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2022 Youth Series: Top 20 Born in 2005



Series Overview

This is this third 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. 

2005 Class — Top 20

The 2005 class is an emerging group. They have not always received the most acclaim, but I think that this class is developing into a really nice class with some top end talent and depth in key positions, most notably at striker. The 2005s will be the senior class for the next U20 cycle which will kick off in late 2023 and run up until 2025 if this group qualifies for the U20 World Cup. Right now this class is a little bit in limbo. The top 2005s are getting some time with the U20s and they are also getting camps and games with Marko Mitrovic and his staff. This is also the class that has started to receive homegrown deals from MLS clubs or are leaving MLS Academies to join USL clubs. This group will start to turn 18 next year, so players that do not have EU citizenship, once they turn 18 they can sign contracts with clubs in Europe, as either Academy players or professionals. The top players may go to big clubs in Europe or sign homegrown deals in MLS. The players that are a tier below have to decide between MLS Next Pro deals, USL deals and potentially going the NCAA route. Most, if not all of these players will get professional deals soon if they don’t have one already. 

It looks like this group will compete in the Vaclav Jezek Tournament in Czech Republic which will be the second time we’ve seen this group together to play against International Competition. Expect many of the players on this list to participate in that tournament.

#1 | AM/SS, Serge Ngoma, New York Red Bulls

There are not many players in the US youth pool that have shown as much positive development between last season and this season as Serge Ngoma. Serge is a Gabonese-American that developed within the NYRB system and was signed to a homegrown contract in February of this year. Last year Serge logged over 800 minutes for NYRB II and scored three goals, but he did not look like the player that he is this year. He’s improved greatly both physically and technically and looks more than ready to deliver at the MLS level. He can play both as a 10, inverted winger and second striker. NYRB uses all positions and he has played a little bit of each in the minutes he has received this year. 

On the youth international side of things, Serge last participated in a U15 camp. He has not yet participated in a U19 camp because he has been injured when those camps have been scheduled, nor has he appeared for the U20s. Serge will be a key figure for the next U20 cycle and could sneak his way into this cycle if he can stay fit and continue to perform with NYRB. 

What makes him special? 

Serge is a prototypical NYRB player and prospect. He is explosive, relentless and can stretch the defense. He has looked like a grown man when he has played in MLS this season and often times looks like the most electric player on the pitch. He has also shown decent vision and ability slip a pass through the heart of the defense. I also love the pressure he puts on defenses both in his instinct to push forward and in his pressing, counter pressing and when he tracks back to support the first and second lines. He has also showed nice composure in front of goal. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The biggest challenge for Serge this year has been staying on the field which is always a concern with explosive, muscular soccer players. He injured himself in a NYRB II game, I believe it was a knee injury and then he hurt hamstring after an electric 30 minutes in his first start for NYRB. His timeline for return is unclear. Serge needs minutes to continue to grow and he needs to stay healthy to be able to do that. 

On the pitch, I love his confidence, but I have not seen him take on a ton of defenders 1v1 and his ball manipulation skills still seem fairly average, so winger may not be the ideal position for him long term, he might be better served more centrally as a 10 or second striker. 

#2 | DM/CM, Obed Vargas, Seattle Sounders

Obed is another 2005 that has had a very positive first year in MLS. Obed is a Mexican-American that plays both defensive-mid and central-mid. Seattle’s system is a 4-2-3-1, so he has both responsibilities depending on who he is partnering with in midfield. Obed is from Anchorage, Alaska which I think is pretty cool. He has been developed within the Seattle Sounders Academy system and was signed to a homegrown deal in July of 2021 after impressing for the Tacoma Defiance in USL. He played over 1800 minutes for Tacoma last year and surprised a lot of people this year by leaping Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio in the Seattle midfield depth chart. Obed started off the season with a splash, earning a big role in Seattle’s Concacaf Champions League Championship run. He came on early in the second leg of the final after Joao Paulo went down with injury. From that time on Obed was a pretty consistent starter for Seattle in MLS league play before injuring his back. He has been out now for several months and his timetable for return is unknown. 

At the youth international level Obed has made a very good impression with the USSF staff as well. Obed has only represented the United States so far, but Mexico is sure to come knocking very soon, if they have not already. Obed is one of the few 2005 players that was invited to U20 camps, two years above his age level and he was on track to be part of the U20 Concacaf Championship squad before the back injury. Obed will be pushing for a midfield spot on that team for the U20 World Cup next summer. 

What makes him special? 

