Background

I have researched rosters, read preseason reports and watched film, all in preparation to decide who I think will be the most impactful U21 American players in the MLS in 2022. This isn’t a list of the most talented U21s in MLS (born in 2001 or later). It’s a list of who will have the biggest role and who will make the most of that role. This list is based on anticipated amount of minutes, system/style of play fit, the player’s talent level and their supporting cast. Injuries are something we do not hope for nor can we predict, but that will also play a massive role in what young players get an opportunity this season. 

LIKELY STARTERS

Gaga Slonina
1 | Gaga Slonina, Chicago Fire (2004)

Club Position: GK / Ideal Position: GK

Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina is a Polish-American who took over as Chicago’s #1 goalkeeper in September of last year at the very young age of 17. It’s very rare for goalkeepers to break through this young. Gaga is a special talent and it will be fun to see him develop this year as Chicago’s #1. He is already the USYNT U20 number 1 and has been called into multiple USMNT camps. Gaga tops the list not just because he is really good, but he is also going to play EVERY game, and while I think Chicago is improved, he is going to have a lot of work to do between the pipes. What’s crazy is that there very well respected analysts out there that think there is another 2004 Chicago goalkeeper with a higher ceiling, Chris Brady, who will likely be Gaga’s backup this year. Club Brugge was interested this winter. Major European clubs are awaiting, for both. 

What makes him special

Gaga’s mentality and instincts for the game are pretty incredible for a 17 year old goalkeeper. 

Key growth area

His shot stopping technique will continue to improve as he continues to get reps. The tools are there, he just needs to be a little more consistent.

John Tolkin
2 | John Tolkin, New York Red Bulls (2002)

Club Position: LB / Ideal Position: LB

John Tolkin isn’t the most well regarded NYRB player on this list, but I think he is going to have the most impact because when he is fit to play, he should be a nailed on starter this year and he will be looking to build a case for a Euro transfer. John played a lot of minutes last year for NYRB and logged one goal and one assist playing LB, LWB and DM. His best position is definitely LB and with Andrew Gutman back to Atlanta after his loan with NYRB, I think John is going to be one of the best LBs in all of MLS. I think John is one of the most underrated USMNT prospects. I rate him above another 2002 LB that is playing in Germany, George Bello. There are reports that Leipzig brass are big fans. 

What makes him special

John is a highly technical and instinctual player that knows how to work out of tight situations and read the game defensively. He is also a high level passer and crosser. I expect a 7+ assist season this year. 

Key growth area

John doesn’t have the profile to be an elite athlete, but if he can get a little bit stronger and more explosive it will help him increase his ceiling a little bit. 

Caden Clark
3 | Caden Clark, New York Red Bulls (2003)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: AM

Caden Clark is a top 3 player within the 2003 US group. He can play as an 8, 10 or winger. Tom Bogert is projecting a 4-3-3 lineup for NYRB this year and he is also projecting that Caden will start as one of the 8s, which would be fantastic for Caden’s growth and his transition to USMNT. Caden told Tactical Manager in an interview that he played as one of the 8s in the December camp, but plays winger for the U20s.

He was off to a roaring start in MLS last season and was on his way to the 2021 Gold Cup before an appendectomy disrupted his season. He started to regain his high level form at the end of last season and looks to build on that and deliver more consistency this year. It’s been a little bit of a confusing offseason for Caden. He was purchased by RB Leipzig last summer and was planning to move on January 1 of this year, but Leipzig decided to loan him back to New York where both sides felt he could get more playing time and further his development. He is also going to be a key player for the 2023 U20 World Cup and 2024 Olympic qualifying that is happening this summer and being in the USA will make that easier to manage. If he consistently delivers his best stuff, he’ll be in the plans for Leipzig next year and should start garnering more USMNT looks. 

What makes him special

His ability to create high quality chances in low probability situations, he is a high level playmaker, with very few glaring gaps in his game.

Key growth area

Consistency, Caden shows flashes of brilliant play, it just comes and goes too often right now. 

