Last Saturday's 2-0 win over the Colorado Rapids marked another shutout win for both Orlando City and the budding MLS resume of center back Tommy Redding, who is gaining more attention by the game. The 20-year-old even has his teammate Giles Barnes calling him the best young center back in MLS.
“Find a better center half in this league at 20," Barnes recently said about his teammate. "Find one. It’s true.”
While MLS clubs have scoured the global markets for superstar attacking players like Carlos Valderrama, David Beckham and Sebastian Giovinco, they are under pressure to produce first-team defenders of their own, a fact that remains true today. It’s certainly more efficient to produce your own Homegrowns regardless of position, but it’s arguably more necessary across the back four.
Luckily for MLS, there’s never been a better time to delve into the defensive Homegrown market. We may not be entering a golden age of Under-20 defenders, but we’re inching in that direction.
I broke apart the best Under-20-eligible defenders in MLS and ranked them from No. 10 down to No. 1. I mashed together current ability and future prospects, and I used current U-20 World Cup eligibility (born in 1997 or later) as the baseline litmus. So without further ado:
10. Jaylin Lindsey, Sporting KC (Academy)
When Sporting KC’s Jaylin Lindsey trotted onto the field late in a 2016 Swope Park Rangers match in the USL (he was playing on a brief academy contract), he became the first American born in the 2000’s to play in a professional game. And there was a reason. Lindsey’s an enormous defensive talent at just 17, and even if he hasn’t yet signed a pro deal I think that’s probably not far off. He’s entrenched himself as the unquestioned starting right back for the US Under-17 national team, and he’ll undoubtedly feature there in this year’s U-17 World Cup in India if the US ultimately qualify.
9. Mauricio Pineda, Chicago Fire (Academy)
There’s exactly one current college player on this list, and there’s a reason it’s Mauricio Pineda. The Chicago Fire academy product went to North Carolina in 2016 with fellow Fire prospect Cam Lindley, and as a freshman Pineda was a vital cog in the Tar Heels’ run to the College Cup (the soccer version of the Final Four). Pineda’s versatile, and he eventually settled as a No. 6 in coach Carlos Somoano’s 3-5-2. But as far as I’m concerned he projects as either a ball-playing center back or a defensive fullback at the next level. My top eight have all signed professional deals already. By my reckoning, Pineda is the best MLS academy-connected defender yet to do so.
8. Reggie Cannon, FC Dallas
Homegrown deals for defenders are far rarer than they are for players who live in the attacking third. That’s perhaps why Reggie Cannon’s contract might’ve been somewhat drowned out in the wash of noise created by those of his FC Dallas academy teammates. That said, Cannon is a torpedo of a right back who’s basically been developed to live effectively in the FCD ecosystem; bomb the final third, overlap and create havoc. If Cannon has an Achilles heel it’s his 1-on-1 defending in space, but he made huge strides in that arena during his one year at UCLA in 2016. In the meantime, you’re simply not catching Cannon if he gets in open space.
7. Hugo Arellano, LA Galaxy
If you tuned into the US Under-17 team during the 2013-2015 cycle, you would’ve seen Hugo Arellano leading the back line with the captain’s armband around his bicep. There was a reason. Arellano is an exceedingly modern fullback, in that he’s more comfortable starting builds than crashing into attackers. His recent pro deal and subsequent time with LA Galaxy II should help his defensive chops, because he’s already there tactically in reading a match and playing out of the back. Even if he’s a bit undersized (5-foot-11), his plus positioning instincts mean he’s rarely in a spot to be beaten.
6. Danny Acosta, Real Salt Lake
Had you been introduced to Danny Acosta few years ago, it would’ve been as a defensive midfielder. Now, he’s made the full-time shift to left back, and the early returns have been stunningly successful. Since transitioning to the back line last year with Real Salt Lake’s USL club Real Monarchs, Acosta nailed down a starting spot at the position with the US Under-20 national team earlier this year. That precipitated a step up to the RSL first team, where he’s started each of the last four games at right back. He’s still feeling his way into a new position, but the sky’s the limit.
5. Auston Trusty, Philadelphia Union
To say nothing of his tactical bonafides, it’s pretty clear just by looking at him that Auston Trusty is a center back. Trusty hit 6-foot-3 at the tender age of 18, which can be an awkward mix for young central defenders still coming into their own agility. Trusty’s shown some of that transition, as expected, but he’s also displayed an amazing amount of promise since signing for the Union in 2016. Since then he’s starred as a regular for the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel while awaiting his crack at first team minutes. The US Under-20 player has future starter written all over him.
4. Marco Farfan, Portland Timbers
Ah left backs, those elusive unicorns of the US pool. Great ones are rare most anywhere outside Brazil, and they’ve been an especially difficult nut to crack for most MLS teams over the years. So the Timbers went and developed one of their own. Marco Farfan is Portland’s lone active Homegrown at the moment, but he’s a big one. After a year at Timbers 2, he’s worked his way into a regular role at left back, and the 18-year-old’s movement and recovery are both critical. Left back is a tough nut to crack for young players, but Farfan is the best young one in the pool at the moment.
3. Tommy Redding, Orlando City
Tommy Redding’s been a lucky charm for Orlando City this season. Since subbing on in a losing effort in the third game of the year, the Lions have won four straight with Redding going 90 in each. Of course luck has little to do with Redding’s surge, and the Orlando City Homegrown suddenly finds himself as one of the most integral, steady Under-20-aged center backs the league has ever seen. Redding’s likely to start in the USA's Under-20 World Cup run next month, and he’s earned the attention. There might not be a more positionally aware center back in the pool.
2. Erik Palmer-Brown, Sporting KC
While it’s true Erik Palmer-Brown’s had less first team playing time this year than two men directly below him on this list, his overall skill level is easily more diversified and complete than anyone else here. His loan spell at Porto B in 2016 clearly helped develop his footwork, because earlier this year he captained the US Under-20 team to a historic 1-0 win over Mexico (he scored the winner) and a first-ever CONCACAF Under-20 title for the USA. He’s not as much of a natural at the No. 6 position as he is at center back, and his shot at Sporting KC shouldn’t be too far distant.
1. Justen Glad, Real Salt Lake
Justen Glad is a bit of a rarity when it comes to MLS defenders. His 2,424 minutes to date are the most by an MLS Homegrown defender in history before his 20th birthday. And he would have plenty more if not for an injury he picked up in Under-20 World Cup qualifying before the season started. Otherwise he would’ve been a no-doubt MLS first-team selection, which in itself is saying something considering Glad just turned 20 two months ago. With uncommon poise and soft feet, Glad’s on the fastest track to MLS stardom of any Homegrown defender in league history.