Obed is a very mature soccer player for his age, just turning 17. He has a very well rounded game and is skilled on the ball and displays a range of passes in his arsenal. What has impressed me and what has impressed his coaches, is his ability to rise to each new challenge and level that is presented to him. He learns quickly, is unafraid to be aggressive in games, especially the big ones. Obed does not possess elite traits persay, but his soccer IQ and mentality are certainly elite. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

This was mentioned by Keith Costigan on the Scuffed Podcast and I agree, if Obed is going to stick as an 8 instead of 6, he needs to work on being more goal dangerous in the final third. He does a good job in the middle part of the pitch progressing the ball through clever first touches, dribbling and passing, but he hasn’t shown a ton in the final third yet. 

#3 | CM/AM, Niko Tsakiris, San Jose Earthquakes

Niko Tsakiris is the son of U20 Assistant coach Shaun Tsakiris. Niko has Greek and Portuguese heritage and is working on getting his Portuguese citizenship which would allow him to move to a European club before he turns 18 if the opportunity presents itself. Niko started his academy career with Bay Area power, De Anza Force and the IMG Academy before moving to San Jose’s Academy. He was signed to a homegrown deal in January 2022 and also made his MLS debut this year. He has not played a ton of first team minutes this year, but he has been a regular in the squad. He has also played in the US Open Cup and has made some appearances with Quakes II in MLS Next Pro. 

Niko has had a bigger year at the Youth International level. He was the only 2005 to play a full cycle up with the U20s at the Concacaf U20 Championships. If you haven’t watched Niko play you might think this is a case of nepotism, but Niko proved he belonged, playing very well as a box to box midfielder in the tournament, scoring 3 goals. History tells us that players who look like they belong playing a full cycle up is a very good sign for that player. Niko can play both the 8 and the 10 and while he says he prefers playing the 10, I think his future is at the 8. 

What makes him special? 

Niko has a great physical profile of a box to box midfielder. He is quick, has a good center of gravity and he is strong, evidenced by his ability to retain ball control through contact. He is an efficient and tidy dribbler that has the ability to progress the ball really well both in the middle of the pitch and in tight spaces in the final third. Another area of his game that is very advanced for his age is his movement off the ball. As soon as he releases the ball he is looking to move into pockets of space. His final third production and decision making in the box is pretty good as well, which is why he can also play a more attacking-midfield role. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

There are two areas that I would love to see Niko focus and improve on. The first is his pitch control as a defender. Niko is not someone that dominates his areas of the pitch defensively, like Alex Alvarado for example. Niko has the mentality and the physicality for it, he just needs to assert himself more consistently. Also I think Niko is a good passer, but he has the ability to be a very good progressive passer. Right now his instinct is to dribble through pressure, but if he can also pick his head up and pass through pressure more he will be a real menace in the midfield. 

#4 | CB, Josh Wynder, Louisville City

Josh Wynder is a really cool story and a very good soccer player. Josh is the first bigtime USYNT prospect that has been developed completely through a USL Academy system. Many prospects have left MLS academies to join USL, but Josh has been completely developed through the Lou City Academy system. Josh signed a professional deal with Lou City in June 2021. Last year he received just over 500 minutes of time and this year he has been a starter at LCB for arguably the best club in USL. This is remarkable for a couple of different reasons, the first is that he plays one of the hardest positions to play at a young age, center-back. Center-backs rely so much on intelligence, instincts and physicality, all things that take a lot of time to develop. Second, this isn’t Atlanta 2, this the most well run organization in USL, so for him to earn a starting CB job at the age of 16 says a whole lot about Josh as a player and as a person. 

Looking for another data point that indicates Josh is a big time leader? He has been the captain for the newly formed USYNT U19 group. At this trajectory, Josh is on pace to be a key figure for the next U20 cycle and I would not at all be surprised if he pushes his way into the current U20 team and potentially makes a push for the 2023 U20 World CUp. 

Josh is a right-footed center-back that plays on the left side for Louisville, which tells you that they trust his ability to play with both feet, and from what I have seen he has put in a lot of time to ensure his left foot is useful when needed. 

What makes him special? 

If it was clear enough above, I am really impressed that Wynder has not only been able to breakthrough as a CB starter for Lou City, but that he is also performing at a very good level. I think this speaks to his maturity, intensity, instincts and awareness on the pitch. I also think it speaks to how he prepares and handles himself in training. But he is not just a cerebral player, he hit a growth spurt and is now well above 6-0 and he is adding muscle. His movement is okay, he does well enough in space and in high line and he does well with the ball at his feet. He sets himself up with clean touches and he is aggressive and accurate with his passing. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Josh’s biggest opportunity area is to get more dominant in the air. I think that will come as he adds more muscle to his frame and as he continues to learn how to read the ball and time his jumps. He has the height to be a good aerial player, I believe that in time this will come. 

