much as Toronto FC have invested in their youth development system over the years and as dramatic as Canadian soccer’s wider renaissance has become, TFC haven’t quite had their own flagship homegrown sale on par with an Alphonso Davies or Brenden Aaronson. Though he’s just one of several kids being cultivated for a big step up under new coach Bob Bradley, the skillful, hard-running “JMR” may just turn out to be that case. 

Bradley’s roster reboot has dramatically cleared the decks, and it appears Marshall-Rutty, 17, is the Reds’ starting right back as the 2022 season begins, a shift from his previous time spent as an out-and-out winger. The player recently told reporters that Bradley is “giving me the best chance to succeed” and is embracing the new position, one not unlike the move that unleashed Davies’ best self on Europe’s best. 

Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle recently wrote that Marshall-Rutty is “widely regarded as the best prospect in MLS of any age or nationality,” and over the winter he trained with Club Brugge, Arsenal and Liverpool. TFC have reportedly affixed a $20 million valuation on the teenager; soon we’ll see if that figure is really as lofty as it might seem.

New York City FC’s academy is still in its relative infancy. But you can already watch some of its top alumni like Gio Reyna, James Sands and Joe Scally compete on Europe’s brightest stages. Gray, one of their former colleagues, might soon follow suit.

He stepped up last fall after a season-ending injury to mainstay Anton Tinnerholm, seizing NYCFC’s starting right back job and playing every second of their postseason run to a league title. Already an MLS Cup winner at just 19, Gray can work as both a traditional fullback or a wingback and his game made dramatic strides before our eyes as he flourished with regular playing time.

Can he sustain that over the long haul of a full season’s grind? Will coach Ronny Deila and his staff be forced to make some difficult decisions when Tinnerholm returns (or at least is projected to return) to full health come summer? For now, these are fun questions for the Cityzens to ponder.

It’s an example of FC Dallas’ well-honed development apparatus that Pomykal already feels like a very familiar face to many MLS watchers despite having barely turned 22. Capable of contributing both centrally or on the flank, the homegrown is a tantalizing talent with technique, vision and an unrelenting engine – when healthy and fit.

Alas, that last part has all too often been a sobering qualifier for Pomykal. A variety of injuries, many of them soft-tissue issues, have slowed and sidetracked his progress from prospect to first-team regular in recent years and he enters 2022 needing to prove he can consistently contribute week after week.

But the possibilities are thrilling, for both FCD and the USMNT. Able to press, disrupt, create and combine in equal measure, the Texan can be a prototypical “free 8” central midfielder at the heart of the front-foot 4-3-3 formation so often used by his club and country. If those legs can stay healthy, the sky’s the limit.

When it comes to rising young US players, few meteors have shot into the firmament at a higher trajectory than Brenden Aaronson, the high-pressing Energizer Bunny who over the past two years has rocketed from Philadelphia Union homegrown to RB Salzburg mainstay, USMNT dynamo, Leeds United transfer target and probably plenty more to come.

Talk to people around the Union academy, and you’re quite liable to hear that his little brother Paxten – or “Pax10,” to use the online nomenclature – might just be even better.

Somewhat more of a pure playmaker, the younger Aaronson can rack up the mileage too, but likes to get on the ball more often, has an eye for a defense-splitting pass and is a lethally calm finisher around the box. Pax10 turned 18 a few months ago and seems to still be growing into his body, which only raises his upside even further.

Philly traded Jamiro Monteiro to San Jose this winter in part to open up room for Aaronson and a couple of his fellow academy kids with the first team; in the coming months, we’ll see if they’re ready for primetime with a leading Eastern Conference title contender.

Another mobile, technical center mid who just turned 18, Nyeman has been a likable presence around D.C. United for years, a highly anticipated prospect who lives and breathes the game and makes light of his diminutive stature with a high-output motor and a tenacious, dogged spirit. 

