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.
G+A / 90: 0.14
xGA / 90: 0.13
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.
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.
G+A / 90: 0.07
xGA / 90: 0.07
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.
G+A / 90: 0.10
xGA / 90: 0.09
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.
G+A / 90: 0.05
xGA / 90: 0.10
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.
G+A / 90: 0.38
xGA / 90: 0.34
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.
G+A / 90: 0.51
xGA / 90: 0.31
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.
G+A / 90: 0.35
xGA / 90: 0.26
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.
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.07
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.
Previous Ranking: 9
G+A / 90: 0.12
xGA / 90: 0.21
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.
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.05
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.
G+A / 90: 0.30
xGA / 90: 0.25
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.
G+A / 90: 0.15
xGA / 90: 0.24
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.
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.
G+A / 90: 0.35
xGA / 90: 0.22
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.
G+A / 90: 0.17
xGA / 90: 0.23
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.
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.05
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.
G+A / 90: 0.09
xGA / 90: 0.08
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.
G+A / 90: 0.09
xGA / 90: 0.04
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.
G+A / 90: 0.09
xGA / 90: 0.06
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.
G+A / 90: 0.47
xGA / 90: 0.30
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.
G+A / 90: 0.00
xGA / 90: 0.06
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.
G+A / 90: 0.10
xGA / 90: 0.23
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.
G+A / 90: 0.10
xGA / 90: 0.23
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?
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.
Justin Haak, Matko Miljevic, Josh Atencio, Caden Clark, Paxten Aaronson, Serge Ngoma