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2022 Youth Series: Top 20 Born In 2004



Series Overview

This is this second article in a series of articles that looks at the landscape of United States eligible youth soccer players. US eligible players have the ability to play for the United States and have not yet been cap-tied at the senior level. This means there will be some players on this list that might surprise you and may never play for the United States, but they could, and isn’t that possibility what makes tracking all of these guys fun?

In this series I will be reporting on players born in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 — the U19 to U15 levels from the 2022 season. The first part of this series will focus on who I grade as the top 20 prospects for the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 class and then it will commence with a youth talent ranking of all the United States MLS clubs, specifically looking at the talent that each club has within their 2003 to 2007 classes. 

Youth Grading Framework

Let’s start by saying it is really difficult to scout and grade youth soccer players and it gets even harder the younger you go, which is why I don’t typically scout players below the U15 level. My grading system consists of three categories: physical profile, technical ability and soccer intelligence / intangibles. There are a lot of sub-categories within each, but I won’t go that deep here. The grades that I give are based on where the player is at relative to their age level, not where I project them to be. With this framework, it’s possible that a player grades out as an elite U17 player, but doesn’t progress in any of the aspects of the game and turns out to be a very average player. 

2004 Class — Top 20

The 2004 class was the class most impacted by the Pandemic. Many players struggled to find competitive games during that period and MLS Next Pro was not yet established in 2021, so many players were either not playing or not playing at the right level. To add to that, this has never been one of the most talented groups, but like most groups, there are players emerging as very good prospects. This group, like the 2003s, are eligible for the U20 World Cup next summer. Additionally, many of these players were on the U20 team that won the Concacaf tournament that qualified the United States for both the 2023 U20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. This is a class that is very deep with high end Goalkeeping talent, it won’t surprise many to find that the #1 prospect is a keeper that was recently sold for 10M+ to Chelsea. It’s also a class deep with center-back talent. There might not be a ton of stars that come from this last, but there are a decent amount of exciting lottery tickets that could become USMNT/European players.

#1 | GK, Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, Chicago Fire (Chelsea FC)

Gaga Slonina is a Chicago Fire Academy product and Polish-American who recently committed his allegiance to the United States of America. Gaga also recently became the first player from the 2004 class to ink a professional contract to a big European club. He recently signed with London giant, Chelsea, where he will be considered their Goalkeeper of the future. As part of that deal Gaga was loaned back to Chicago for the remainder of the 2022 season and is planning to join Chelsea in January of 2023, though it is possible he could return to Chicago on another season long loan for the 2023 season. Expect Gaga to go on loans for the next several seasons as he works his way up the competitive ranks. Remember that Gaga is only 18 years old and is in his first full season as a starter. Starting in any professional league as an 18 year old is unheard of, which speaks to Gaga’s maturity and ability. Gaga was not released by Chicago for the Concacaf U20 championships, but would have certainly been the preferred #1 keeper for that team. We will see if he is released for the U20 World Cup next summer. 

What makes him special? 

Gaga is a very well rounded keeper, especially at his age, but I think what makes Gaga special is his mentality and work ethic. For a keeper of his age to earn the trust of his manager to start says a lot about Gaga as a player and a person. All reports indicate that he is a great leader, an incredibly hard worker and someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to be the best. A good example of his mentality came during the middle part of this season when he was in a really bad stretch of form. For most young players, that could have really spiraled, but Gaga worked through it and regained his good form and has been playing well not for the last month or two. That says a lot about his mental toughness. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

There are a few key areas for improvement for Gaga, first I think he can get a little more consistent with his long range passing. It’s very good for his age, but it can be better. Second, his consistency and focus. During that bad stretch of form there were some goals that can just never get past a professional keeper. As he gets older and gains more experience, that stuff will smoothen out. 

#2 | LB/LW, Caleb Wiley, Atlanta United 

Caleb Wiley started his Academy career at DDYSC Wolves and moved to the Atlanta Academy in 2016. He signed his homegrown deal in January of this year and is in his first season as a professional and it has been a pretty impressive debut season for Caleb. At the beginning of the season it looked like Caleb would be a key sub playing mostly as a left-winger, but he was then injured for some time and when he came back, starting left-back Andrew Gutman was injured and Caleb has been the left-wingback starter ever since. He is one of, if not the youngest consistent starter in MLS this season he has really held his own. It is worth mentioning that Caleb was born in December of 2004, so he is almost a 2005. He has made some mistakes, but the positives have outshined the negatives, especially as an attacking player comfortable getting up and down the left sideline and he has the propensity to cut in and initiate attacks in the half space. Caleb would have been one of the favorites to start at left-back for the US U20 team at the Concacaf U20 Championships, but because Atlanta was so depleted with injuries, he was not released. Mikey Varas and company will hope Caleb can be released for the U20 World Cup, but his role may be too critical to Atlanta next summer. 

What makes him special? 

Caleb is a player that does almost everything at an above average level, but does not have any elite aspects to his game at this time. His well-rounded game speaks to why he is having good success in the MLS at such a young age. He has a very good physical profile for a full-back. He is physical and willing defensively. He is very good on the ball, not an elite ball manipulator but very controlled. Has shown high level passing ability and moves really well without the ball. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

I’d like to see Caleb become a bit more aware and instinctual defensively and to become a more consistent crosser. He has some great crosses but he also too often delivers errant crosses

#3 | CB, Brandan Craig, Philadelphia Union

Brandan Craig is a Philadelphia Academy product through and through. He signed his homegrown deal in January of 2021 and unfortunately dealt with injuries last year. This year he has been healthy and playing with Philly 2 in MLS Next Pro. He is currently the third center-back on the Philly depth chart behind potentially the best pairing in MLS. Brandan is close but probably not quite ready for a key MLS role — I think he is 1-2 years out before being ready. As the third CB, he is one injury or suspension away from getting MLS minutes and I think that is a good position for him to be in right now. If Philly were to bring in a more experienced third center-back next season, which they very well could, I could see a loan to a USL club being a great next step in his career. On the Youth National Team side of things Brandan was the starting left center-back for the US U20 team that won the Concacaf U20 Championship and Brandan played really well. I would expect him to be one of the favorites to start at the U20 World Cup in 2023. 

What makes him special? 

This one is pretty easy because Brandan Craig is probably the best passing center-back in the entire youth pool and potentially of any US-eligible center-back not named John Brooks, or maybe Tim Ream. Brandan is truly an elite passer and he can do it in a number of different ways. He can break lines through driven passes on the ground, he can drive a long diagonal and he can whip in a bender from a set piece. He can also hit freekicks really well, a pretty rare thing for a center-back. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The knock on Brandan has always been his physical strength, but he did put on some good weight this past year, especially in his lower half and that strength has paid off. He still has more weight to put on and he likely will as he continues to develop. Once he adds that, he will be pro ready and will be a truly exciting center-back prospect. 

#4 | GK, Chris Brady, Chicago Fire

Chris Brady is the second Chicago Fire goalkeeper on this list and is the likely successor to Gaga Slonina once he leaves for Chelsea. Chris is a Chicago Academy product that signed his homegrown deal in 2020. This year, Chris has been the starting keeper for Fire 2 when he has been available. Chris was the number one keeper for the US U20 team that won the Concacaf U20 Championship and while he did not have a ton to do for the majority of the tournament, he was very solid. It’s very exciting that Chicago just sold an 18 year old keeper to Chelsea and have another elite keeper prospect to slot in when the time comes. 

What makes him special? 

Chris is big and very athletic with good reactions which makes him a very good shot stopper. In fact, for most of his youth career he was thought of as the better shot stopper in comparison to Gaga Slonina, who is a very good shot stopper at his age.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Chris has worked hard to improve his ball playing skills, but you can see at times during the U20 Championships that he still has a ways to go with his touch and initiating play from the back. 

#5 | SS, Quinn Sullivan, Philadelphia Union

Quinn is another Philadelphia Union Academy product that signed a homegrown deal in January of 2021 and is in the middle of his second season with the first team. Quinn is a German-American that has only represented the United States. Quinn has been a consistently used sub for one of the top teams in MLS and recently scored his first goal of the season. He was also part of the U20 Concacaf Championship team and scored a ton of goals in that tournament. The big question for Quinn right now is, “what is his best position”. He has played as an 8, 10, winger and striker. I rate him as a second striker type. I don’t think he profiles well as a box to box midfielder because I don’t think he really does the work defensively for that position. I can definitely see him as a box arriving 10, but I am not sure I love his passing enough to keep him there. I don’t think he has the ball manipulation ability to be a dynamic winger and his best attribute is his work in the final third, so I am going with second striker. 