#5 | CF/WING, Kris Fletcher, DC United

Kris Fletcher is a British-American that developed in the Bethesda Academy, one of the primary feeder Academies to DC United. Kris has gone on trials with Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, two of the best Academies in the world and it was rumored that he was offered a spot with Dortmund and I have heard that was a U19 offer for when he turns 18 next August. Kris signed with Loudoun United, DCs USL affiliate this summer to start getting some professional minutes and I think that was a good decision. Kris has acclimated pretty well to big a leap in level and recently tallied a brace. It has been reported credibly that he is going to sign a contract with DC United, giving Kris the chance to play at an even higher level before weighing offers from Europe. 

Internationally, Kris has joined both U20 and U19 camps. He has an outside chance of working his way into the U20 team before the 2023 U20 World Cup, especially as a number 9, where I think he is  best suited to play. Krist plays both left-wing and striker, though I truly believe he is at his best as a striker. 

What makes him special? 

Kris is physically very advanced for his age. He has a strong lower body, he is explosive and smacks the hell out of the ball. His right foot is special and he moves well into pockets of space that allow him to quickly strike the ball. He has the confidence and mindset of a striker. He is also looking to get a shot off from any angle and he usually hits it true. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The reason why I don’t think Kris is a winger is because his ball manipulation ability is okay, but not what you need out of a left-winger. I think his dribbling ability will translate better as a 9. He does cut in pretty well on his left foot, but he gets dispossessed a lot as well. 

I’d also like to see Kris give more consistent effort. He floats in and out of games at times. When he is on, he is dominant, but he can get lost and he can look a little disinterested at times. If he does settle in as a 9, I also think he’ll need to work on his hold-up play and how interplays with his fellow attackers. 

#6 | WING, Bora Aydinlik, Fenerbahce SK U19

Bora is a Turkish-American born in Miami who has developed through one of the best Academies in Turkey: Fenerbahce. Bora plays predominately with the U19s, but has made the bench for the first team. Bora recently signed a professional contract with Fenerbahce, but the details on length have not surfaced. I would imagine that if Bora shows development and plays well with the U19s, he’ll likely make his first team debut with Fenerbahce at some point this season, which would be very impressive for a 17 year old. 

At the International level Bora has only represented Turkey, but he has confirmed that the United States has been in contact and it has been reported that he has been invited to a U20 camp and there were also whispers that he was going to be on the Concacaf U20 Championship squad, but that did not materialize. Bora has recently been called to the Turkey U19 team and while he is not provisionally cap-tied to Turkey, it’s looking like that will happen eventually if United States cannot do it first. Their next opportunity would be the U20 World Cup in 2023, but I think that there is a low probability of that happening. 

Bora is a winger though he does show the ability to tuck in and play more centrally. I think his profile suits either wing really well. 

What makes him special? 

Bora is an explosive and strong winger that dominates full-backs in 1v1 situations. His combination of short area quickness, controlled and creative ball manipulation and a strong lower body makes him a handful for players his age and it also allows him to compete with professional players. Bora is very adept at making dangerous runs into the final third. Bora’s ability to dribble and pass with both feet allow him to be dangerous on both wings, left and right. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Bora has improved in the final third but it is still an area where he can get better. As of now, his instinct is to dribble until he can’t any longer. I’d like to see him pick his head up a little sooner and work on his early and late crossing. I think he can be more of a chance creator if he adds a little variety to what he is trying to do in the attack. His finish is okay and he can do it with both feet, but this is another area where I think he can still improve. 

#7 | AM, Esmir Bajraktarevic, New England Revolution

Esmir is a Bosnian-American and the pride of Appleton, Wisconsin. He has had a few stops in his Academy career starting with SC Waukesha before moving to Chicago Fire’s Academy and then he moved to Wave SC before joining the New England Revolution Academy. He signed his homegrown deal in May 2022 and he just became eligible to play for the Revs first team and he made his first start last weekend. You can see the clips from that game here. For the majority of the season Esmir has been a consistent starter for Revs II in MLS Next Pro where he has yet to record his first goal contribution. 

