Play your kids! It sounds easy, but we all know player development is far more complex than a Twitter rallying cry.
I don’t have the time, space or inclination to get into the nitty-gritty in this column. We’re not going to dive into the symbiotic web of cause and effect – depth of the local talent pool, overall academy investment, club ethos and culture, first-team strategy and transfer market considerations – that makes a phrase like “Play your kids!” so loaded. Perhaps another day.
Instead, here’s a look at one 22 Under 22 eligible player per team to keep an eye on in 2019.
George Bello (17 years old): Looking for the next Alphonso Davies? Bello might just be it. The Homegrown defender picked up his first MLS start, first MLS goal and first MLS Cup as a 16-year-old in 2018. The biggest clubs in the world have already been linked with the US youth international. Now, can he win and keep a starting job? Regardless, the hype train is going to take off this year.
REMINDER: Ezequiel Barco is 22U22 eligible and is a favorite to top the list this year. But then, you know all about him already.
Djordje Mihailovic (20 years old): If 2018 is any indication, this should be Mihailovic’s breakout year. Though an ACL injury robbed him of most of last season, the Homegrown and recent USMNT call-up and goalscorer put up one goal and four assists in a shade less than 600 minutes when he returned. Just for fun, that extrapolates out to four goals and 17 assists over the course of a full season. That’d be decent.
Frankie Amaya (18 years old): Amaya’s talent isn’t in question, but it’s fair to wonder how minutes will be available given his lack of professional experience and the defense-first focus of the FCC roster. Without a Designated Player No. 10 in the group, can he push USL MVP Emmanuel Ledesma? Will he go out on loan? No matter what, Cincy have to find a way to keep him sharp enough to make the US roster for this summer’s U-20 World Cup.
Cole Bassett (17 years old): The Rapids have done a nice job filling in their roster with academy talent. Bassett is probably the most promising of the bunch. He can play either shuttler or d-mid in the diamond, but there are more experienced players in front of him at every spot. Time to earn your way into the team, young man.
Columbus Crew SC
JJ Williams (21 years old): Milton Valenzuela would have been the choice but … [deep sigh] … he’s out for the season with an ACL injury. That means Crew SC is unlikely to have a 22U22 eligible player who plays significant minutes, given Williams and Aboubacar Keita are buried on the depth chart. I’m going with Williams, who seems like a prime USL loan candidate.
Paxton Pomykal (19 years old): Shout out to Brandon Servania and Jesus Ferreira, but it looks like Pomykal is in pole position to play the 10 for his former academy coach Luchi Gonzalez. FC Dallas say the youth will lead them. Is Pomykal ready? He’s impressed with the youth national teams and in the Development Academy, but at some point you’ve got to do the job for the first team. That time is now.
Chris Durkin (19 years old): Durkin played more than 1,500 minutes in 2018 at the age of 18. He has some work to do to keep up with the physical demands of playing in the middle of the park, but there are no such questions about the technical side of his game. There’s a reason why European teams are interested in his services. This year, Durkin’s got to beat out one of Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno. Not easy, but it’s not supposed to be.
Erik McCue (18 years old): Watch McCue with the U-19 academy team and perhaps at Rio Grande Valley FC. The Homegrown defender makes this list because Houston don’t have a 22U22-eligible player likely to play 2019 minutes. Ronaldo Pena would have been the call, but he’s seven months too old. Make of this what you will.
Josh Perez (21 years old): Like Barco, Diego Rossi is 22U22 eligible and a favorite to finish No. 1. Like Barco, you already know his name and what he is capable of in this league. I’m going with Perez, who made a splash in US youth circles by signing with Fiorentina, making his Serie A debut way back in November 2016 and tearing it up with the Italian side’s U-19 team. Will he play for Bob Bradley? Hard to say. The attack is stacked.
Efrain Alvarez (16 years old):
The Galaxy’s prize prospect played 17 USL games in 2018. He scored 12 goals and added three assists. For half the season, he could not legally operate a motor vehicle. Alvarez has the “it” factor. He makes the seemingly impossible look easy, but he hasn’t played a single MLS minute. Can he jump a level in 2019? He’ll have to get minutes for us to find out. Not easy given LA’s attacking investment and options.
Don’t sleep on Julian Araujo, either. If Rolf Feltscher gets hurt or can’t hold down the right back job, Araujo could get some first-team minutes.
I’m told the #LAGalaxy have signed Julian Araujo to a first-team contract. The #USMNT U-20 defender is definitely one to watch in 2019 as the Galaxy look to give their young talent more opportunities. #MLS— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) February 13, 2019
Minnesota United FC
Mason Toye (20 years old): With Angelo Rodriguez in front of him and Abu Danladi trying to get his hamstrings right, there might not be too many minutes for Toye in 2019. Then again, maybe he can play some on the wing, though Minnesota have numbers there, too. It’s looking like another year of seasoning under Adrian Heath and on loan in USL.
