It’s going to be around for another decade, if I had to guess. Given the money being pumped into MLS academies and the transfer budgets earmarked for international prospects, the young players in this league are getting better and younger by the year. That’s the plan at least. It helps coaches are playing them more, too, in USL and MLS.
As always, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
The full list is out, so let’s get to the tiers. This year there are seven. Only players eligible for the list were included (duh), but not all players were sorted. Players are listed in alphabetical order in each tier. Another interesting exercise is to read through the 2018 version of this column. Many players made big leaps. Some failed to progress. Others regressed. All part of the game.
1. They’re Bona Fide Stars Now
All-Stars. Full internationals. Game-changing talent. When you talk about the best players in MLS at their position, these guys are a shoo-in for more than just a mention.
- Diego Rossi (LAFC)
The two players I sorted into the top tier last year were Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies. That’s good company. If the rumors are to be believed, Rossi’s future, following a 17-goal, nine-assist season for LAFC, may lie in Serie A. Looking for the next young player to make the jump to Europe? Rossi is a likely candidate. He’s got real pace, makes good runs and is efficient in front of net. That translates a lot of places.
2. Flirting with Stardom, but Not Quite There
They’re more than just starters. They’re often – but not always – game-changers, too. Maybe 2020 is the year they make the leap to bona fide star.
- Ezequiel Barco (ATL)
You could definitely argue that Barco should have been in Tier 3 (starters). I’d argue he’d have played a lot more minutes without the U-20 World Cup and injury issues. I’m basing this on what I saw in the playoffs and how the Argentine youth national team setup values his talent. Barco has shown flashes of what made him reportedly a $15-million player. In 2020, he needs to show more than flashes.
Perhaps a slight stretch here, but Diaz made an immediate impact in the final third after arriving in Columbus (2 G, 4 A in nine starts) from Herediano. That the Crew have two players in this second tier is a good sign.
- Lassi Lappalainen (MTL)
The Finland international – he’ll likely head to the Euros with his country next summer – got five quick goals on arrival. He straight-up runs past defenders, then has a knack for staying calm in the 18 and picking the right finish. Thierry Henry ought to be able to teach him a thing or two.
- Paxton Pomykal (DAL)
I am on record saying an FC Dallas player will be No. 1 on the list in 2020. Best bet is Pomykal, assuming he can stay healthy for a full season. I love Pomykal’s game, but I might have been a little rash in my prediction. The smart money for 2020’s No. 1 22 Under 22 finisher is on…
- Brian Rodriguez (LAFC)
I thought about putting Rodriguez in the top tier, but I think he fits “maybe 2020 is the year they make the leap to bona fide star” bill perfectly. Only I wouldn’t say maybe. I’d say 2020 is definitely that year for Rodriguez, who didn’t get on the scoresheet with LAFC but passed the eye test with flying colors. Unlike Rossi, he’s already in the Uruguay national team fold. He’s a star in waiting, and we only have to wait until next season.
- Milton Valenzuela (CLB)
I don’t care that he missed all of 2019, though I am still hugely bummed about that. If Valenzuela is healthy, he might be the best left back in MLS in 2020.
3. They’re Starters Now
Pretty straightforward. If you need it spelled out: these players have earned a starting spot. Congrats, for now. There’s still more to prove.
- Brenden Aaronson (PHI)
What a year it was for the 19-year-old. Goal in his MLS debut in Atlanta, became a starter for a playoff team, got called up to full US men's national team camp. Now, as he told me on the 22 Under 22 Reveal Show, it’s time to add more of the final product.
Eight goals and six assists for an 18-year-old. Hell of a start to his MLS career. Kid’s got good genes.
- Mark McKenzie (PHI)
Hold on, you’re saying. McKenzie didn’t even play 1,000 minutes in 2019. True, but he seized the job next to Jack Elliott in late August and never let go. His grip is so tight, apparently, that the Union traded Auston Trusty. No injuries in 2020, knock on wood!
I’m assuming Colorado plan on giving him every chance to win a starting job given the price tag. Trusty will have to win that job after losing his in Philly. The potential is there, and Robin Fraser is an ideal mentor for the young left-footed central defender.
- Sam Vines (COL)
Rock-solid, 20-year-old Homegrown left back? Every club wishes their academy was producing that player.
4. Not a Starter Yet, But/And…
Stuck somewhere between seldom-used bench player and full-fledged starter. Flirting with 1,000-1,500 minutes. That could change next year! Or it could be a troubling sign. Or just a normal part of development. All depends on the player.
