Listen closely, everyone. I’m about to let you all in on a little secret. You know that Andy Williams song called “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? Usually that song is played exclusively around December’s holiday season, but I’ve recently been informed that Williams’ song isn’t about the holidays at all.
It’s actually about 22 Under 22 season, and that time is now squarely upon us.
After tallying the votes, the official 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list is out – and it’s full of promising young MLS players from countries all over the world. Today, though, we’re not here to talk about all 22 of those players. Instead, we’re going to take a deeper look at the top five players on the 22 Under 22 list to try and uncover what makes them effective on the field now – and what could make them even more effective in the future.
Let’s use data to glean more, shall we? It’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all.
There are very few MLS players who have had a better 2021 season than Ricardo Pepi. While FC Dallas have struggled this year, taking club form, national team impact and transfer rumors into account, Pepi has had a wild year. His 12 open-play goals put him tied for third in the league – and the 18-year-old homegrown is also at least seven years younger than any of the players in front of him on that list.
Looking at Second Spectrum’s expected goals metric, Pepi is sixth in MLS in total open-play xG this season (7.82). He’s certainly over-performing his xG by a sizable amount, which has raised some very valid questions about his ability to continue scoring at his current rate. It’s statistically likely that Pepi will experience a dip in scoring form. Still, many of the tools that the El Paso native uses to score goals should encourage Pepi’s future employer.
One of his most impressive skills is his ability to find and exploit space in the box. Pepi finds gaps between defenders and takes care to fill those gaps with well-timed runs, like on this goal from Dallas’ 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes in September. Look at how Pepi begins to fade towards the back post before changing the angle of his run and cutting in front of a defender. It’s Chris Wondolowski-esque.
Lowery: Pepi - 22U22
Other times in the box, Pepi simply stays still to remain in a pre-existing pocket of space. His first goal for the USMNT against Jamaica earlier this month is a great example of Pepi’s patient movement (or lack of movement) in key goalscoring areas.
Outside the box, Pepi is still learning how and when to move. And at a relatively slender 6-foot-1, he still looks to be growing into his frame. However, as Pepi matures and racks up more minutes as a starting No. 9, expect his movement and physicality to improve. If those two things match his skill in the box, there’s no telling where Pepi’s career might go.
Daryl Dike has been a busy man. After bursting onto the scene with Orlando City SC in 2020, Dike spent four months on loan with Barnsley in the English Championship, nearly helping The Tykes earn promotion to the Premier League, before returning to Orlando City and MLS in June 2021. He’s played a lot of soccer in a lot of places during the last year-and-a-half. And he’s scored a lot of goals, too.
Dike scored eight goals in just over 1,200 minutes in 2020 with Orlando City, nine goals in almost 1,300 minutes during his loan spell with Barnsley, and has tacked on another six goals in just over 800 MLS minutes this season. Like Pepi, though, Dike is over-performing his open-play xG by a pretty large margin. This year, Dike has scored five open-play goals on just 2.04 open-play xG, which leads to questions about the striker’s long-term scoring viability.
Still, it’s hard to not enjoy watching Dike play soccer. When you watch footage of him, one thing that stands out is his strong right foot. So far this year, the majority of Dike’s shots have come with his right foot – and he’s scored some impressive goals with it. This strike from Orlando's 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew earlier this season is just one example of the havoc that Dike can wreak on his favored side.
Lowery: Dike - 22U22
The power that he gets on those right-footed strikes is almost mind-blowing. If a center back lets Dike get on his right side, you can almost always expect a driven shot toward goal.
When Orlando City are in possession, Dike tends to stay close to the opposing backline instead of dropping into midfield to get touches on the ball. He averages 10.6 touches per 90 minutes, which is 19th among strikers in MLS with at least 100 total touches this season. His size (listed as 6-foot-1, 220 pounds) can be a real asset in possession, though. During his loan spell at Barnsley, Dike was consistently used as an outlet in possession and battled against opposing center backs to win the ball and draw fouls in advanced areas.
Dike should continue to develop his game with the ball at his feet and become a more versatile shooter, but his current combination of size and strength already makes him an extremely challenging matchup for any defender.
The first non-attacking player on this year’s 22 Under 22 list, James Sands has been excellent for NYCFC in 2021. There have been little dips in form along the way, but Sands’ skillset and positional versatility have made him a key member of Ronny Deila’s team.