Mathieu Choiniere (20 years old): Choiniere signed a first-team contract last summer, making five substitute appearances for Remi Garde. He’s been in the first group this preseason, and could win a starting spot in the midfield alongside Samuel Piette and Saphir Taider. Garde seems to rate the Quebecois midfielder.
New England Revolution
Isaac Angking (19 years old): Angking’s 2018 season was disrupted by an undisclosed, non-soccer-related medical emergency. He’s back now and competing for a place in central midfield. Might he take some of Scott Caldwell’s minutes? Maybe some from Luis Caicedo or Wilfried Zahibo? We’ll see. I just know Brad Friedel talked him up at the Combine in 2018 and now has a chance to use him.
New York City FC
James Sands (18 years old): Claudio Reyna is turning to the kids, and Sands ought to be one of the players who benefits most. He started three games in 2018 and will compete with the Keaton Parks for playing time next to Alexander Ring. Ben Baer is high on the kid from years at Generation adidas Cup. Can he make a leap?
New York Red Bulls
Cristian Casseres Jr. (19 years old): Goodbye Tyler Adams. Hello Casseres Jr., who spent the last year learning the Red Bull way in USL and just got done starting every game for Venezuela at the South American U-20 Championship. Alas, there will be no U-20 World Cup for La Vinotinto, but there is an opening for the youngster to push his way into the first team following the same path Adams blazed.
Orlando City SC
Danilo Acosta (21 years old): You can credibly argue that Josue Colman should have made this list. I went with Acosta because 1) he plays a position of need in MLS and for the US national team 2) he underachieved relative to his talent with Real Salt Lake and now has a fresh start and 3) it’s kinda put-up-or-shut-up time when it comes to his career trajectory.
Brenden Aaronson (18 years old): Until the Union signed Marco Fabian, it looked like Aaronson might get some run as the team’s No. 10. He did just fine there for the academy and Bethlehem Steel last year (1 G, 5 A in 18 games). The Philly staff has lots of good things to say about the teenager, who will soak up as much as he can from Fabian in 2019.
Tomas Conechny (20 years old): Conechny barely played in 2018 after arriving on loan from San Lorenzo, but I assume that will change in 2019 given that the Timbers brought him back to Portland. With Diego Valeri still doing Diego Valeri things, the Argentine youth international might have to play on the wing. He’s got to win a starting job first. Andy Polo and Dairon Asprilla want those minutes, too.
Real Salt Lake
Julian Vazquez (17 years old): After years packing 24U24 and 22U22 with players, Real Salt Lake have no obvious candidate to make the list in 2019. Everyone aged out! That leaves Vazquez, who you’ll see a lot with Real Monarchs. Check out this goal from preseason.
San Jose Earthquakes
Marcos Lopez (19 years old): Sporting Cristal, per reports, didn’t want to let the once-capped Peruvian international go this offseason. It’s hard to say no to Matias Almeyda, though. On paper, San Jose got a steal. Lopez can play on the backline or on the left wing. Shades of Milton Valenzuela here.
Tacoma Defiance: The Sounders have some serious Homegrown talent. It hasn’t matriculated to the first team just yet, but the future of the club will be on display each weekend in the USL Championship. Keep a close eye on these six players.
- CB - Sam Rogers (19 years old)
- F - Shandon Hopeau (20 years old)
- M - Azriel Gonzalez (17 years old)
- M - Marlon Vargas (18 years old)
- M - Ray Serrano (16 years old)
- F - Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez (16 years old)
Sporting Kansas City
Gianluca Busio (16 years old): Busio didn’t look out of place in his seven appearances and one start in 2018.. He belonged, and he showed flashes of the vision and technique that make him one of the top Homegrown prospects in MLS. Peter Vermes has a plan to keep his development rolling right along. Meanwhile, Busio has plans and dreams of his own:
“You can see that I’m in the same spot that Tyler Adams was two years ago. A 16-year-old, playing in MLS, getting a couple games in, and now he’s in the Bundesliga. I think of it as, why can’t that be me?”
Liam Fraser (21 years old): Guess who started at center back in the Reds’ final preseason match? That’d be Fraser, who figures to be in the mix for minutes on the backline and defensive midfield in 2019. He’s not a shoo-in starter given Toronto’s depth and quality in those positions, but an increase on the 615 MLS minutes the TFC II stalwart played in 2018 is a very safe bet.
Joaquin Ardaiz (20 years old): If the Fredy Montero deal doesn’t get done, the pressure is going to be on Ardaiz to be the Whitecaps' primary goalscorer. Ardaiz’s talent is Pavlovian – his U-20 performances with Uruguay and first-team goal spurts in his home country and Belgium make talent evaluators’ mouths water – but he’s yet to find a true home at the club level. Maybe Vancouver is that home.