Years ago, this article would have written itself. Just finding five teenagers getting real minutes for MLS first teams would have been a challenge.
Fortunately for the player development wonks, #PlayYourKids aficionados and academy hopefuls, we’re spoiled for choice in 2019. Not only are teenagers playing more than ever before, they’re making a big-time impact on both MLS and USL and opening eyes this week at the Generation adidas Cup in Frisco.
Below are the five teenagers in Major League Soccer who I’m most excited about, a list that’s constantly subject to the changing winds of form, coach selection, circumstance and personal preference. It's not most talented or the most accomplished. It’s my list, for today at least. It doesn’t have to be yours. If you feel the need to share, I spend too much time on Twitter.
The best part about this exercise is that there are plenty more players making a more-than-credible case to be included on a list like this. Such as, but certainly not limited to: Brenden Aaronson (PHI), Ayo Akinola (TOR), George Bello (ATL), Cole Bassett (COL), Julian Araujo (LA), Jesus Ferreira (DAL) and James Sands (NYC).
And those are just a few — not even close to all! — of the teenage homegrowns signed to MLS deals, not to mention youth internationals like Marcos Lopez (SJ), Mathias Jorgensen (RBNY) and Cristian Casseres Jr. (NY).
Imagine players like that left out five years ago, a decade ago. You can’t. That’s progress, folks.
Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)
- Age: 19
- 2019 MLS stats: 7 games played (6 starts)… 2 goals, 1 assist
If you frequent this website at all, you already know his name. The Pomykal hype train is chugging along, and it’s not going to run out of coal anytime soon.
The US U-20 star had logged just 265 minutes for FC Dallas since signing in Sept. 2016, but he won a starting job this preseason under Luchi Gonzalez, who coached him in the academy. Seven games, six starts, two goals, an assist and nearly 600 minutes later, he’s the next big thing among MLS prospects.
The beauty of Pomykal’s game is that he doesn’t neatly fit into any midfield bucket. He’s not a traditional No. 10, though he can deliver the final pass and score himself. He’s not a dyed-in-the-wool holding midfielder, though he’s seemingly indefatigable and unafraid to get stuck in (just ask Diego Chara). He’s not a winger, though he can take defenders off the dribble and get service into the box.
Gonzalez seems to prefer Pomykal as a box-to-box dynamo, a player who can do just about everything above average depending on the system and situation. It’s early, yes, but there have been multiple games this year during which the 19-year-old has been the best player for either side. That ought to make Pomykal, FC Dallas and anyone who cares about the growth of the game in North America proud.
Gianluca Busio (Sporting KC)
- Age: 16
- 2019 MLS stats: 5 GP, 2 GS … 3 G
Three games. Three goals. That’s the headline on Busio right now, but it’s the way he fits seamlessly into Sporting KC’s veteran-laden squad that tells the full story.
The kid is 16 years old, and he doesn’t look out of place in the league’s best possession scheme, in large part because he keeps it simple. First-time pass. Touch, pass. Touch, turn, pass. He finds space, and he moves the ball. Then he does it again and again.
The final product is nice, too: four goals and an assist in less than 400 minutes. Busio isn’t all flair, either. He isn’t asked to be a rugged defensive player, but he’s kept up on that side of the ball. There’s a reason Peter Vermes isn’t afraid to put him out there against Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions League. He does his job.
Here’s the Armchair Analyst’s take on what makes Busio special from Monday’s ExtraTime.
Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy)
- Age: 16
- 2019 MLS stats: 2 GP … 1 A
Alvarez’s only had a cup of coffee (errrr … whatever the kids drink) in MLS, but his ability isn’t in doubt. Just ask Zlatan. If you’re looking for more than a pretty assist in 61 total MLS minutes to his name, then how do 12 goals in 18 appearances, many confirmed bangers, for LA Galaxy II in USL sound?
Pretty good, right? Alvarez most recently played for the Mexico U-17s, but the US have n’t given up on him just yet. To wit, here’s what head coach Gregg Berhalter had to say earlier this year.
“It would be great that [Alvarez] continues to chip away, get playing time, and be a consistent performer for one of the top clubs in MLS,” Berhalter said. “We’ll be there watching the whole thing. When he is doing what we expect him to do, there will be an opportunity for him with the US national team.”
TBD on his international future, but just imagine what another year in a professional environment under the guidance of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Jonathan Dos Santos and, of course, Zlatan will do for the young baller.
Chris Durkin (D.C. United)
- Age: 19
- 2019 MLS stats: 4 GP, 1 GS … 1 G
Durkin played 1,503 minutes in 2018 for D.C. United as an 18-year-old, so it’s been a bit disappointing to see him start 2019 with spot minutes. Beating out one of Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno isn’t easy, though, and squad rotation gave the US U-20 stalwart his first start of 2019 and first MLS goal over the weekend against the Rapids.
Durkin’s got the tools, in particular the vision and technical ability to spray the ball all over the field. His youth national team head coach, Tab Ramos, will almost surely bring him to Poland for the U-20 World Cup. He may even be captain.
“As a player, I think he’s come a long way in the last couple of years,” Ramos told The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer. “He’s really matured, he’s gotten a lot better technically in order to be able to distribute the ball better.
“Physically, I mean obviously he’s maturing, he’s got good size, he can cover ground, his fitness is always good. And then on top of that, you look at his personality and his leadership qualities, the charisma he has with the team. For me, Chris is really the full package. He has everything for that position.”
For now, there are three big questions in regards to Durkin’s future:
- How much time will he get with D.C. United or Loudoun United before the U-20 World Cup?
- Will he lock down a starting spot for Ramos in Poland? If so, how will he and the team perform?
- What happens after the tournament? Could a multi-million dollar transfer materialize? If not, can he force himself into D.C.’s starting XI?
Danny Leyva (Seattle Sounders FC)
- Age: 15
- 2019 USL Stats: 5 GP, 4 GS
OK, so Leyva hasn’t yet impacted the Sounders’ first team, but my head’s been turned by his recent MLS contract, the youngest such signing in the club’s history, and ongoing performance at GA Cup, where Seattle just knocked off River Plate (!!!) to move on to the semifinals of the Championship division.
Leyva became the second youngest player to start a USL match when he went 90 against San Antonio FC last September. He’s been a game-in, game-out starter with Tacoma Defiance this season, and is just one of a boatload of Sounders’ academy players who’ve excelled in the Developmental Academy and are now signed to USL deals, with the expectation that at least a handful will eventually make the jump to MLS.
Leyva’s already done that contractually, and he’s been training with the first team since preseason began in 2019 to rave reviews from both players and coaches. His future is in the palm of his hands, and all the Cristian Roldan comparisons ought to give you an idea of how he’s approaching the opportunity.
“The kid is super talented. … We believe he has the ability to play at [the MLS] level and that’s why we signed him,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters. "Let’s take the age out of it.”
Bobby Warshaw’s had a close eye on Leyva at GA Cup. Here’s his take.
“The simplest description is that he’s a total player. He can pass, he can create, and he has the guts to win duels. The two parts that make him unique: he’s incredibly smart and can read what the game demands, and he has instinct to be involved in the game. Some top young plays fade in and out of games or shy away from moments, but Leyva is constantly involved and finding ways to have an impact.”
Not bad, huh?