They may not draw the headlines of some of the league’s older stars, but up-and-coming younger players are the lifeblood of MLS.
Whether it’s a South American import like FC Dallas’ Fabian Castillo, a Homegrown hero like Columbus Crew SC’s Wil Trapp or a North American returning from Europe like LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget, talented young players push MLS forward, raising the level as they emerge as the league’s newest stars.
Here are 10 other youngsters – all 21 or under – who should help the league continue its upward trajectory in 2016.
Cyle Larin – Forward, Orlando City SC
The No. 1 pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, Larin was a legitimate star last year, smashing the rookie record and finishing tied for fifth in the league with 17 regular-season goals. If the 20-year-old can build on that total and improve other facets of his game, 2016 will be a good year for Orlando City and the Canadian national team.
Kekuta Manneh – Forward, Vancouver Whitecaps
Manneh is one of the most exciting players in MLS, bar none. The 21-year-old has always been an absolute terror in space, but he rounded out the rest of his game in 2015, recording career highs with seven goals and six assists and becoming a full-time starter for a very good Whitecaps team. USMNT fans will want to pay attention: Manneh, who was born in Gambia but moved to the US as a teen, commutes to Vancouver from northern Washington and isn’t far off from obtaining American citizenship.
Jordan Morris – Forward, Seattle Sounders
Major League Soccer’s most-hyped rookie since Freddy Adu, Morris will be thrust straight into the spotlight in his first year with Seattle. With Obafemi Martins off to China, the Homegrown signing should start from Day 1 for Sigi Schmid. We don’t expect the 21-year-old US international to fully replicate Martins’ production, but he’s still the prohibitive favorite for Rookie of the Year.
Jesse Gonzalez – Goalkeeper, FC Dallas
Gonzalez burst onto the scene after making his MLS debut last August, starting FC Dallas’ final 11 regular season matches and all four of their playoff contests en route to recording an 8-5-2 record with five shutouts in all competitions. The 20-year-old Mexican-American, who declined an invite to the USMNT’s January camp, is a solid bet to represent Mexico at the 2016 Rio Olympics, having participated in a pair of training camps with El Tri’s U-23s this winter.
Diego Fagundez – Midfielder, New England Revolution
Yes, the 21-year-old Fagundez has been around a while. And yes, he’s already had a huge year, scoring 13 goals and seven assists back in 2013. But the Homegrown attacker, who signed with New England as a 15-year-old in November 2010, will again be a key part of a Revs roster that’s shaping up to be one of the best in the league. Forget about him at you peril.
Kellyn Acosta – Midfielder, FC Dallas
Acosta isn’t a huge name yet, but the 20-year-old probably should be. The versatile FC Dallas Homegrown has had a sparkling 12 months, becoming a full-time starter at center mid for an FCD side that finished tied on points for the Supporters’ Shield lead, helping the US to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup and lining up at outside back to earn his first two caps for the USMNT. If he continues on that upward trajectory, he’ll be a getting plenty more recognition – and soon.
Carlos Rivas – Forward, Orlando City
The 21-year-old winger was largely disappointing with Orlando last year, finishing the year with no goals and just four assists in 27 appearances for the expansion club. The Colombian did show flashes of why the Lions signed him to a Designated Player contract late in the year, however, becoming a focal point for Adrian Heath in the attack. If he can continue that fine form in 2016, the second-year Lions should make their first MLS playoff appearance.
Ronald Matarrita – Defender, New York City FC
A 21-year-old Costa Rican international, Matarrita represents a bit of a change in how NYCFC do business. After targeting big-name older players in their expansion season last year, the club has skewed younger this offseason, and Matarrita is the cream of their winter crop. The left back has drawn high praise from head coach Patrick Vieira this preseason, and will likely be a big part of any success NYCFC may have this year.
Luciano Acosta – Midfielder, D.C. United
Could Acosta bring the end of “Benny Ball” in D.C.? While United have put out very successful teams the past two seasons, they haven’t exactly lit it up on the attacking end. That could change now that Acosta’s in town. The 21-year-old Argentine – who is on a year-long loan from Boca Juniors – is being hyped as the most creative and skilled midfielder D.C.’s had in years.
Brandon Vincent – Defender, Chicago Fire
Easily the most MLS-ready player in the 2016 SuperDraft, Vincent, 21, turned heads in January when he left the MLS Combine to join the USMNT’s January camp following a surprise call-up. A teammate of Jordan Morris at Stanford, Vincent earned his first career senior team cap during the camp and brings solid 1-v-1 defending, a good eye for when to jump into the attack and an excellent left-footed cross to Chicago. He should contribute right away.