What makes him special? 

As mentioned above, Quinn has a goal-scorer’s mentality. He strikes the ball well with both feet and is fairly quick to get shots off. He is very confident and audacious in the final third and that is why I want to keep him high up the pitch. He doesn’t quite have the physicality yet to be the lone striker, but he could get there. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

I really like Quinn’s aggressiveness in the final third but sometimes his decision making is questionable. He doesn’t always make the right decision on when to try to combine, when to try and slide in the final pass and when to shoot. The instinct is to shoot, which is why to me, he is a striker, but oftentimes he leaves a better play on the table. 

#6 | RCB, Tony Leone, LAFC

Tony Leone is a Mexican-American who has not played with the United States since February 2020 at the U17 level. He has been playing with the Mexico U20s during this latest cycle for that level and played with Mexico at the Concacaf U20 Championships. It’s not looking great from a United States perspective, but with Mexico out of the U20 World Cup and the Olympics, the next opportunity to play in a competitive tournament will be at the senior level, so there is time for the USSF to recruit. At the club level, Tony Leone came up through the LAFC Academy and signed a homegrown contract in 2020. The last two seasons he has played in the USL for LAFCs affiliate club, Las Vegas Lights. Tony has been a regular at primarily center-back but he has also played some games as a right-back. LAFC has the deepest roster in the MLS and is also extremely deep at center-back, which makes you wonder if Tony will look to go elsewhere when his homegrown deal is up.

What makes him special? 

Tony is pretty fluid and physical defensively, he is a very instinctual defender and he is also an excellent passer. I’ve watched a few of his games when he played right-back for Las Vegas and he actually looks pretty good. He is an excellent crosser and has more ball manipulation ability than most center-backs at his age.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Tony is tall enough to play center-back at 6-0, but it’s not an ideal height and it can lead to challenges in the air. His ideal position right now is a RCB in a three center-back formation because it diminishes his lack of ideal height and promotes his ability in space and his ability on the ball. If Tony does not grow, he’ll need to continue to get stronger and more explosive to make up for that. 

#7 | GK, Jeff Dewsnup, Real Salt Lake

Jeff Dewsnup is another very high upside goalkeeper from this class. Jeff is a RSL Academy Product who signed his homegrown deal in January of 2021. Jeff played a lot for the Real Monarchs in USL in 2021 and had a very good season for a young keeper. Unfortunately Jeff has not played any competitive minutes this year due to an injury. He would have likely been in play to be the #2 keeper for RSL this year or the Real Monarchs starting keeper in MLS Next Pro if healthy. He also would have been competing for the U20 starting keeper spot. Hopefully Jeff regains fitness and can come back and have a strong 2023 season. With David Ochoa gone, he is the keeper of the future for RSL. 

What makes him special? 

Jeff is a super well rounded keeper. He has good size, athleticism and positioning in the box. He is also good with his feet for his age.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

At times, I saw Jeff make some questionable decisions when deciding to leave the goal mouth to punch or high point a ball which led to some messy situations. This is something that should get cleaned up with more minutes. 

#8 | CM, Owen Wolff, Austin FC

Owen Wolff is having a little bit of a breakout season in his second professional season with Austin FC. Owen is the son of Austin’s manager, Josh Wolff and brother of Tyler Wolff, Atlanta’s homegrown attacker who is on loan in the second tier in Belgium. Owen started in Columbus’ Academy, then went to the Atlanta Academy before joining Austin’s Academy and becoming their first ever homegrown in September 2021. His professional contract was not at the hands of nepotism — Owen is a very good player who has received almost 1000 minutes so far this season. Owen has not yet played with the US U20s, but has been to a U19 camp and played in a friendly for the U19s, but he could be a player that Mikey gives a look between now and the U20 World Cup next summer. Owen was born on December 30, 2004 — so he is very close to being part of the 2005 class. 

What makes him special? 

Owen is a very well rounded player that is stout physically, very clean technically and has a very strong understanding of his role and what is going on in the game. My favorite aspect of Owen’s game is both his vision and his ability to execute a variety of passes through the heart of the defense and in the half spaces sending early crosses in. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

As is the case with a lot of young players that are playing at the senior level at a young age, Owen needs to continue to find ways to get more involved in games consistently. I have seen numerous occasions where Owen disappears and struggles to get on the ball. He has the skill to impact games, but he needs to assert himself a bit more to be able to do it. 

#9 | WING, Luca Koleosho, RCD Espanyol B

Luca Koleosho is a Canadian-American and next to Chituru Odunze, goalkeeper at Leicester, probably the most talented Canadian-American player that has an international allegiance decision to make. Luca has participated in a United States U20 camp and a senior camp for Canada and he has openly said that he has yet to make his decision. Because Luca did not play for Canada in the recent Concacaf U20 Championships, he is still eligible to play for the United States. And because Canada did not qualify for the U20 World Cup, the United States can still provide him the opportunity to play at the U20 level. Luca started his Academy career with the Manhattan Kickers before moving to Spain to join the Espanyol Academy. Luca has moved through the Academy system successfully and earned both his Espanyol B and Espanyol first team debut last season. This preseason he trained with the senior team and has been assigned to the B team, but it is possible that he gets some senior minutes at some point this season. 

What makes him special? 

Luca is an attack minded winger that has loads of pace. He is a strong and compact player that has good balance through contact and a very aggressive style. He isn’t a super creative ball manipulator, but more of a player that takes good angles and smart touches to beat his defender.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Like most young wingers, Luca’s biggest area of improvement is his final product. He does well to beat defenders, but oftentimes his final pass or final strike can leave you wanting. 

#10 | WING, Dantouma Toure, Colorado Rapids

Dantouma “Yaya” Toure is a Guinean-American who started at the Player Development Academy before moving to the New York Red Bulls Academy. Colorado signed Yaya to a homegrown deal from the NYRB Academy in March 2021. Yaya has developed nicely while at Colorado and is having a very encouraging year. He has played mostly with Colorado 2 in MLS Next Pro where he has 9 goals and 4 assists. He also scored his first senior team goal recently with the Rapids. Yaya has not been invited to a United States Youth National Camp since the U17 level, but he has to be catching the eyes of the U19 and U20 staff and I would expect him to get a look in the next 6 months or so. Yaya can play both wing positions and can also play as a second-striker. 

What makes him special? 

Yaya has very good short area quickness and he has very good ball control with the ability to manipulate the ball in a variety of ways. This year he seems to have tightened up his final third execution as well.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

There are two areas I would like to see Yaya improve in the coming years: first, I’d like to see him improve in how he connects with his striker and moves and reads the game off of him. I would also like to see him continue to add strength so that he doesn’t have to purely rely on blowing by people, but can also keep his balance and control through contact. 

#11 | CM, Rokas Pukstas, HNK Hajduk Split

Rokas Pukstas is a Lithuanian-American who started his academy career with Sporting KC before moving to the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona. From there he signed a deal with Croatian giant Hajduk Split. Rokas made his first team debut last season with Split and should get a bigger role with the senior team this year. He has yet to feature for the club, likely because he is still rehabbing the injury he picked up during the Concacaf U20 Championships. During that tournament, Rokas played as a defensive- midfielder even though his more natural position is that of a box to box midfielder. Like many 6s, they usually start as 8s and move their way back. For the most part Rokas played very well during that tournament, especially in counterpress moments and winning the ball back before the opposing team could threaten the US backline. 

What makes him special? 

Rokas is an athletic midfielder that plays with a fearlessness and aggressiveness that is very fun to watch. He times his tackles really well and is unafraid to get stuck in. The move to a more defensive midfielder made a ton of sense and was a smart move by Mikey to add some movement to the midfield. Rokas is also very good in the air. I made a comment during the U20 Championships that he is kind of like a young Weston McKennie in that he wins a ton of balls in the air on set pieces and it sort of catches the defense by surprise. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The most glaring weakness in Pukstas’ game is his ball progression. It starts before he receives the ball and was something that got him in trouble during that tournament. He wasn’t always checking his shoulders to see where the danger was coming from so he either didn’t turn away from pressure or did not one time pass back to the center-back to avoid danger. From there, his half turn is okay, but could be better and his ball control and progressive passing can all be improved. The defensive part of his game is sound, but improved ball progression can make him a very exciting prospect. 