- Danilo Acosta (LA)
- Frankie Amaya (CIN)
- Julian Araujo (LA)
- Theo Bair (VAN)
- Cole Bassett (COL)
- Zachary Brault-Guillard (MTL)
- Gianluca Busio (SKC)
Peter Vermes says Sporting KC are going to bring in new faces on every line. Busio was a contributor for a team that struggled and missed the playoffs last year. Can he be a contributor for a better team with more competition? The potential is there, as the rumored bids from Serie A show.
Caleb Porter pushed him into the lineup in July, and Keita did well for himself. The Crew lost just one of the eight games he started. No shutouts in those games, either. Time to win a starting job full-time. He’ll have lots of competition, it seems.
Same category as last year, with a big uptick in minutes. Still waiting for an opportunity to be a starter. Perhaps it’s arrived with the Fire turnover. Perhaps it will come outside MLS.
This time next year, the hope is we’re talking about Toye in the “Flirting with Stardom” category. Darwin is gone. Looks like Angelo Rodriguez may not be, either. That leaves a lot of minutes for the US youth international, who had games (@ LAFC) in which he looked unstoppable and others in which he was anonymous.
- Brandon Vazquez (CIN)
There ought to be more opportunities in Cincinnati. Can Vazquez take them? He’s still just 21.
5. Cameos, but We Want More
Just a taste, but it lingered. And now we want seconds. Those will probably have to wait until next year, but there’s something here.
A trickle of minutes resulted in a couple moments of magic. Now, if Guillermo Barros Schelotto offers the 17-year-old a steadier stream of opportunities, can he produce as he does with the Mexican youth national teams (ouch) and with Galaxy II? There is magic in that left foot.
Chacon will be an interesting test case. Uruguayans prospects are at the very top of this list. Chacon could be the next on the list, or he could be Josue Colman, Pablo Aranguiz or any of the other South American prospects who just couldn’t settle in MLS. Minnesota’s attack didn’t exactly flow in 2019, now Darwin Quintero is gone. Will his surroundings be conducive to his development? Time to find out.
Only 344 minutes? Still waiting for launch on this one. Conechny isn’t young anymore. Is his chance coming? Will he earn it?
He’s the pride of the Sounders’ academy-Tacoma Defiance pathway. He’s 16 years old, and he played 413 first-team minutes in 2019. More coming next year, you’d think, along with seasoning in the USL Championship. If only VAR hadn’t taken that golazo away…
- John Nelson (DAL)
- Dion Pereira (ATL)
- Josh Perez (LAFC)
- Jacob Shaffelburg (TOR)
- Diedie Traore (LA)
- Peter-Lee Vassell (LAFC)
6. USL Darlings We Could See in MLS Soon
Most, if not all, of their damage has come down a rung. Step by step. Who’s got next?
If Reggie Cannon gets sold…
Still just 19. Just saying.
- Griffin Dorsey (TOR)
- Anthony Fontana (PHI)
- Gilbert Fuentes (SJ)
- Siad Haji (SJ)
- Felipe Hernandez (SKC)
- Mathias Jorgensen (NY)
The young Dane got 117 minutes for the first team, but he banged in 11 goals for Red Bulls II. Can he be 2020’s Brian White? He’ll have to take minutes from White to do it. Tom Barlow, too. Time to take the next developmental step.
Who will be the star of the 2020 GA Cup? It got AOC a first-team deal.
- Ricardo Pepi (DAL)
This is the place to get hyped about a 16-year-old soccer player. Pepi’s earned it, too. He’s scored at every level, including his first pro season with USL League One’s North Texas SC (11 goals in 13 games). Now, let’s just hope he decides to stick with the US youth national team.
More than 1,000 minutes in the USL Championship and three goals for a guy who just turned 17 in September. D.C. United have some nice prospects in the pipeline.
- Ethan Zubak (LA)
Eligible for the list, but not a clean fit for the other six categories. Maybe they’re on loan or headed out of the league. Maybe they’re still just playing academy minutes. To be determined.
- Josue Colman (ORL)
It just didn’t work out, did it?
- Chris Durkin (DC)
Barely more than 100 minutes in Belgium so far. Lots of competition at Sint-Truiden, but clearly some work to do.
Exciting loan back from Barca in theory. Very little to show for it in practice.