Esmir is one of four 2005 players to get an opportunity with the current U20 team. That list includes Obed Vargas, Niko Tsakiris, Kris Fletcher and Esmir. It will be difficult for Esmir to make the 2023 U20 World Cup roster because that team is currently pretty stacked with attacking-mids and wingers, but Esmir will likely be a key figure in the next U20 World Cup cycle. 

Esmir is a true number 10 and there are few prospects like him in the USYNT pool. Esmir can play second-striker and outside, but his skills absolutely fit that of a playmaking number 10. 

What makes him special? 

Esmir possesses the important characteristics of a good attacking-midfielder. He is very clean on the ball, starting from his first touch and half turn, through to his ability to weave within tight spaces. He also has very good vision and has the ability to slip in passes to create good chances for his teammates. He also has the ability to create space and create good chances for himself.   

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

From what I have seen in MLS Next Pro, the biggest thing preventing Esmir from impacting games more regularly is his ability to command the ball and make himself more consistently available in pockets of space and then when he does get on the ball, he has problems with his balance through contact. Esmir needs to get a little more stronger so he can carry the ball more effectively against bigger and stronger defenders.  

#8 | WING/CF, Tarik Scott, FC Dallas Academy

Tarik Scott is a Jamaican-American who has developed through the FC Dallas Academy. Tarik is the highest rated player on this list to not have a professional contract. Tarik played the majority of this season with the FC Dallas U19 and he has made three appearances for North Texas in MLS Next Pro. In his first appearance he scored a brace off of the bench. In my opinion Tarik is without question deserving of a homegrown contract, even with the increased standards by which MLS clubs have for these deals, but I wonder how much Dallas rates him. They clearly rate him a bit. He is one of only two 2005s to play for North Texas and one of the few who played for their U19s, but I am surprised a homegrown deal has not happened yet. I do have one theory, Tarik recently played for Bayern Munich’s World Team and Tarik is the type of player that Bayern has been interested in from Dallas. Bayern in Dallas have a strong relationship in player development. 

At the International level, I am also surprised Tarik has not yet been selected to a USYNT U19 camp. It’s possible that he has and the timing has not worked out, but he is definitely one of, if not the top winger in this class, so I would expect that to come soon. Tarik has also not featured for Jamaica, of which he is eligible. I assume Tarik was recruited by Jamaica to play in the Concacaf U20 Championship and I am guessing Tarik passed because he is focused on getting an opportunity with the United States. 

What makes him special? 

Tarik might be the most dynamic athlete in the United States youth pool and that includes Cade Cowell. Cade is stronger, but I think Tarik is more explosive in short areas, has better long speed and is more dynamic in the air. Soccer is about much more than athleticism, and Tarik isn’t just about that or else he wouldn’t be this high on the list. He also has pretty control of the ball and can manipulate it well. He is pretty creative out on the wing. He also gets into good spots and has a goal poacher feel to his game. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Tarik does need to learn how to leverage his explosiveness within the game a bit more and he also needs to get a better feel for when to release the ball. He often tries to do the entire defense instead of beating one or two players and then releasing the ball to create a numerical advantage. When that instinct gets developed he will really be a handful. 

#9 | RCB, Grayson Dettoni, Bayern Munich U19

Grayson Dettoni is an Italian-American that currently plays for the highly acclaimed Bayern Munich Academy at the U19 level. Grayson started at San Diego Surf before moving to Germany to join the TSV 1860 München Academy. In July 2020 he joined Bayern at the U16 level and he has moved up the ranks since then, now looking like a starter for the U19 level, the last level before the professional ranks of Bayern II. Grayson started at RCB for Bayern U19s first game last weekend and played well. 

Grayson has yet to represent the United States or Italy at the Youth International level, which I find surprising, but I also don’t think that will last much longer. I would expect him to get a call to a U19 camp soon. 

Grayson is a center-back through and through, there is not a positional debate to be had for him. 

What makes him special? 

Grayson is usually the biggest guy on the pitch. He’s tall. When I first watched Grayson play a couple of years ago, he was tall, but he hadn’t really grown into his body, meaning he didn’t move super well and wasn’t the most coordinated. That has changed and that has changed my view of him as a prospect. He moves a lot better now and he is starting to fill out and become stronger. Grayson isn’t just a big body, he’s a tactically sound player that is usually in the right spot. He’s aggressive in duels and times his tackles pretty well. He also has the potential to be dominant in the air, like Walker Zimmerman kind of dominant.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Grayson is by no means poor on the ball, but Bayern does not ask him to do a whole lot. They build through the other center-back most of the time and that CB isn’t magical on the ball, so that does say something about what they think of Grayson’s ball skills. I haven’t seen him have to use his feet under pressure and place a ball in a tight window, but he looks comfortable and smooth. 