#12 | RCB, Kobi Henry, Stade Reims B

Kobi Henry started with the Orlando City Academy before moving to the Inter Miami Academy and from there signed with Orange County SC. He and Jonathan Gomez were really the first two big time prospects to leave MLS academies to sign a professional contract with a USL club and then get a move to a club from one of the top five leagues in Europe. Kobi was a part time starter for OCSC in 2021 and was mostly a full-time starter at the beginning of 2022 before signing a contract with State Reims after he turned 18. He signed a contract until 2027 and is starting out with the reserve team. Kobi has also been a consistent call up to the U20 camps over the last year, but he was not selected to the Concacaf U20 Championship roster. I heard he had a really poor camp and that hurt his stock with Mikey. He was recently called to a U19 camp. Kobi is a player to be very patient with. He has a lot of ability, but a lot of development is needed before he will be anywhere ready to play in Ligue 1 at center-back. 

What makes him special? 

Kobi has a really nice profile for the modern day center-back. He has a nice combo of size and mobility which make him effective in 1v1 duels, both on the ground and in the air. He has an above average touch and he is an ambitious passer, albeit inaccurate at times.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

There are two big areas of development for Kobi and I mentioned the first above. While he can pull off really nice line breaking passes and long diagonals at times, he is pretty inconsistent and needs to develop more accuracy on his long range passes. Additionally, his off ball awareness and instincts need to improve. He can get call ball watching and can also make some very questionable decisions that lead to big chances or big mistakes. As a center-back, that is priority number one to get fixed. If you can’t be trusted, you won’t play at a high level. 

#13 | CF, Darren Yapi, Colorado Rapids

Darren Yapi is an Ivorian-American who has been developed within the Colorado Rapids Academy system. He signed his homegrown deal in March of 2021, but has mostly played at the USL and MLS Next Pro level. Darren has received minimal minutes with Colorado this season and has scored five goals with Rapids 2. Darren has represented the United States at the U17 level, but has not yet been invited to a U19 or U20 camp. His omission from these camps are surprising to me because the U20 team does not have a true number 9 and Yapi is a quality player that could fill that role. 

What makes him special? 

Darren has a great combination of size (6-1) of size and short area quickness that is ideal for the number 9 position and he is very comfortable with the ball at his feet, a trait that is fairly uncommon with young strikers. His ball control ability stands out the most to me in his combination and hold up play. He provides a strong target and is comfortable dropping deep into the midfield to help build up play and spring attacks. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

I would like to see Darren more consistently offer dynamic runs in the box. In general, I’d like to see him assert his presence in the box more and create more chances for himself and others. 

#14 | CM, Zach Booth, Leicester City U18

Zach Booth is an Italian-American and the brother of Taylor Booth, midfielder for Eredivisie side Utrecht. Zach started his academy career at Real Salt Lake before moving to Leicester in 2020. He signed an extension with Leicecster earlier this year after playing very little after recovering from injury. That confidence from Leicester, even after not playing for a long period of time, speaks to how highly they think of his ability. Zach will likely split time this season between the U18 and U21 teams, just as he did towards the end of last season. I think Zach will play one or two more seasons within the reserve teams at Leicester before getting an opportunity to go out on loan to get his professional career underway. Remember, senior minutes come later in Europe than they do in the United States. Zach last represented the United States at the U17 level and has not yet joined a U20 camp. If Zach gets off to a good start and stays healthy, he has the upside to climb this list and become a factor in the U20 midfield before the 2023 World Cup. 

What makes him special? 

Zach is a true box to box midfielder with very good technical ability and above average quickness. He uses both his ball control and burst to get by people through the center of the pitch. My favorite part of Zach’s game is his passing ability and how he is able to be accurate and confident with both feet.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The biggest thing for Zach right now is to get minutes and stay healthy. He needs to have a season where he can develop on the pitch and not get sidelines for long periods of time like last season. 

#15 | RB, Alex Freeman, Orlando City

Alex Freeman started his academy career at Weston, a notable Florida club that has fed a ton of big time talent to Orlando, Inter Miami and to Europe. Alex moved from Weston to Orlando City in 2020 and signed his homegrown deal with Orlando City at the beginning of this year. Alex is a former winger that has been converted to right-back, with a similar high upside profile to Bryan Reynolds. Alex has played in two friendlies for the United States U19 team. I think Alex has been underrated by USSF and Orlando City. I rate him higher than fellow Orlando RB and US U20 player, Michael Holliday. Alex will likely be competing with Halliday to be the RB of the future for Orlando and I’d bet over time, if Alex puts the work in, he wins that battle. 

What makes him special? 

Alex is a supremely gifted attacker with explosiveness, long speed and good ball manipulation skills. He is a very good 1v1 attacker and also has the ability to drive in a good cross. It’s easy to see the former winger in him as he has the ability to go on long runs with the ball at his feet.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Alex is still a bit raw and is adjusting to his position switch, which is completely understandable. His biggest areas of improvement are both in his offensive and defensive decision making. Offensively, he can make things happen, but too often he does not release the ball at the right time or make the right read/pass. Defensively, he can get lost off of the ball and commits fouls at times when a hard challenge isn’t needed in a dangerous spot. 

#16 | GK, Antonio Carrera, FC Dallas

Antonio Carrera is a Mexican-American and the brother of Nico Carrera who is a center-back for 2. Bundesliga club Holstein Kiel. Nico played on the United States U17 World Cup team. Antonio, like his brother, is a FC Dallas Academy product and he signed his homegrown deal in February 2022. Antonio is also the starting keeper for North Texas, Dallas’ MLS Next Pro affiliate team. Antonio is the fourth keeper to make the top 20 list for the 2004 group. He is someone that has shown a lot of improvement and development over the last couple of years. Antonio was the #2 keeper behind Chris Brady for the Concacaf U20 World Cup. 

What makes him special? 

Antonio has a lot of great tools to work with as a goalkeeper. He has pretty good size and his reaction time is strong and he has pretty consistent positioning. He is flexible and can get down on shots below his waist well. Additionally, he is advanced with the ball at his feet, possessing good touch and accuracy as a passer.

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The area in which I would like to see Antonio improve upon is his box control. He does not always stand out as a dominating figure in the box. He can get lost a bit in the chaos, most notably on set pieces when deciding whether to leave the goal mouth for a punch or high pointing for a catch, 

#17 | AM, Jackson Hopkins, DC United

Jackson Hopkins started out with the NYRB Academy before moving to DCs Academy in 2021. He was all but on his way to the University of Virginia before DC decided to sign him to a homegrown deal this year. Since that time Jackson has played quite a bit for DC United’s first team, playing mostly as right-side attacking-midfielder/tucked-in winger. He has experience playing as a 9, 10, 8 and right-winger. Jackson was the last man selected to the Concacaf U20 Championship team after they found out that Obed Vargas was not going to be able to play due to injury. Jackson didn’t play a ton in the tournament, but played pretty well in the final. 

What makes him special? 

Jackson is a big kid that controls the ball pretty well and he has a good understanding of the game. I’ve been really impressed with the power and accuracy of his long range passing, especially when he is crossing in a bending ball from wide areas. He tallied his first career assist for DC United on a set piece after delivering a really nice ball in. He also showed that ability when he was with the U20s.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Jackson has played a lot of positions and there is value in that, but I really can’t decide what position suits him best long term. He has the body of a striker. He is an average athlete from a movement standpoint, so a box to box midfielder isn’t a great solution for him. His crossing is really valuable, but he isn’t a player that is going to stretch the defense out wide or beat people 1v1 off the dribble often, so I wouldn’t focus him at winger either. That leaves attacking-mid where his average quickness isn’t as much of an issue and his soccer IQ and passing can be maximized. He does dribble well in tight spaces which I think also aligns well with what you need out of a 10. 