Cade Cowell
4 | Cade Cowell, San Jose Earthquakes (2003)

Club Position: LW / Ideal Position: Second Striker

Cade was in and out of the starting lineup last year, but a consistent sub throughout the year. I’m betting on him solidifying a starting role, most likely as a winger, but potentially as a #9 and there are rumblings that he has been playing some wing back in preseason. I’d continue to play him as a #9 until he proves he can’t score consistently. It’s so hard to find high quality strikers, so if Cade can score consistently, that is where he would be most valuable. I like RWB as a plan B if the technical side never materializes too much. Cade will be another player that will play a key role this summer for the US U20s. My hope is he plays as a striker for that team because the depth behind Ricardo Pepi, who likely won’t play for this team, is very thing. If he is a little more consistent at the beginning of the season he will be on his way to Europe this summer or in January. He recently signed a contract extension with SJ and that will help in those negotiations. 

What makes him special

His physical profile, Cade is a blue chip athlete with pace and strength that are hard to match. 

Key growth area

He is still very raw technically. He shows flashes of dribbling ability, passing and finishing, but it’s highly inconsistent and pretty rough at times. 

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

Club Position: RB / Ideal Position: RB

Tayvon was mainly a squad player that rarely saw the field for the majority of last season. Tayvon has been primarily a center-back in his academy and YNT days, but when Anton Tinnerholm went down with injury, Tayvon became the starting right-back. He played in every minute of all four of New York City FCs playoff games in route to a MLS Cup, with an assist in the Quarter-Finals against New England Revolution. A game where he also powered through the entire extra time period with injury. I am banking on Tayvon building on that and holding on to the starting RB job once Tinnerholm is back from his injury. If Tayvon has a big year, he may be another American that takes his talents abroad. 

What makes him special

He’s a very strong 1v1 defender with a great mentality and awareness due to his youth experience as a central defender. 

Key growth area

Tayvon’s ceiling is going to be based on how much he can develop offensively. I saw great strides in this area last year where he became a more effective piece of NYCFCs attack and showed the ability to deliver some dangerous crosses into the box. 

Moses Nyeman
6 | Moses Nyeman, DC United (2003)

Club Position: DM / Ideal Position: CM

Moses Nyeman is another talented 2003 that was being considered for the 2021 Gold Cup. Injuries have kept him from joining a recent US U20 camp, but I expect him to be a key player for that team this summer. If he is fit, he should be called to the next U20 camp in March. The big question for me is where he plays. He can play both the 6 and 8 position and the bigger need for the U20s is probably at the 6. For DC, he plays as one of the central midfielders in a 5-3-2. He was starting pretty consistently and coming off the bench last year, but he couldn’t shake the injury bug. It looks like DC is going to rely on youth early in the season and I think Moses is going to have a big role. He is one of the top 10 prospects within a very talented 2003 class.

What makes him special

He has great ball control through his touch, dribbling ability and understanding of how to use his body to protect the ball. He reminds me a lot of Yunus Musah in the way he can carry the ball to break lines, he’s just not quite as dynamic and powerful of an athlete as Yunus. 

Key growth area

The easy thing to say here is his size, but I actually don’t think his size shows up often as a problem. He plays bigger than he is and appears to be naturally strong. I’d like to see him arrive more in the box and have more of an impact as a scoring threat. 

7 | Leon Flach, Philadelphia Union (2001)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: DM

Leon Flach moved from St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga in Germany to Philadelphia last year and the move was a very positive step in Leon’s career. Leon had 34 appearances and over 2600 minutes last year for the Union, mostly as central midfielder and at times as a left-back. Leon is high on this list because he is a projected starter on a good team. He isn’t a high ceiling prospect that is going to put up huge numbers, but he is going to have a big impact on the team and he is going to log huge minutes.

What makes him special

He is a consistent, well rounded and low mistake player that makes him very reliable in the midfield. 

Key growth area

He needs to develop an above average skill in either his passing and chance creation or his defensive cleanup ability as a more defensive minded midfielder. He’s good at a lot of things, but not really great at anything. 