The Liberian-born Marylander earned a spot in The Guardian’s “Next Generation 2020: 60 of the best young talents in world football” at the tender age of 16 and already has 30 MLS appearances to his name, in addition to plenty of USL Championship action with Loudoun United. Now he seems to be coming into his own as a legitimate contender for a starting role in Hernan Losada’s all-action pressing scheme in 2022, vying for minutes with far older players. 

Nyeman completed his US citizenship process last year and was invited to train with Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT, a notable honor that suggests he’ll get a long look for the US U-20 national team as they gear up for their 2023 World Cup cycle.

Another New Jersey kid with both quality and desire, the Red Bulls’ left back can also work in the engine room and at times last season he seemed to be one of RBNY’s best performers in either spot.

Tolkin epitomizes his club’s all-gas-no-brakes ethos, and showed he’s got some personality with his in-your-face attitude on the pitch and Christopher Walken-esque platinum bleach job to match. Taking full advantage of the taurine empire’s willingness to play young’uns who make the grade, he pushed ahead of schedule in 2021, playing in 28 league games (starting 22 of them) and serving up 31 key passes in addition to his 1g/2a.

Will he turn out to be a nailed-on everyday starter on the left flank? Or perhaps he’s got a Tyler Adams-style tactical evolution in his future? Whatever comes, he surely won’t lack advancement opportunities in the Red Bull global network if he keeps up his rate of progress.

The Seattle Sounders are another club to make a long-range play in the academy space that’s now bearing legitimate fruit. As with several other organizations featured in this list, it’s difficult to reckon which of their current crop of youngsters will turn out to have the highest ceiling – much like it’s extremely tough for any of them to carve out minutes on one of the most talent-laden squads in the league.

Accuse us of recency bias if you wish, but we’re giving Vargas the nod after his head-turning display at the heart of the Rave Green midfield in their opening match of 2022, a 0-0 first-leg Concacaf Champions League draw with Honduras’ Motagua last week. The Alaska native mixed it up in the engine room, showing precise distribution and clever reading of the game as well as a useful streak of physicality.

Still just 16, Vargas made his MLS debut last July when Seattle had to blood a flock of kids due to the absence of 10 first-teamers for a visit to Austin FC. He got the call-up from Tacoma Defiance on an extreme hardship waiver, then became the third-youngest player in league history when he featured in the starting XI at 15 years and 351 days of age. Lo and behold, the Sounders snatched a 1-0 win. And someday we might look back on it as the start of a sterling pro career.

The Mexican-American creator from Berwyn, Illinois racked up absurd goals/assists numbers in his academy career and signed a pro deal at 16 two years ago. 

Still, Chicago have lately become one of the highest-spending teams in MLS, so it was pretty surprising when a teenage homegrown elbowed his way into significant minutes in 2021, making 17 appearances across multiple attacking positions last season before an ankle injury cut his season short.

A US U-20 international who also holds an El Tri option should he someday elect to pursue it, “Guti” is a rangy greyhound type who loves an incisive through ball and can also arrive in the box to finish plays. 

He bagged his first MLS assist last year and his underlying numbers were quite promising, though he might have to accelerate his personal growth even faster to earn time now that Xherdan Shaqiri is in town. Still, what a great opportunity to mentor under a proven European elite.

As you may have heard, Inter Miami are facing sanctions in 2022 and 2023 for violating roster and budget regulations. Those limitations have prompted sporting director Chris Henderson and his colleagues to get resourceful as they make over an underperforming roster without the full complement of resources usually available to do so.

As the season unfolds, that’s likely to hand some opportunities to younger players further down the roster, and Azcona, one of the first fruits from their fledgling academy, figures to be one of the most intriguing talents in that mix. The Dominican-American winger boasts quickness, work rate and ingenuity – and earned his homegrown deal by shining for Fort Lauderdale CF in 2020, where he was a finalist for the USL League One Young Player of the Year award,

Azcona was also a standout for the DR as they bravely battled against more talented opponents in last year’s Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, scoring their only goal of the event in a fearless outing against mighty Mexico. His 2022 prospects are clouded a bit by the fact that he picked up an injury during preseason, but in the long view, he’s one to watch.