#18 | LB, Noah Allen, Inter Miami

Noah Allen is a Greek-American and is another Florida product that started at the Weston Academy. This is a trend that you will get used to hearing throughout this series. Noah moved from Weston to IMCF in 2019 and signed his homegrown deal in February of this year. Noah played full time with Fort Lauderdale and had a great season and was rewarded with early playing time with the first team in 2022. He has not played a ton with Miami as of late, but he is well placed to be their LB of the future. The current U20 pool has a bevy of LB talent: Jonathan Gomez, Caleb Wiley and even Kevin Paredes can play there, but because all of these players were not available for the Concacaf U20 Championship, Noah Allen was called in as the only true LB player for the team. Noah didn’t start all of the games, but he played a key role for the Championship team. 

What makes him special? 

Noah is a speedy left-back that flies up and down the wide areas of the pitch. He is adept at providing overlapping runs and getting crosses into the mouth of the goal. His speed and tenacity also show up on the defensive side of the ball where he is a good 1v1 defender. His overall work rate and hustle really standout defensively.    

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

There isn’t a lot of creativity to Noah’s game at the moment. He does not have a lot in his bag to beat players 1v1 convincingly to help him create big chances for himself or his teammates. Right now he wins with speed and his intention with the ball is to get crosses in. Nowadays full-backs are expected to contribute a lot on the offensive side of things and Noah will need to add some things to his game to be able to reach high levels of competition. 

#19 | LCB, Thomas Williams, Orlando City

Thomas Williams is a left-footed center-back that has come up through the Orlando City Academy. He was signed to a homegrown deal in January of 2021. He did not play with Orlando’s first time last year but has received some opportunities this year. He started an Open Cup game and played well and then got a chance to start a MLS league game and struggled. For the most part he has started for Orlando City B in MLS Next Pro. On the National Team side of things, Thomas has been invited to some U20 camps and has played in some closed door friendlies. He has also played for the U19s. I thought Thomas had an outside chance of making the U20 roster because he was the only viable option, outside of Casey Walls, that is naturally left-footed. I think Thomas is a player that could bloom late and become a USMNT level player at some point in his career. He reminds me of Auston Trusty a little bit. 

What makes him special? 

The size, strength, skill on the ball from the left-foot is a really great foundation to work from for a center-back. That combo does not grow on trees and for that Thomas will have the interests of sporting directors, managers and scouts for a long while.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

As is the case with a lot of young center-backs, Thomas has a ways to go when it comes to sound positioning, awareness and having the instinct to snuff out danger and be in the right spots at the right time. This is the type of thing that comes with experience, focus and good coaching. 

#20 | CB, Jaziel Orozco, Real Salt Lake

The last player on the 2004 list is undersized center-back and Mexican-American Jaziel Orozco. Jaziel is a Real Salt Lake Academy product that was signed to a homegrown deal in January of this year. Jaziel made his pro debut earlier this year and received a run of four consecutive starts in place of an injured starting center-back and he did really well in that brief stint. He had one really poor game and three solid games. Jaziel was another player that was right on the fringes of making the Concacaf U20 Championship roster, but was beat out by Marcus Ferkranus. Jaziel size may lead to a position switch at some point, but his soccer intelligence and skill help him make up for the lack of size right now. 

What makes him special? 

As mentioned above, Jaziel has advanced instinct and intelligence for his age which is why he is still playing as a center-back and able to make up for his lack of height. Jaziel also possess comfortability on the ball and he has good range and accuracy as a passer. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Jaziel is likely destined to be a defensive midfielder in order to reach his highest potential and the highest possible level of competition. At well under 6-0, there just aren’t a lot of center-back success stories. His movement skills are average, but with his above average soccer IQ and passing ability he should be able to transition to the 6 pretty well.  

Honorable Mentions

WING, Korede Osundina, Orange County / DM, Efrain Moralez, Atlanta United / ST, Malick Sanogo, Union Berlin U19 / RB, Devan Tanton, Fulham U18 / AM, Evan Rotundo, FC Schalke U19 / CB, Anrie Chase, Stuttgart II / LB, Jackson Travis, Colorado Rapids / ST, Damion Downs, FC Köln U19 / ST, Federico Oliva, Atletico Madrid U19 

2003 Class Top 20 Rankings >>> 


Pedro Soma is bringing Ginga flair to the USMNT



Last weekend, all hope seemed lost for the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team in Guatemala City when they trailed Mexico 2-0 in the second half of their regional final clash. But in one moment, faith was restored. A corner kick met the head of 16-year-old Pedro Soma, who towered over the opposing defender, and the ball flew into the net at the back post with impressive power and accuracy. While the Baby Nats couldn’t complete the comeback and ultimately had to settle for a silver medal, Soma was the star of the tournament, and it was something of a coming-out party for the young midfielder from Coconut Creek, Florida.

The son of a Brazilian mother, Pedro already had a soccer ball at his feet by the time he was 18 months old. His love for the sport was passed on directly from his parents, and growing up surrounded by soccer helped him get an early start.

“I started playing soccer when I was one-and-a-half years old,” Soma told us last week in an exclusive interview via video call. “When I was six or seven, I joined a team called Boca United, now called South Florida Football Academy.”

Pedro, or Pedrinho, as he is also known, was born in the suburbs of Boca Raton and spent his early years playing in that city. The rich soccer culture in South Florida created many opportunities to compete against fierce competition, with a number of strong academies located in the area. In October of 2018, though, a new opportunity presented itself.

“There was a student exchange program in Barcelona, so I moved there in 2018,” says Soma. “I played there for two years, and then Cornellà scouted me. I was able to go to Cornellà, and now it is my third season there.”

UE Cornellà is a small third-division club located just a short fifteen-minute drive west of the famous Camp Nou. It is known for its development and has produced players such as Jordi Alba, Keita Baldé, and Victor Ruiz.

“I’m really enjoying it, it’s one of the top teams in Catalunya. It is a great environment there. There are hundreds of teams [in Catalunya], you always play against Barcelona, Espanyol, Girona… Cornellà is always right there with those teams in contention to win the leagues. It’s really exciting to be playing overseas, barely any kids get to do that.”

While very few teenage Americans have the opportunity to hone their skills in Europe before they are 16, the city of Barcelona has the anomaly of currently being home to three talented U.S. youth internationals. In addition to Soma at Cornellà, both Adrian Gill and Diego Kochen are currently playing for FC Barcelona’s famed academy, La Masia. Soma describes Kochen, a fellow Floridian who is now the backup goalkeeper for Barça B, as his best friend and added that having those two other Americans living nearby has been beneficial for him.

Cornellà is not the end goal for the top players that come through the Academy. Its youth system has traditionally served as a feeder for bigger clubs in Cataluyna and adjacent regions. La Liga mainstays like Valencia and Villarreal often look for talent in clubs like Cornellà, in addition to Barcelona-based teams like FC Barcelona and Espanyol. For Pedro, a move to a club like that is the eventual next step.

“Absolutely, that is a great thing that would happen. Right now, I’m focused on the U.S. and Cornellà and getting the best out of every single game.”

Saying that he has made the most of his opportunities would be an understatement. Pedro received his first USYNT call-up last January (with what he called an “unexpected” email) and hasn’t looked back since. He was a standout in his first camp and on a trip to South America in March, which earned him a recall for the UEFA Development Tournament in May. Soma was one of the best players on the field as the U.S. cruised past Belgium 3-0 and then soundly defeated Portugal 2-1.

“Pedro has been exceptional,” says U-17 Men’s National Team head coach Gonzalo Segares. “We’ve seen him grow throughout this whole process; he’s become a role model and a leader of this group, not only with his behavior off the field but also on the field with his professionalism and approach.”

An excellent cycle resulted in a call-up to the CONCACAF U-17 Championship in Guatemala last month. The U.S. coasted through the group stage, defeating Barbados, Trinidad, and Canada, and advanced to the knockout stages. Soma was a rock in the midfield as they defeated the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Canada, securing qualification for the U-17 World Cup in Peru later this year. Soma was, by almost all accounts, the standout player of the competition as he showed incredible technical and physical proficiency throughout the U.S.’ run to the final.

Segares added that Pedro is “someone that is very good in aerial duels, good in tackles, very comfortable under pressure… whenever teams decide to press us high, he recognizes where the pressure is coming from, and where he can find our outlets. He had a very strong tournament.”

