The 2017 NCAA men’s soccer tournament will kick off on Thursday, with 40 teams set to begin what they hope will be a run to the College Cup title in Philadelphia next month.
And while the college game isn’t without its faults, it still places plenty of players – and a few legitimate stars – in MLS each season. Several have made their names during the NCAA tournament, with Jordan Morris, Jack Harrison and Julian Gressel among the MLS standouts who went on deep tourney runs in recent years.
Which players from the 2017 NCAA tournament have a shot to become future MLS standouts?
Let’s take a look:
Cam Lindley, UNC
A product of the Chicago Fire academy, Lindley (pictured above) is a talented attacking midfielder who’s had a very impressive sophomore season. The ACC Freshman of the Year and a second team All-American in 2016, Lindley has only improved this year, recording seven goals and 11 assists for the third-seeded Tar Heels and winning the ACC Midfielder of the Year award.
The Fire talked with the Indiana native last winter about signing a Homegrown deal before he ultimately chose to head back to Chapel Hill. He’s spent plenty of time training with Chicago’s first-team over the past couple of years and will likely have further discussions with the Fire this winter. We’ll see if Chicago can bring the Indiana native back to the Midwest.
Jon Bakero, Wake Forest
Photo: Wake Forest Sports
The son of longtime Barcelona player and Spanish international Jose Mari Bakero, the Wake Forest senior lit up the ACC in 2017. He has 14 goals and 14 assists in 20 matches for the Demon Deacons, leading the school to the ACC championship and No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Capable of playing as a forward or attacking midfielder, the 6-foot-3 Bakero has the size to tangle with center backs and the soft feet to pull strings in the middle. He’s a solid bet to be a high pick in January’s SuperDraft, though he might slip due to his status as an international.
Grant Lillard, Indiana
Photo: IU Athletics
Another Chicago Fire academy product, Lillard, like Lindley, spoke with the Fire about signing an MLS deal last winter before choosing to return to Indiana. The unanimous Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the 6-foot-4 senior center back is probably a safe bet to sign a Homegrown deal with Chicago this winter. Before then, however, he’ll look to lead the No. 2 seed Hoosiers to their first national title since 2012.
Tomas Hilliard-Arce, Stanford
Photo: USA Today Sports
The back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Hilliard-Arce will look to captain Stanford to their third straight national title this year. The experienced senior center back is an adept reader of the game, solid in the air and has plenty of time playing with standout pros like Morris and Fire left back Brandon Vincent. He’ll likely be among the highest rated defenders in the 2018 SuperDraft.
Eryk Williamson, Maryland
A standout for the US Under-20 national team at this summer’s U-20 World Cup, Williamson grew up in the D.C. United academy and is eligible to sign a Homegrown deal with the Black-and-Red. An athletic center midfielder, the 20-year-old Williamson earned Big Ten Midfielder of the Year honors will lead the Terps as they look to snap a five-game losing streak against Albany in the opening round of the tournament on Thursday night.
Manny Perez, NC State
Photo: North Carolina FC
The 2017 ACC Freshman of the Year, Perez isn’t tied to any MLS academy (he played in NASL club North Carolina FC’s youth system and appeared for the club in a friendly against Swansea this summer) but could be a candidate for a Generation adidas deal this winter. The attacking midfielder led NC State with five goals and four assists this season, playing a key role for the Wolfpack as they returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.