#10 | CF, Marcos Zambrano-Delgado, Philadelphia Union Academy

Marcos Zambrano-Delgado is an emerging Ecuadorian-American prospect that currently plays for the Philadelphia Union Academy. Marcos is the second player on this list that is not on a professional contract, which I expect to change before the 2023 MLS season. Marcos has developed through a number of Academies in Ecuador including: Deportivo Azogues, CD El Nacional, CD Clan Juvenil and Club Sport Norte American. He joined Philadelphia in March 2021. Marcos has not yet played for Philly 2, while fellow 2005 center-forward, Nelson Pierre, number 13 on this list, has been a fixture with the MLS Next Pro club. Does this mean that Philly rates Pierre higher than Zambrano? Not sure, but it is something to monitor. Marcos had a big year for Philly’s U17s, where he was one of the leading goal scorers in MLS Next and he played very well in the big tournaments this summer (GA Cup, MLS Next Cup). 

At the Youth International level, Marcos has represented Ecuador at the U15 and U17 levels, but has represented the United States more recently at the U19 level, where it looks like he is the early favorite to play the number 9 position. 

Marcos is without a doubt a number 9, but he is a different kind of number 9 than we are used to seeing in the YNT circuit. I’ll detail what I mean, below. 

What makes him special? 

Marcos is a highly skilled striker. He is a better athlete than he gets credit for and he moves well in the final third. He finds dangerous spots and has a nose for where the ball is going. He connects well with his teammates. He has a nice first touch and interplays creatively. He can also create his own space through smart and technical dribbles and he can score in a variety of ways. He strikes the ball well, he poaches goals and he scores frequently with his head as well. He is a very well rounded striker for his age. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The one area I would like to see Marcos improve is in his hold up play. He connects well when it’s fast, but when he needs to hold up for a second or two to relieve pressure and help in the build up, he can struggle at times. This can be solved both through technique and him growing into his body and getting stronger. 

#11 | CM, Brooklyn Raines, Houston Dynamo

Brooklyn Raines has been a hot name in the USYNT picture for a while and it isn’t just because he has a really cool name. Brookly is a Liberian-American who started at the Inter FC Chicago Academy before moving to the Barca Residency in Arizona. He was loaned to El Paso, a club in USL last season, but only received 19 minutes of playing time. In February 2022 the Houston Dynamo purchased his rights from RSL and signed him to a professional contract, but he isn’t eligible to play in MLS league games until February of 2023 because of a weird MLS rule I don’t care to get into. This year Brooklyn has been consistently starting for Dynamo 2 in MLS Next Pro and he has played well, scoring 1 goal and adding 3 assists. He also started all of Houston’s US Open Cup games and he looked very good in those games as well. I predict that Brooklyn will have a key role with Houston’s first team next season. Interestingly Brooklyn’s contract ends at the end of 2023, which indicates that he may have a transfer lined up to European club once he turns 18 and he and the Dynamo front office have an understanding. 

Internationally, Brooklyn has been invited to all of the U19 camps that have been held recently and looks to be a key figure for the 2005 group moving forward. Brooklyn can play all over the midfield as 6, 8 and 10, but he’s likely best suited for the 8 right now, but I could see him moving to the 6 at some point in his career depending on how he develops. 

What makes him special? 

Brooklyn has a very well rounded and mature game. He isn’t someone that is going to immediately jump out at you when watching, but if you watch him enough you really start to appreciate how good he is at many things. Brooklyn isn’t the most imposing players, but it doesn’t seem to impact him too much on the pitch. Even when he was playing in the US Open Cup against bigger and stronger players, it never seemed too much. Usually, when smaller players don’t struggle physically it is because they are highly intelligent players, and I think that is true of Brooklyn. He gets in good spaces, he is very clean on the ball and he knows when to dribble and when to release the ball. He isn’t super goal dangerous but he is very reliable defensively and he keeps things fluid offensively. He may never be great, but he is going to be very solid for many years to come. If he can add some dynamaciscm to his game he could really be something. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The one area that is missing from Brooklyn’s game right now is high impact offensive production. He does not arrive in the box with bad intentions. He can be pretty passive in the final third. He won’t make mistakes that kill chances, but he isn’t going to create chances at a high volume right now. 