Soma’s defensive prowess and passing range make him a perfect fit for the #6 position in the way the U.S. wants to play, but he is also capable of playing as a #8 slightly further up the field. Pedro says that he views former USMNT captain Michael Bradley as a role model, and alongside Xavi and Iniesta, he outlined Brazil’s Casemiro as one of his favorite players.

“People say that I have the Brazilian Ginga,” Soma said with a smile. “Maybe I was just born with it, I love to play, and it comes out naturally.”

With the CONCACAF Championship now firmly in the rear-view mirror, it’s now back to Cornellà for the rest of 2023, building up to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in the Fall. While the Final in Guatemala didn’t go as hoped, it should be said that the sky is still the limit when the U-17s travel to Peru to compete on the global stage.

“This is a really, really good group,” Soma stated. “There are a lot of top guys who aren’t even with this team [in Guatemala]. We could do some really good stuff in the World Cup… Anything is possible.”

The strength of the 2006 age group that competed in Guatemala last month makes it only more impressive that Soma was able to stand out in the way that he did. For most USMNT fans, it was the first time they were introduced to his game. It almost certainly won’t be the last. Soma will be 20 years old when the senior men’s World Cup comes to the United States in 2026, and he relishes the opportunity to compete for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to play in the world’s most prestigious sporting event on home soil.

“[2026] is an opportunity for us to win it all,” Soma says. “Being there is a goal, it’s an objective. I have three years to work towards that. Every single game matters until that point, I need to give it my all to see if I can make that team.”

Between now and then, there’s lots of work to do. But if Pedrinho continues on his current trajectory, there’s no doubt he’ll be a key part of the bright future that exists for U.S. Soccer in 2026 and beyond.

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2022: Year in Review




2022 Ended for the Americans with a painful knockout loss to Holland 3-1. The young team had shown well in the Group stage. While they were unable to close out the Wales match due to a defensive error providing a game-tying penalty, they showed well against England and earned a victory in a must-win over Iran to enter the knockout tournament. The USMNT were the only CONCACAF side to move out of the group stage.

There are a lot of mixed feelings from fans, as many believed this to be the most talented group that the US has brought to a tournament and that the opportunities were available in the Holland match to draw or win that game near the end of regulation. The lack of Brendan Aaronson and Gio Reyna minutes brought a lot of tense feedback from fans. 

After the exit, more controversy rose as US Coach Gregg Berhalter’s comments, thought to be off the record, were released about Gio Reyna. Fans mixed feelings about the manager already well documented over the last few years will make for an interesting 2023 as USSF and Berhalter decide what their next steps are.  

The young core of this American side will be in their prime in 2026 at home for the next World Cup. They no longer will have to qualify as they host the event. They will lose very few contributors to qualifying or their experience in Qatar as they determine who to include for 2026. This provides a great opportunity to build over the next four years on top of the team’s confidence and core that has developed in a really strong core. 

The Team 

A shout to the contributors of 2022 to, here’s my favorite contribution from each writer.
Marcus Chairez filled a mountain of a gap with a little support from Alex Calabrese and Chris from Football Report to keep us informed on the YNT up-and-coming stars all year long.
Daniel Smith’s Luca de la Torre piece getting a RT from none other than Luca himself. The timing of Daniel’s analysis was incredible as shortly after LDLT began to be included in Gregg’s side. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

Consistent entries from Patrick Keeler, Chris Kerr, Benton Newman and Nicholas Carr helped keep us updated on happenings and players like Gio Reyna and the upcoming Josh Wynder. The ever-consistent annual entry from Grace Ott was finally rewarded with an MLS CCL finals winner. 
We welcome some new entries including Thomas Deschaine’s incredible historic and data-driven contributions to the USMNT. Tom Byer is doing incredible work in Japan and for the Houston Dynamo – definitely, one to watch as he works to transform the game domestically from the cradle to the pitch. Great work from Josh Hertz and Karun Sagar with debuts to   

Patrick Keeler:

Alex Calabrese:

Daniel Smith:

Chris Kerr:

Tom Byer:

Josh Hertz:

Karun Sagar:

Chris from Football Report:

Nicholas Carr:

Grace Ott:


The march begins a new to 2026. The core group now has World Cup experience, they’ve won, and they’ve advanced to the knockout stage. The next step in their development is ahead and it could be as early as December’s transfer window that might have an impact on the USMNT and the upcoming stars who have aspirations to join this group. 

The belief continues to grow in this youthful side, and that belief is spreading to the next generation. Those who hope to follow in these great young Americans’ footsteps in the world’s top leagues and top clubs. Can they be the depth to rest some of our players in the group stage that we desperately lacked? 

There is much to look forward to as early as next year as the next young Americans’ quest for glory. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your’s!  

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MLS 2022 — American U21 Impact Rankings — Season Wrap Up



At a high level, this was a down year for high impact American U21s in MLS, especially compared to last year. A lot of the big time prospects moved abroad or had a down year, but there were still some great seasons to highlight and some players that are likely to get a move abroad. Additionally, there are signs that next year we could see a bounceback in impact as there were some emerging performances at the end of the season. 

#1 | LB, John Tolkin, New York Red Bulls (2002)

Minutes: 2744
G+: 0.35
G+A / 90: 0.14
xGA / 90: 0.13
Goals: 1
Assists: 3

John takes home the number one spot after an incredibly productive and consistent 2022 season. He was one of the best left-backs in MLS.  John was at or near the top of this list the entire season and he was an iron man for the Red Bulls, starting 31 of 34 games and logging over 2700 minutes, good for third most minutes of eligible players behind Gaga Slonina and Leon Flach. 

This was John’s second season as a starter and he improved his goal contributions from 2 to 4, logging 1 goal and 3 assists, right in line with his expected numbers. John does not get on the ball as much as other full-backs in different systems, but he has the ball playing ability to play in a more possession heavy system. John finished the year with a positive G+ at 0.35. I was surprised to see that he scored negatively in both dribbling and passing, areas I think he is strong in based on what I see. Perhaps this is due to him not getting on the ball that much? He takes crosses for NYRB and does a good job with them. He is clearly a good passer. He scored positively in fouling, receiving and shooting. He does strike the ball very cleanly. 

John has one more year of eligibility on this list and if he stays in the MLS he would be a favorite to top this list again next year. If I had to guess, I would say John is going to get a move abroad in January. I don’t think he has much left to prove in MLS and I think a different system would be good for his development. There is reported interest and I would expect the time is now. On the National team side of things, John seemed close to getting a chance with the USMNT, but ran out of time. With the backup left-back spot still unresolved, John may start getting considerable looks after the World Cup. In the meantime, he is eligible for the U23 Olympic team and is the favorite to start for that group. 

#2 | GK, Gaga Slonina, Chicago Fire (2004)

Minutes: 2790
G+: -0.92
GA / 90: 1.41
PSxG +/- /90: +0.04
Clean Sheets: 12

It’s incredibly rare for a 17/18 year old keeper to start at any first team level and play as well as he did. Gaga started 32 of 34 games for Chicago and really only had two spells of poor form, but he was always able to work through it and return to good form. 

Gaga was 10th in MLS in post-shot expected goals minus goal allowed per 90, which I believe is the best measure of shot stopping performance. It’s unprecedented that he stopped more goals than expected and ranked in the top third of the league at such a young age. He was also 3rd in the league in clean sheets with 12, only behind the best goalkeeper in MLS, Andre Blake and fellow USMNT player Sean Johnson. He ranked average at claiming, fielding and sweeping and was below average at handling and passing, two areas he’ll need to work on. Shot stopping was by far his greatest strength this season. 

Gaga is due to start his career at Chelsea now and it will be very interesting to see what their plan is for him. There is word that Chicago would like to bring him back for another season long loan, but they have another highly talented teenage goalkeeper named Chris Brady that looks ready to take the #1 spot for Chicago. I’d love to see Gaga finish out the season starting for the U21 team and then get a loan in the Championship next season. 

Gaga is eligible for both the U20 World Cup in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024 and could be the favorite to start both tournaments if available. 

