Just over a month from now, the US and Canada Under-23 national teams will begin Concacaf qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics sporting rosters teeming with MLS youngsters.
Nobody needs to sell the prestige of making it to the Olympic Games, but there's a lot more for some players to gain by qualifying than a sweet free trip to Japan and the shot at a medal.
The chance to square off against some of the top age-group talents in the world often brings the seasoning and confidence to spur development and possibly fast-track some players' leap to senior national team sides. And while the correlation between international successes and transfer moves is often overblown, shining on the Olympic stage can at least put players on the scouting radar of clubs from Europe's more noteworthy leagues.
Taking part in the Olympic process is practically an evolution ladder on its own, and one that has aided some of the sport's biggest names. So which MLS players from both sides of the International Boundary hold the greatest potential for reaping Olympic benefits? We've got some ideas.
It took over a year for the Minnesota United striker to break out, but he ended his solid second MLS campaign having notched eight goals across all competitions, a pair of Team of the Week nods and a goal on his U-23 debut. While Mason Toye has all sorts of enviable physical and technical talents, scoring at the top levels is often about guile. Matching wits against the likes of Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Spain (all among those already qualified to the Olympics) is about the best way to enhance his craftiness.
Is the FC Dallas talent a lead forward or an underneath runner? We're not quite sure yet, but we do know he's got an eight-goal MLS season and a solid senior team debut under his belt at the tender age of 19. Like Toye, Jesus Ferreira still has only begun to reach his potential. Aces are generally forged by the heat of competition, and the youngster has plenty of that in his club side and ever-improving league. Testing his abilities against a deep U-23 attack pool and then on a big international stage seems a logical next step.
The Colorado Rapids winger is one US U-23 attacker who certainly doesn't lack for cunning in the final third. Jonathan Lewis has already shown brilliant flashes of industry during three MLS seasons as a part-timer and five USMNT caps. Questions do remain about the 22-year-old's consistency and holes in his overall game, though. The Olympics is definitely a great place for blooming attackers to find such answers.
The young playmaker showed a lot of grit and dependability to earn 27 regular season and playoff starts in a crowded, seasoned Philadelphia Union midfield last season. Brenden Aaronson played well enough in those opportunities to finish a fairly close second in the Rookie of the Year balloting and carve out a US senior team debut. Now the Union want him to find ways to lift his end product. Momentarily stepping back to his age level could well help that aim.
Few observers are as high on the Nashville SC midfielder's promise as I am. Derrick Jones can cover tons of ground while destroying opponent rushes and then push the build with pace. He enjoyed a strong U-20 World Cup over in South Korea back in 2017, helping the Baby Nats reach the quarters before being knocked out by eventual finalists Venezuela. A similar showing this summer could only enhance his future outlook.
The Dallas midfielder followed in Jones' footsteps to provide impactful two-play during last year's U-20 World Cup, which also ended with a tough quarterfinal loss to a talented Conmebol side (this time, it was Ecuador that bounced the US). Brandon Servania has steadily been improving since and is another guy that recently earned his first senior cap. The chance to help the US qualify for and excel in this summer's Olympic Games probably couldn't come at a better time in Servania's development.
Remember when we discussed how acquiring guile can raise an attacker's performance ceiling. The same is true for center backs like Mark McKenzie, if not more so. The Philly Union man has definitely experienced some ups and downs during his first two pro seasons, but that's how growing pains work. There aren't many teen starters to be found in the heart of MLS back lines, but McKenzie has been a fast learner. At his best, McKenzie is as smooth at defending as he is at playing out of the back. Consider him among the top candidates to marshal the U-23's defense in Japan.
Honorable mention: Julian Araujo, Jeremy Ebobisse, Justen Glad, David Ochoa, James Sands, Auston Trusty, Brandon Vazquez and Sam Vines.
As with the US list, let's start at the pointy top of the formation and work our way back. The Vancouver Whitecaps striker is the least experienced player on either team's list here, which conceivably makes him the one with the most to gain by a higher education crash course abroad. Theo Bair is already an absolute chore to defend from an athletic standpoint and loaded with verve. Canada will need both of these attributes on generous display in order to escape Concacaf qualification and make some noise in Japan. If he can help them accomplish both these things against tough opposition, the often-timid Whitecaps offense should be much scarier upon his return.
Although the Montreal Impact winger is blessed with top shelf talent, his learning curve has looked more like a roller coaster track thus far. There have been high points along the way to go with periods of apparent stagnation. In past years, Ballou Tabla garnered Canada's Player of the Year prize at both the U-17 and U-20 levels. Following that trend with a strong, hope-inducing showing in Olympic competition this year has the earmarks of a natural and necessary progression.
More than few MLS watchers have opined for a while now that Fraser looks ready for more responsibility in the Toronto FC midfield. With Michael Bradley set to miss the first few months of the 2020 season due to injury, Liam Fraser should finally get the chance to prove that all these people were right. That the Olympic tournament will arrive not long after Bradley is slated to return to the Reds' fold seems rather serendipitous. Fraser should see the chance to gain rhythm and reliability in MLS before jetting off for a well-timed growth experience in Japan.
Canada and Kamal Miller's Orlando City outfit have a very noticeable similarity: the need to raise their game at the defensive end. Both teams would love nothing more than to see the 22-year-old come to the forefront of those respective projects. He can play left back or in the middle with comparable acuity, but the junior Canucks may need him out wide to successfully navigate their way to Japan. Either way, an Olympic run could be invaluable to Miller's still early development.
Honorable mention: Zachary Brault-Guillard, Derek Cornelius, Jacob Shaffelburg and Shamit Shome.