Able to play center back or central defensive midfield, Sands’ vision and physicality make him an asset when NYCFC are defending. With his vision, the club's first-ever homegrown signing can move to block passing lanes and discourage opponents from playing into his defensive area. Using Second Spectrum’s tactical camera angle, it’s pretty easy to admire Sands’ defensive movement. This clip shows how Sands’ (#16, orange cleats, playing as a CDM in a double pivot) subtle defensive shifts make ball progression challenging for the opposition.
Lowery: Sands - 22U22
First, you can see Sands shift towards the near side to block Nashville SC left wing back Taylor Washington's passing lane into Brian Anunga, which forces Nashville to attack down the wing instead of through the middle. Then, Sands closes the ball down and forces a backwards pass. Still, despite Sands’ best efforts, Alex Muyl finds Hany Mukhtar in the left half-space and Nashville break through.
I like the above clip because 1) it shows Sands take a great initial angle to deny Nashville easy access into central midfield and 2) it shows his frustration when his teammates don’t rotate quickly enough to deny that same access into central midfield. Sands reads the game so well. He knows where he needs to be (and he usually gets there) and he also knows where his teammates should be.
As impressive as his defensive game is, Sands’ work on the ball may be the most notable facet of his performance this season. In the past, Sands has been justly criticized for a lack of forward passing ability. In 2021, he’s answered his critics. Sands isn’t a deep-lying playmaker, but he has become a more adventurous passer. Compared to 2020, Sands is passing the ball further, playing more progressive passes and is bypassing more defenders per 100 passes.
With a strong defensive game and an improving passing range, it may not be long before a team swoops in to make Sands their next multi-million dollar purchase.
On pure talent, there may not be a better winger in MLS than Brian Rodriguez. His goal against the LA Galaxy earlier this year where he cut past three opposing players and finished at the near post with his weak foot was one of the best, if not the best, goal in MLS this season.
When he gets on the ball, Rodriguez is a dribbler. He’s in the 95th percentile in terms of dribbles attempted per 90 minutes (5) and the 93rd percentile in terms of successful dribbles per 90 minutes (3.5). As an extremely effective dribbler, Rodriguez can help unbalance opposing defenses by driving at them with the ball and beating a defender. He makes plays like this look routine:
Lowery: Rodriguez - 22U22
He’s dangerous on the ball, but Rodriguez does turn the ball over more than the average attacking player – he averages 6.8 turnovers per game, which puts him in the 87th percentile (higher is worse in this case). Still, at just 21 years old, there’s time for him to learn which situations to push the game and which situations to recycle possession.
One thing that Rodriguez will look to improve over the next stage of his career is his end product. Per Second Spectrum, the Uruguayan only takes 1.22 shots per game, which puts him in the 47th percentile among attackers and his 1.88 xG is in the 60th percentile among attackers.
If Rodriguez starts to pair his already top-tier dribbling ability with consistent danger in the box, he could become a down-right phenomenal attacking player.
The first full-time defensive player on this list, Julian Araujo has been a force at right back for the LA Galaxy this season. Under Greg Vanney, Araujo is more involved in his team’s attacking moves and has seen an uptick in his passing numbers compared to last season. So far in 2021, Araujo is completing 1.7 passes per 90 minutes that lead to a shot (up from 1.1 in 2020) and is completing 2.9 passes to a teammate between the opposition’s defensive lines per 90 minutes (up from 1.6 in 2020).
Araujo is excellent at playing a bending ball from his right back spot to a teammate in a central space between the lines. In this example from the Galaxy’s recent game against Minnesota United FC, Araujo receives the ball from Sega Coulibaly before bending a pass into striker Dejan Joveljic. Joveljic loses the ball, but it’s still a great feed from Araujo.
Lowery: Araujo - 22U22
The 20-year-old fullback likes to dribble – his 2.2 attempted dribbles per game puts him sixth among fullbacks – but lacks consistency in the actions that follow his dribbles, regularly turning the ball over or misplacing a pass. Still, the offensive upside is clearly there.
Defensively, Araujo is a strong presser. Among fullbacks in MLS with at least 250 pressures, Araujo is in the 80th percentile in terms of pressing efficiency, winning the ball within five seconds of applying pressure 52% of the time. Encouragingly, Araujo’s pressing efficiency has improved from 2020 to 2021. During his time playing as a fullback last season, Araujo had a 49% pressing efficiency. A 3% increase is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Another extremely impressive part of Araujo’s game is his speed: he’s in the 95th percentile in top sustained speed in MLS this season, hitting 9.8 meters per second.
Between his pace, pressing and distribution, Araujo is a very talented right back who will climb the club ranks and surely feature for Mexico's national team in the near future.