#12 | CM/DM, Benjamin Cremaschi, Inter Miami Academy 

Benjamin Cremaschi is an Argentinian-American who started at the Weston Academy, one of the biggest independent clubs in Florida. After a great 2020-2021 MLS Next season, Inter Miami plucked him from Weston in July 2021. Last year was his first full season in the IMCF Academy and he has not disappointed. He is one of the fastest rising prospects in the 2005 class. Ben played for the U17s and for Miami II, IMCFs MLS Next Pro’s team. He’s recorded over 500 minutes and 3 goals in MLS Next Pro. Ben is not yet on a homegrown deal, but I’d bet some money that he will before the start of the 2023 season. Benjamin has also been a regular on the newly formed U19 team and will likely be a key player for the next U20 cycle. 

I can see Ben panning out as a 6 or an 8. For now, he is playing more as a 8, which I like. Let him develop there as much as possible and if the offensive game does not develop enough, he would be just fine as a 6, but I’d bet he is going to work out as an 8. 

What makes him special? 

Ben is another well rounded midfielder and he has a strong physical profile. He’s strong and quick and is very physical. He reads the game really well as evidenced by the amount of times he intercepts balls during the game. He just seems to have a good understanding of what the offensive is trying to do and he gets to spots before others do. Offensively he is effective as well. He is a better dribbler than passer right now and he also makes his presence felt in the final third. He strikes the ball well and arrives at the right time. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

I’d like to see Ben have a better sense of when to release the ball and not rely as much on the dribble. I think that he has the technique to be a good passer, but lacks the instincts for it right now. I definitely think this is something he can add to his game pretty quickly. 

#13 | CF, Nelson Pierre, Philadelphia Union Academy

Nelson Pierre has developed through the Philly Academy since 2014. He split time this year between the U17s and Union II. He signed a MLS Next Pro contract in March 2022 and has appeared in 15 games, just under 600 minutes and he has scored 4 goals, not bad at all for a 17 year old. Philly has two really good strikers in their 2005 class between Pierre and Zambrano. It will be interesting to see if Philly commits to both at the first team level or if they will decide to give a homegrown deal to just one. 

USSF has yet to bring Nelson into a camp. He doesn’t fit the US game model as much as Zambrano, so it makes sense, but he does fit the Philly model well. He’s a highly vertical player that plays with a lot of tempo. He plays mostly as a 9, though I have seen him play as a winger. With Philly he’ll often play in a two striker system. 

What makes him special? 

Nelson has a really strong physical profile. He is tall, strong and he moves really well. He is at his best in counter-attacking situations or when the opponent is playing a high line and he can run behind the back line. He also strikes the ball with venom and he is pretty good in the air.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Nelson’s touch leaves a little to be desired. This leads to challenges in hold up play and connecting in low blocks. I think this is the biggest reason he hasn’t been called to the U19s. If he can become more clinical in build up, he has a really bright future. 

#14 | AM/CM, Reed Baker-Whiting, Seattle Sounders

Reed Baker-Whiting, otherwise referred to as RBW, has been a well known prospect in the USYNT system for a while, so it may surprise people that he is this low on the list. RBW developed within the Sounders Academy. He went on loans to the Tacoma Defiance in 2020 and 2021 and then signed a homegrown deal in May of 2021. He made his MLS debut in 2021 and received 200 minutes in total. I was expecting more from him this year, but he has only logged 94 minutes, which kind of sums up my concerns with Reed. He has played 800+ minutes in MLS Next Pro and has scored once and assisted another. For the most part he looked pretty average or slightly above average at that level which I kind of expected him to dominate. For a player that has been reportedly scouted by Liverpool, Manchester City and Dortmund, you’d expect a bit more. On the International side of things RBW made three appearances at the U15 level and two appearances at the newly formed U19 level. 

Reed can play as an 8, 10 and out wide as an inverted winger. He profiles best for me as an 8 or 10. He is more offensive minded but has the physical ability to play as a box to box midfielder. It looks like the U19 YNT has been playing him as a winger, which is generally where they slot 10s in the 4-3-3 system. 

What makes him special? 

Reed is a very well rounded player, but lacks any real elite qualities. Physically he is above average in terms of pace, short area quickness, size and strength is average. Technically he is very clean on the ball and is a pretty good passer. Tactically he has a good feel for the game and displays good vision and timing.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

What worries me about RBW is that I have not seen real significant growth over the last two years. He kind of looks like the same player he was two years ago. It’s hard to say why. Is Seattle not providing the development he needs? Is he not putting in the work? Did he peak early? Who knows, but if we don’t see a bigger jump next season it might be time to start worrying. 