#3 | CM, Leon Flach, Philadelphia Union (2001)

Minutes: 2755
G+: -2.65
G+A / 90: 0.07
xGA / 90: 0.07
Goals: 0
Assists: 2

This was Leon’s second season with Philadelphia and his second as a full-time starter. Leon plays as the left-sided midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond which means he plays both centrally and floats out wide and while Leon played a ton this year, second most of any eligible player on this list, his G+ was poor and he wasn’t all that effective offensively. Defense is his strong suit and I believe he is played out of position for Philadelphia. He is really a defensive-midfielder, but Philly has one of the best in MLS in Jose Martinez, so he is played out of position. 

Leon’s G+ data backs up the eye test. His strongest category is interrupting and it was his only positive category. He graded very poorly in passing, interrupting and shooting. Leon does a ton of the dirty work for Philly and while that does not show up easily in the stat sheet, it is appreciated by manager Jim Curtin. It will be interesting to see what the plan is for Leon next year. Both left-back Kai Wagner and defensive-mid Martinez could be on the move and Leon could be the replacement at either position. 

Leon will not be eligible for this list next year. Leon will likely be a fringe player for the U23 Olympic team, but his versatility could get him a few looks. 

#4 | RB, Nathan Harriel, Philadelphia Union (2001)

Minutes: 1768
G+: 0.70
G+A / 90: 0.10
xGA / 90: 0.09
Goals: 1
Assists: 1

Nathan was not a player on my radar this season and was not on my preseason top 25 list, but he won the starting RB job for the best team in MLS early in the season, but then lost that job towards the end of the year. Nathan started 20 games and logged over 1700 minutes. Nathan scored his first goal and contributed his first assists of his career this season, right in line with his expected numbers

Nathan’s strengths are as a defensive right-back and he is not as adept at getting involved in the attack and being a super threatening player out wide. Nathan had the highest G+ number of any eligible player, indicating that he was more useful than any other player given the time he received on the pitch. Unsurprisingly, interrupting was his strongest category and receiving was his second highest category, both scoring very positively. Dribbling was Nathan’s worst category. 

Nathan is a 2001 and will not be eligible for this list. He will likely be in a position battle again next year and will look to solidify himself as a full-time MLS starter. Nathan is eligible for the U23 Olympic team and will likely get a look as one of the back right-backs behind Joe Scally. 

#5 | RB, Tayvon Gray, New York City FC (2002)

Minutes: 1879
G+: -0.24
G+A / 90: 0.05
xGA / 90: 0.10
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Last year Tayvon Gray got a chance to start at the end of the season after starting right-back Anton Tinnerholm went down with an injury. Tayvon had a chance to retain that job this season and started 22 games. The majority of games that Tayvon missed were due to various injuries, otherwise he was usually in the starting 11. He also played a few games at center-back when that position group was depleted. 

Tayvon is a more defensive minded right-back, but did record one assist. He was a bit unlucky because his expected totals were twice as much as his actuals. Tayvon did seem to improve on the ball all while continuing to be an above average defender. Tayvon had a G+ that was slightly negative and his worst categories were passing and receiving. His strongest were fouling and interrupting. 

Tayvon would greatly benefit from another year starting at right-back at the MLS level to see if his offensive production can take another step forward. Tayvon will be eligible for this list one more year and will likely be at the top half of this list throughout the year. Tayvon should also get a chance with the U23 Olympic team. 

#6 | AM, Brian Gutierrez, Chicago Fire (2003)

Minutes: 1637
G+: -0.53
G+A / 90: 0.38
xGA / 90: 0.34
Goals: 2
Assists: 5

Brian Gutierrez enjoyed a nice breakout season in 2022 starting in 22 games and appearing in all but one game. Brian split time between attacking-mid and outside on the wing. Brian was second amongst all eligible players in goal contributions with 7, 2 goals and 5 assists. Three of these contributions happened in one game where he had a goal and 2 assists. Brian did outperform his expected assist totals pretty considerably, showing a bit of luck. 

Brian’s G+ was okay, but not great. The data indicates that he is better playing through the middle of the pitch, not as much out wide, because his receiving and passing numbers are good, but his dribbling and shooting numbers are not as good. 

Brian is eligible for both the U20 World Cup in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024. He is certainly a top candidate to make the U20 roster if available and if his development continues at his current rate, he could be in the conversation for the Olympics as well. I hope Brian solidifies himself as a locked-in starter next year. Another step forward would likely see him get a move abroad in January 2024. 

#7 | AM, Ben Bender, Charlotte FC (2001)

Minutes: 1645
G+: -1.18
G+A / 90: 0.51
xGA / 90: 0.31
Goals: 3
Assists: 6

Ben Bender was the number one pick in the MLS SuperDraft and one of the surprise players to appear towards the top of this list for the majority of the season. Ben led all U21 American eligible players with 9 goal contributions. Ben started 18 games and accrued over 1600 minutes in a very good rookie campaign, though he did see his role dominish a bit towards the end of the year after Charlotte added some new players to the attack in the summer transfer window. 

Digging into the numbers, Ben did get a bit lucky on the assist side of things. His expected assist totals were 2.9 and he ended up with 6. His expected goals were on track with 3.1 and he ended up with 3 goals. He had 8 goal creating actions in total. His G+ wasn’t great at -1.18, struggling most with his dribbling and passing. His progressive passes and attempted passes were on the weaker side, which indicates that he didn’t get on the ball enough and he was not dangerous enough as a passer. This shows why assists can be a very misleading stat. Yes he had 6 but the underlying numbers indicate he was lucky and that he wasn’t a consistently dangerous player on the ball. 

Nonetheless, it was a great first professional season for Ben and there are clear areas for improvement. He won’t be eligible for this list next year, but he is eligible for the US U23 Olympic team and is likely a pool player for that squad. 

#8 | WING, Cade Cowell, San Jose Earthquakes (2003)

Minutes: 1554
G+: -0.65
G+A / 90: 0.35
xGA / 90: 0.26
Goals: 3
Assists: 3

I was expecting bigger things from Cade Cowell this year. This was his third year as an impact MLS player and the second one with a critical role, but unfortunately this year was more of a step back than a step forward for Cade. He had one more start (15), but less minutes and less goal contributions with 6 this year after 10 in 2021. Once again he outperformed his expected numbers, something we are starting to get used to with Cade. 

Cade’s G+ numbers were down this year. What that data tells us is that his dribbling continues to be an area of weakness, relying too much on speed and not enough on skill and feel. His shooting numbers were strong which speaks to his ability to outperform his expected goals. He was also negative in passing and receiving, all of which are technical areas he will need to improve to be an impact player at a higher level. His physical traits will only take him so far. 

Cade received a contract extension at the end of 2021 and there has been consistent interest overseas for Cade, but new manager Luchi Gonzalez appears keen to keep him and make him a big part of his plan. My question is whether San Jose is the right environment for Cade to develop. All signs point to no, but it could be one more year in San Jose and MLS before he goes abroad. Cade is still young, eligible for this list for two more years and he will likely be a key player for the 2023 U20 World Cup. 

#9 | CB, George Campbell, Atlanta United (2001)

Minutes: 1476
G+: -0.17
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.07
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

George, like the majority of the Atlanta United team, had an up and down season. George was the only center-back that finished in the top 25 list. It is a position that typically takes longer to become a starter and because you don’t really sub/rotate center-backs, if you are not starting, you are not playing.

George was playing a lot at the beginning of the season, especially when MIles Robinson went down with a season ending injury, but he was injured in July and never really regained his starting job back. In total he started 16 games and earned just under 1500 minutes. 

George’s numbers were solid. He did not have a goal contribution, but he was very courageous and successful in progressing the ball by dribbling and passing, two of his strong suits, though he is still inconsistent as a passer. He makes some elite level passes, but is also prone to poor decision making that leads to dangerous turnovers. Interrupting is another area where he struggled a bit. George is still young for a center-back and may get another chance to win a starting job next year. He graduates from this list next season, but is likely to be a candidate for the US U23 Olympic team.  

