Odds are, most readers have been ravenously devouring the televised feast of World Cup action this month. It’s also quite likely that the US and Canadian national team fans among you have ruefully, maybe even repeatedly, regretted those squads' galling inability to make the big dance in Russia.
We don’t have to belabor that harsh reality too much. But you can get an early glimpse of the talent that could help beat the path towards Qatar 2022 on Saturday, when FC Dallas visit the New York Red Bulls in a nationally-televised clash as MLS returns from its World Cup pause (6 pm ET | UniMás, Twitter - Full TV and streaming info).
Conceivably half of the players that RBNY and FCD could put on the pitch at Red Bull Arena are US-eligible: Alex Muyl, Ethan Kutler, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Jesse Gonzalez, Reggie Cannon, Jacori Hayes, Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa. (As these are two US-based teams, this will inevitably focus more on that side of the border; let's meet again for a similar conversation when two of the league's three Canadian sides face off later this year.)
I’m not saying that all of those guys will become USMNT regulars. But they’re at clubs that value them and others like them, and set them up to succeed, to seize international opportunities should they be earned. Acosta and Adams – who could play out a fascinating battle in the center of the park on Saturday – have already seen regular national-team minutes over the past year or two. Parker made a solid case for himself in recent US friendlies, and Gonzalez is in the goalkeeping mix. Cannon, Hayes and Long are in the discussion, or will be soon.
Less likely to feature this weekend, but moving through the pipelines just the same, are the likes of Brandon Servania, Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Ben Mines. Consider, too, others once tabbed for great heights only to hit bumps and sidetracks in the road like Amando Moreno and Tommy Redding, two reclamation projects, if you will, with unfulfilled potential that the Red Bulls believe they can put to use.
Perhaps more importantly than any specific names, Saturday is also a showcase of some of the leading philosophies and methods by which rising domestic prospects will be identified, guided and groomed.
Most around MLS are familiar with these teams’ academies, two of the most ambitious and successful in the league in terms of overarching philosophies, team performances and player development. Dallas long ago decided to invest in the physical and human infrastructure to harvest North Texas’ rich youth soccer scene rather than sign big-name stars from abroad. After building a powerful youth program that went underutilized by previous technical staffs, the current RBNY brain trust have elevated their academy to the forefront of their plans and better integrated it within their global affiliate network.
Both organizations have learned that just having a strong academy isn’t enough, though. The Red Bulls have put their USL side to better use than perhaps any other MLS franchise, both blooding youngsters and working older newcomers into their style of play.
That’s how they sculpted Long from a central midfielder cut loose by both the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders into one of MLS’s steadiest center backs. It’s why they felt confident enough to take a flyer on Redding and Colombian winger Carlos Rivas as part of the offseason trade that sent Sacha Kljestan to Orlando City.
FCD have surely studied the RBNY case, and are reportedly finally ready to launch their own USL side, likely in the D3 league set to debut next year. Myriad examples – dating all the way back to Freddy Adu, really – have shown that bridges must be built from the youth to professional level in order to give the kids the best chances of getting over.
In the meantime, the North Texans have sent young reserves out on loan to OKC Energy, their cross-state rivals the Tulsa Roughnecks and other points further afield. They’ve also scouted and drafted intelligently, picking up players like Hayes and Tesho Akindele – who’s since become a CanMNT regular – who were overlooked by others.
There’s no one blueprint for growing the homespun stars of the future, and one of the underrated strengths of this country’s generally chaotic youth landscape is that multiple pathways have arisen for ambitious players to advance their careers. But two of the top models are humming along in Frisco, Texas and Harrison, New Jersey, and this weekend we’ll get to see them face off.
Tune in, and think positive thoughts for 2022 (and 2026!).