#15 | AM/WING, Álex Alcalá, LA Galaxy Academy

Alex Alcala is a Mexican-American from Stockton, California who started his academy career with the Stockton Rebels before signing with LA Galaxy. Alex’s current situation is strange. He is on a LA Galaxy II contract, but he has not played with LAGII all year. He has only played with the U17s. What is also interesting is that Manchester City owns the rights to Alex when he turns 18 if they decide to sign him. Alex has only played for Mexico and there have been reports that he is only interested in Mexico. I have no idea if that is true, but it may be that Alex never suits up for the United States, but until that becomes official, we’ll have him on our list. 

Alex is an electric playmaker that can play both centrally as a 10 and out wide as a winger. 

What makes him special? 

You might have come to know Alex after his highlight reel performance against Manchester United’s U17s in this year’s Generation Adidas Cup. Alex put on an absolute show, embarrassing players from one of the greatest Academies in the world, left and right. Alex probably manipulates the ball better than any player in the US-eligible youth pool. He is a wizard with the ball at his feet and it is the main reason Manchester City own his purchasing rights when he turns 18. He isn’t just a dribbler. He is also a very clever and gifted passer and he strikes the ball really well from his preferred left foot. His feel for the game and soccer IQ is extremely high as well. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

The big question mark for Alex right now is his size. He is extremely small, which isn’t a deal breaker at all in soccer, especially when you possess the technical ability and tactical ability that Alex has, but it will be a question mark until he can prove that he can impact games against grown men, which he has yet to have the opportunity to do. If he does prove, he will be much higher on this list. 

#16 | CB, Santiago Suarez, Sacramento Republic Academy

I didn’t know anything about Santiago Suarez until the United States U19s called him into a camp recently. He happened to get his professional debut just around the same time for Sacramento Republic. Santiago grew up in Rocklin, California, about 45 minutes from where I grew up. I believe Santi is a Uruguayan-American, though Transfermarket does not show that. Surprisingly, Santi is not on a pro deal with Sacramento, he is on loan from the Academy this year, but I’d expect that to change, unless he has an arrangement in which he is planning to transfer out when he is 18. Santiago is a right-footed center-back who has played as a left side center-back for Sacramento. 

What makes him special? 

The first thing you notice about Santiago is that he is really tall, like 6-4 to 6-5 tall. Obviously being that tall has its advantages as a defender, but the concern is how he moves at that height, at a young age. Seeing him move fluidly was a big box check and got me really intrigued. Next is about how he plays soccer and there are lots of things to like there as well. The thing that has continued to show for me is his communication and anticipation skills, developed well beyond his years. He is constantly talking to his teammates, pointing and making sure everyone knows what is going on and knows their assignments. This is really impressive for a 17 year old center-back playing with a group of professionals. Santi plays aggressive and goals into duels with vigor and he has shown to be pretty good in 1v1 situations. He isn’t bad on the ball either. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Santi has a tall and lean frame and he will need to add muscle and strength as he plays better and better competition. He is pretty good on the ball, but I still think it is an area he can improve. At times he over-finesses passes, which usually signals nerves and potentially a lack of confidence. The skill looks to be there, he just needs more experience and confidence going forward. 

#17 | GK, Emmanuel Ochoa, San Jose Earthquakes

Emmanuel Ochoa, also known as Emi, is a Mexican-American from Salinas, California. Emi is the only goalkeeper that made the top 20 list for the 2005 class. Emi started his Academy career with El Camino FC and also played for the Santa Cruz Breakers. In 2019 he moved to the San Jose Earthquakes Academy and then on November 2019 he signed a homegrown contract. Emi has yet to make his MLS debut. He has been the number one keeper for Quakes II and has logged over 1,000 minutes in MLS Next Pro where he has allowed only 13 goals in 12 appearances with two clean sheets. Emi is highly contested youth international between Mexico and the United States. He has appeared for the United States most recently at the U19 level, but he has featured for Mexico at the U18 and U16 level. The big decision for Emi will likely come in 2023/2024 if he has to choose between the two for the next U20 Concacaf Championships. 

What makes him special? 

Emi has good length and appears to have good hands. He is an intense leader that is unafraid to get the defense organized and seems to have pretty good box control. Emi also is comfortable with the ball at his feet, he’s left-footed, and has shown the ability to deliver various types of long distance passes with some accuracy. His positioning and decision making are pretty good for his age as well.  