#10 | LB, Caleb Wiley, Atlanta United (2004)

Previous Ranking: 9

Minutes: 1497
G+: -0.98
G+A / 90: 0.12
xGA / 90: 0.21
Goals: 1
Assists: 1

Caleb Wiley was one of the better stories of the year for me. George Bello left for Germany last winter and Andrew Gutman returned from a season long loan with NYRB. This told me that Caleb would have a small role for Atlanta this year, but I wasn’t sure how big of a role he was ready for. It turns out he had a big role, in large part due to injuries, but also due to his development and ability. It was an up and down year for Caleb, but that is expected. He is a young 2004, playing at the age of 17 the entire year, making him one of the youngest players on this list. Caleb played as left-back, left wing-back and a left-winger, showing his versatility. 

Caleb had a goal and an assist, but his underlying numbers showed he was a bit unlucky to not have more. He had 1.4 expected goals and 2.1 expected assists. Caleb struggled towards the end of the year and his G+ accounted for that. It ended at a not so great -0.98. His passing was the biggest problem area, specifically I saw a lot of inconsistency with his crossing. His interrupting grade was excellent, showing his defensive ability. He is a pretty well rounded full-back that is only going to continue to get better. 

Caleb will likely have a part-time starting role next year assuming Gutman is back and healthy, but I am excited to see his development. He is eligible for this list for three more years though I would be surprised if he is in the MLS for three more years. I could see him making the move abroad in 2 years or less if he continues to progress. Caleb is my favorite to be the starting left-back for the 2023 U20 World Cup and he could be in play for the Olympics as well.

#11 | DM, Aidan Morris, Columbus Crew (2001)

Minutes: 1811
G+: -2.09
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.05
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

It was great to see Aidan Morris back on the pitch for the Crew. After a promising 2020 season and a great performance in the MLS Cup, we lost Aidan for all of 2021. He returned from his injury and took a little while to get back in the groove, but whenever I watched him I thought he played well. He was just as explosive and as aggressive as he was before the injury. Aidan is the prototypical sweeper/destroyer 6 in the mold of a Tyler Adams type. Aidan’s above the line and below the line stats are not impressive, but when you watch him you can see how he positively impacts the game. Perhaps the best data point to showcase this is that Columbus only lost one game that Aidan Morris started. That is a pretty incredible stat considering they did not make the playoffs. 

Aidan did not have a goal or an assist and his expected numbers were low as well. Aidan’s G+ was not great, but I have found that most defensive midfielder’s G+ in MLS aren’t usually too impressive. Aidan’s dribbling, passing and receiving were all quite low and his interrupting was much lower than I would have expected it to be. 

Aidan is a 2001 born player and is graduating from this list next year. I expect Aidan to be one of the defensive-midfielders in the mix for the Olympic 2024 team and a step forward in 2023 could start creating interest from abroad. 

#12 | AM, Bryce Duke, Inter Miami (2001)

Minutes: 1478
G+: -1.23
G+A / 90: 0.30
xGA / 90: 0.25
Goals: 1
Assists: 4

Bryce Duke moved from LAFC to Inter Miami this year and that move proved to be a good one for his career. Bryce never got much of an opportunity in LA, but did have a decent role for the playoff bound IMCF. Bryce started out the year with a knock, but ended up starting 16 games and appeared in 28. Bryce played as a 8, 10 and winger. 

Bryce had 1 goal and 4 assists on the year and his expected goals and assist totals were slightly lower than his actuals. Bryce had a low G+ and his dribbling was his biggest weakness. What is interesting is that Bryce does have the ability to make highlight carries and passes, but he is far too inconsistent and his decision making can be poor. If he can become more consistent I think those numbers would really improve because the technical ability is there. 

This is Bryce’s last year of eligibility on this list and he is likely a fringe player for the 2024 Olympic player pool. 

#13 | CM, Cameron Duke, Sporting Kansas City (2001)

Minutes: 1227
G+: -0.70
G+A / 90: 0.15
xGA / 90: 0.24
Goals: 0
Assists: 2

Cameron saw the most playing time of his young professional career this season, starting 13 times and earning just over 1200 minutes. He saw the majority of his time as a central-midfielder, though he also played a little bit at right-back. Cameron had zero goals and two assists, though he was a little unlucky in that his xGA/90 was 10 points higher than his actuals. He had 1.6 expected goals, but did not cash in on any. His G+ wasn’t great at -0.70 on the season and the areas he struggled the most were interrupting (-0.43) and passing (-0.62), both of which are key areas for an all-action midfielder. His strongest area was dribbling (0.19). 

Cameron looks to have a ceiling of a fringe-starter / impact sub at the MLS level. He graduates from this list this year and is unlikely to be at the top of the pool for the U23 Olympic team, though injuries and availability could change that. His versatility as a CM/RB is useful. 

#14 | GK, Rocco Rios Novo, Atlanta United (2002)

Minutes: 1395
G+: -4.63
GA / 90: 1.57
PSxG +/- /90: -0.28
Clean Sheets: 2

Rocco Rios Novo was loaned to Atlanta midway through the year after Brad Guzan went down with a season and potentially career ending injury. Rocco transferred in from Argentinian Club, Lanus. Rocco started 15 games for Atlanta and in large part struggled, specifically as a shot stopper. Rocco has below average size, but above average ball playing skills, but the shot stopping was a big problem. He had some nice moments, but overall it was a tough season for Rocco and I would not expect him back in Atlanta next year. 

Rocco had two clean sheets and gave up -0.28 more goals than expected per 90, showcasing those shot stopping struggles. His G+ was -4.88 and that grading system reiterated the shot stopping struggles while also highlighting that he was decent in all other categories, but at the end of the day, you have to make saves. 

#15 | CM, Jack McGlynn, Philadelphia Union (2003)

Minutes: 1018
G+: 0.68
G+A / 90: 0.35
xGA / 90: 0.22
Goals: 1
Assists: 3

I would say Jack McGlynn had a breakout-lite season. After a really strong Concacaf U20 Championship, he really picked up steam with the Philadelphia Union and had the best season of their talented young core. Jack started 9 games, all of which were in the second half of the season and he appeared in 23. I am excited to see how he is used in the playoffs. 

Jack had one goal and three assists on the season, outrunning his expected totals by a pretty considerable margin, but his G+ numbers were very good. He had the highest G+ of any eligible player on this list behind teammate Nathan Harriel and he did it with almost half of Nathan’s minutes. He was particularly strong as a passer and if you have ever watched Jack play, that should come as no surprise, he is an elite passer. His interrupting grade was surprisingly mediocre, which I expected to be worse, showing that the system likely masks some of those deficiencies. Receiving was his worst grade which speaks to his need to become a little tidier in tight spaces. 

It’s possible that Jack makes a move abroad this winter as there are many suitors, but I think another half year or full year in MLS would help prepare him more for that move, especially if he can earn a full-time starting job next season. Jack will be a key player for the 2023 U20 World Cup and if he takes a step or two forward, could be a good option for the 2024 Olympic team. 

#16 | WING, Indiana Vassilev, Inter Miami (2001)

Minutes: 1059
G+: 0.41
G+A / 90: 0.17
xGA / 90: 0.23
Goals: 2
Assists: 0

Indiana Vassilev returned to Miami from Aston Villa for the second season in a row on a season long loan. Indiana started 13 games and appeared in 24. He had a better stint with IMCF than last year and had one shining moment where he scored two late goals, his only two goals on the season to give Miami the win. Indiana had a strong G+, one of the few players to end the year on the positive side and he was particularly solid as a dribbler. 

Even if Indiana comes back to the MLS he won’t be eligible for this list next year and I do not expect him to be in the plans for the 2024 Olympic team. 

#17 | DM, Sebastian Berhalter, Vancouver Whitecaps (2001)

Minutes: 1023
G+: 0.32
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.05
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

Sebastian is the son of USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter. Sebastian was traded to Vancouver before the start of the season and a consistent starter for the majority of the season until an injury forced him to miss about half of the season. In total, Sebastian started 11 games and collected just over 1000 minutes. 

Sebastian isn’t a flashy player, but does a lot of the dirty work in the midfield to help his team. Sebastian did not have a goal contribution and only 0.5 expected goals and 0.3 expected assists. Sebastian did end the season with a positive G+ of 0.32, one of the few players to end the year with a positive G+. The biggest reason for the positive number was his interrupting number of +.42 which is quite good. Defensively is definitely where Sebastian shined this year. His worst category was passing. 

Sebastian is a 2001, so he is not eligible for this list next year. 

#18 | DM, Danny Leyva, Seattle Sounders (2003)

Minutes: 951
G+: -0.27
G+A / 90: 0.09
xGA / 90: 0.08
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Danny was surpassed in the depth chart at the beginning of the year by Obed Vargas, but when Joao Paulo and Vargas went down with injury, Leyva stepped up and played pretty well in a bigger role in the second half of the season. He ended up with 12 starts and 19 appearances, adding one assist on the season.  

Danny’s G+ ended up being pretty solid, slightly negative and scoring best in interrupting and worst in receiving. I find the interrupting data point interesting because many believe he is a weak defender, but I think it is an area he has improved a lot in. 

Danny is a 2003 and thus eligible for the 2023 U20 World Cup. It is hard to say if Danny is out of favor with Mikey Varas, the manager of that team, or if he just hasn’t been available, but he hasn’t been with the group for quite some time. It would seem that Mikey prefers others, but I think Leyva can help this group and provide some stability and distribution to the midfield. It’s been reported that he is getting his Mexican eligibility together as well. 

#19 | RB, Kayden Pierre, Sporting KC (2003)

Minutes: 953
G+: -0.41
G+A / 90: 0.09
xGA / 90: 0.04
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Kayden Pierre was one of the most noticeably improved American U21 players in my eyes this year. He went from being a very fringe prospect to potentially the best U20 right-back in the US pool. He didn’t get an opportunity until midway through the season when Graham Zusi went down with an injury, but he played really well covering for Graham in the middle part of the season where he started 9 times and appeared 19 times overall. 

Kayden didn’t create a ton of opportunities, but was strong defensively and added his first career assist. Kayden’s G+ was okay, not great, just slightly negative. He was strongest in dribbling and interrupting and weakest in receiving. 

As I said above, I think Kayden and Justin Che are the two best right-back options for the U20 group, but he has not been with the group in a while. I think Kayden is a different player from the last time he appeared for the U20s and I would love to see him get another opportunity. Hopefully next year Kayden gets a chance to be the full-time starter for Sporting KC next as Graham Zusi ages out and is out of contract at the end of this year. 

#20 | DM, Daniel Edelman, NYRB (2003)

Minutes: 993
G+: –0.83
G+A / 90: 0.09
xGA / 90: 0.06
Goals: 1
Assists: 0

Daniel Edelman had a solid first pro season for NYRB and ended up having a bigger role than many, including myself, thought he would this year. The midfield was a revolving door and Edelman ended up being a consistent starter at the end of the year. He ended with 10 starts and appeared in 16 games total. Danny is more of a sweeper/destroyer 6 like Aidan Morris, so he doesn’t get involved a ton on the offensive side of things, but he did score his first career goal and has some good shots on goal. 

Edelman’s G+ wasn’t great, ending at -0.83. He struggled the most at receiving and interrupting. I go back to my point about Aidan Morris. Defensive minded midfielders tend not to score well with G+. 

Danny is a 2003 and a core player for the U20 team. He looks to be the preferred 6 for Mikey Varas in the most important games. It also looks like Danny might get a chance to be the full-time starter for NYRB next year. 

#21 | WING, Cameron Harper, NYRB (2001)

Minutes: 765
G+: 0.52
G+A / 90: 0.47
xGA / 90: 0.30
Goals: 2
Assists: 2

I had Cameron on my preseason top 25 list and a few people laughed at me, but I had seen flashes of potential in the past and thought this was the year he might start to make an impact. For the most part I think I got that right. Cameron received 6 starts and 745 minutes, but started the year off injured and finished the year injured, so he didn’t get as much of an opportunity as he could have. 

Cameron had an impressive goals and assists per 90 average of 0.47, with 2 goals and 2 assists. He was lucky as his expected goals were at 1.1 and his expected assists were at 1.5. Overall Cameron had a really strong G+ at 0.52, scoring positively in dribbling, interrupting and passing. His receiving grade was where he had the most room for improvement. 

Cameron is another 2001 which means he will not be eligible for this list. I also do not think Cameron will be a key player for the U23 Olympic team, as I think other wingers will likely be higher on the depth chart. 

#22 | CM, Obed Vargas, Seattle Sounders (2005)

Minutes: 851
G+: -0.81
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.06
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

Obed Vargas was one of the bigger young American stories in MLS at the beginning of the year. He had surpassed Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva in the midfield and had some impressive performances in both MLS and in the Concacaf Champions League championship run. He was the first player born in 2005 to really start to breakout in the MLS. Unfortunately Obed’s season was cut short due to lingering back issues that Seattle was rightfully very careful about. Hopefully a full offseason can help Obed get back to fitness and he continues to shine next season. 

Obed played a hybrid 6/8 role for Seattle as one of the two midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 setup. Obed isn’t a flash player, but one that does a lot of the little things well to help control the midfield. Obed did not have any goal contributions in just over 800 minutes and 10 starts. His G+ was not great at that time, but he showed flashes, which is all that you are looking for in a super young player like Obed. He had positive marks for dribbling and fouling, but was negative in Interrupting, passing, receiving and shooting. Passing was his worst category and after digging into the numbers it appeared he was very safe and lacked danger with his passing. 

Hopefully Obed can build off his early success and show improvement next season. He was one of the few 2005s getting time with the US U20s and he will attempt to get back into that mix ahead of the 2023 U20 World Cup. 

#23 | CM, Owen Wolff, Austin FC (2004)

Minutes: 913
G+: -1.60
G+A / 90: 0.10
xGA / 90: 0.23
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Owen was a surprise player for me this year. I did not expect him to have as big of a role as he did with Austin. He didn’t have a huge impact, but he didn’t look out of place either. He had a good run of starts in the middle of the year and totaled 11 for the year and 24 appearances in total. 

Owen was a bit unlucky in that his expected goals and assists were twice what he actually tallied. He set up some big chances but did not have his teammates finish in many of those instances. Owen finished with a pretty poor G+ I think mainly because he struggled to really impact the game when he was on the pitch. He was poor in most categories other than fouling with dribbling being his worst category. 

Owen is a young 2004 and played all year as a 17 year old, one of the few 2004s with a key role for a winning club. Owen has not yet played with the United States U20s, but has been a key player for the U19s. I am not sure he is going to get an opportunity with the U20s before the World Cup, but if he comes out next year with a bigger role for Austin and a hot start, he could force his way into the picture. 

#24 | WING, Jackson Hopkins, DC United (2004)

Minutes: 904
G+: -1.77
G+A / 90: 0.10
xGA / 90: 0.23
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Jackson was one of three in-season homegrown signings for DC United and the one who received the most playing time. I was surprised that Jackson received as much of an opportunity as he did as I do not rate Jackson super high, but he clearly built trust with the coaching staff and must train very well. Jackson started 11 times and appeared in 21 games. He tallied his first assist on a nice set piece cross in. Jackson had a poor G+ which mirrored what my eyes saw when I watched him play. He didn’t seem ready or deserving of the role he was given this year. Interrupting and receiving were two particularly bad categories for him. 

Jackson is another 2004 and a surprise player for me on the list. There must be something I am missing about Jackson. Rooney seems to rate him as he has been given more of an opportunity than other young DC players I rate higher and he keeps getting calls to the United States U20s even though he continually looks like one of the weaker players. In the end I don’t expect him to make the 2023 U20 World Cup, but he seems to keep getting opportunities, so who knows?

#25 | GK, John Pulskamp, Sporting KC (2001)

Minutes: 1028
G+: -3.21
GA / 90: 1.58
PSxG +/- /90: -0.09
Clean Sheets: 3

John Pulskamp is the third goalkeeper on this list. John started 11 games this year after Tim Melia had a very poor start to the season. Sporting KCs turnaround at the end of the year coincided with John starting to play better in goal. John’s underlying numbers weren’t great, but he really started to improve towards the end of the year. 

John had a negative post-shot expected goals minus goals conceded and his G+ was -3.21, not great. Shot stopping was the main problem area for John. John will likely get every opportunity to win the starting job next year, but he won’t be eligible for this list. John will also be in the keeper pool for the U23 Olympic team. 

Honorable Mentions

Justin Haak, Matko Miljevic, Josh Atencio, Caden Clark, Paxten Aaronson, Serge Ngoma 

Statistical sources 

Football Reference, American Soccer Analysis

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