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

While Emi has good length, I do think his reaction time and his explosiveness out of his stance can be improved so that he can more consistently get his hand to more difficult shots. His flexibility and ability to get to balls driven on the ground can be improved a bit as well. 

#18 | CM, Sergio Oregel, Chicago Fire

Sergio is a Mexican-American that is on a homegrown deal with the Chicago Fire. Sergio signed his deal in January of 2022 after developing through the Fire Academy. Sergio made his professional debut in the Open Cup this year, but has not yet appeared in a MLS League game. He has been a fixture for Fire II in MLS Next Pro where he has tallied five assists in just under 1200 minutes. Sergio is an 8 that could project to the 10 if he doesn’t develop enough physically to be a box to box midfielder. Sergio is another Mexican-American 2005 that has only played for the United States, but it is highly likely that there will be competition in the future. Sergio has been playing for the U19s and has scored in one of his appearances. He also played for the U15s a couple of years ago. 

What makes him special? 

Sergio is an incredibly intelligent player that has outstanding vision. He sees opportunities across the field and also has an elite ability to conceive and deliver a pass on point. Vision and passing are by far his super-powers as a soccer player. He’s also clean on the ball with a good first touch and half turn. He is not the most dynamic dribbler going forward, but he is secure. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Sergio is average at best physically, which is why a move to the 10 might be in his interest. Size, strength and quickness all leave something to be desired, but his IQ and skill definitely help make up for it. He is still young, just turning 17, so there is plenty of time for him to mature and develop physically. 

#19 | DM, Bryan Moyado, LAFC Academy

Bryan Moyado is a Mexican-American that has developed through the LAFC Academy. He is part of a pretty talented group of 2005s, none of which have been solidified a homegrown deal and none of which have been given time with LAFCs USL affiliates, the Las Vegas Lights. This entire group has played with the LAFC U17 team in MLS Next. I’ll be interested to see how this materializes for LAFC. Will this group struggle to adapt to higher levels? Bryan has committed to UCLA for the next NCAA season, but there is plenty of time for him to earn and explore other next steps in his career. He will have until August 1, 2023 to decide what his next steps will be. On the international side of things, Bryan has only represented the United States and he has done that at the U19 level and the U15 level. 

What makes him special? 

Bryan is a quintessential holding midfielder that controls the game well on the defensive and offensive side of things. He reads the game extremely well and is the ultimate calming presence on defense and in build up. He is clever and tidy with the ball and he has great vision and ability to execute a wide range of passes. He also has the ability to strike a ball from distance. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

While Bryan reads the game really well and can see things materialize before others, his biggest challenge is his explosiveness and strength. His IQ makes up for that in most cases, but we’ll see if his physical profiles holds him back once he starts playing against men that are older, faster and stronger. 

#20 | CB, Tyler Bindon, LAFC Academy

Tyler Bindon is another 2005 from the LAFC Academy that I really like. As far as I am aware, Tyler has been in the LAFC Academy for some time, but I am not 100% sure of that. Tyler is a right-footed center-back that has played mostly as a left-sided center-back for LAFC U17s. Tyler is not on a professional contract and from what I am aware of, has not committed to a NCAA program. Tyler has been in attendance at US U19 camps. Tyler caught my eye in a Generation Adidas Cup game against high-powered Flamengo where he showed a ton of poise and skill under immense pressure. 

What makes him special? 

Tyler is a tall and lean center-back that has shown the ability to perform well in a high-line in space. Tyler shows a lot of poise, calm and aggressiveness as a center-back, a combination that you really like to see from a defender. Tyler also shows a great ability to pass out of the back with both of his feet with accuracy. 

Biggest opportunity for improvement? 

Tyler is tall, but I have yet to see him really dominate in the air, both defensively and on set pieces. That could be a lack of strength or timing, I am not exactly sure, but with his height, I’d really like to see him be more of a force in the air. 

2003 Class Top 20 Rankings >>>

2004 Class Top 20 Rankings >>> 

Honorable Mentions

CF, Nighte Pickering, Memphis 901 / DM, Ethan Kohler, San Jose Earthquakes / AM, Caleb Borneo, Columbus Crew / WING, Luciano Sanchez, Philadelphia Union / AM, Anthony Ramirez, FC Dallas / CB, Ty Nero, Columbus Crew

Need to see more of…

RB, Nati Clarke, Sporting KC / CF, Guilio Misitano, Roma / RB, Diego Rossi, Parma / RB, Leo Duru, Blackburn Rovers / CF, Rodrigo Neri, Atletico Madrid / AM, Favion Loyola, Orlando City


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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