SPOT STARTERS / HIGH IMPACT SUBS

Paxten Aaronson
8 | Paxten Aaronson, Philadelphia Union (2003)

Club Position: AM / Ideal Position: AM

Paxten is the younger brother of USMNT and RB Salzburg standout Brenden Aaronson and Paxten is on a very similar trajectory as his older brother. Philadelphia manager, Jim Curtin, has been on the record stating that Paxten is further along in his development than Brenden was at this age. Many believe, including myself, that Paxten’s ceiling is higher than Brenden’s. He’s stronger and has the potential to be a better shooter/finisher. Add Paxten to the list of top 2003s that will be key figures in the upcoming U20 tournaments. Paxten started getting more regular minutes (590 in total) at the end of last season and his first of three was a very impressive goal. He might not get a lot of starts this year, but he’ll be a more consistent impact sub, probably in the area of 900 to 1,000 minutes and I think he’ll shine in that role. This could be the year he joins his brother in Europe. 

What makes him special

Paxten is a very good playmaker and creative finisher. He has goals in his legs as they say. He also has that relentless motor that makes his big brother special. 

Key growth area

Needs to continue to grow into his body and become stronger so he can take on the wear and tear of a full senior team season. 

9 | Ted Ku-DiPietro, DC United (2002)

Club Position: AM, RWB / Ideal Position: AM

Ted is a late bloomer and late homegrown signing that really came on in the latter half of last season for Loudoun United. And what I say came on, I really mean came on. This guy has all of the tools you want in a half space, attacking player. He scored 7 goals and 3 assists for Loudoun last year and I think he is in store for a breakout campaign for a somewhat depleted DC United roster. He will start out as a sub, but I would not be surprised if he became a regular starter for DC United before the end of the year. If that happens, I also think he has the skillset to garner European interest. He’ll likely play as one of the attacking midfielders in DCs 3-4-2-1 system, but he can also play Wingback which will make him even more valuable as a sub. In USL, he logged minutes at every position outside of GK and CB for Loudoun, pretty incredible. If you are looking for a breakout candidate that nobody is talking about, I’d go with Ted. 

What makes him special

There is a lot to be excited about. He is strong, fast, he is ball secure and has good dribbling ability and he also arrives well in the box and can score in different ways, but my favorite aspect of his game is his passing ability. He can break lines and he can find and execute that clever final ball that leads to big chances, something the USMNT is really missing through the middle of the field. Keep an eye on this guy!

Key growth area

For me, I just need to see him translate his game at a higher level in MLS. If he does, I think European interest and USMNT opportunities await. 

Aidan Morris
10 | Aidan Morris, Columbus Crew (2001)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: DM

Aidan missed all of 2021 due to injury. In 2020, Aidan became a regular sub and spot starter for Columbus and played the full 90 in the 2020 MLS Cup in a 3-0 win for Columbus. I am very fascinated to see how big of a role Aidan plays for Columbus this year. They will likely work him back slowly as a substitute and I would bet Aidan earns a starting spot before the end of the year. Aidan is a very athletic and aggressive, defensive minded midfielder.

What makes him special

His overall defensive game is really fantastic. He has both good awareness, speed and tenacity which make him capable of being that single danger mitigating 6 that the USMNT needs depth at. 

Key growth area

If he can become a more consistent and dangerous passer Aidan is going to be a really exciting player. 

Quinn Sullivan
11 | Quinn Sullivan, Philadelphia Union (2004)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: AM

Quinn Sullivan is the second of four 2004s on the list behind Gaga. He is probably the most highly regarded 2004 player in the US player pool. He is another player that has been a consistent U20 callup over the last 5 months and will likely be a key center-mid option for Mikey Varas this summer. For Philadelphia, much like Paxten and Jack McGlynn, Quinn started to see more and more time with the Union last year and showed exciting flashes, including an overhead goal. He recently scored a banger for the U20s in a friendly vs FC Dallas. Quinn is one of the most likely candidates to move to Europe this year or next.

What makes him special

Quinn can really strike the soccer ball with his right foot. He’s a deadly shooter from all ranges. He also has a fierce, highly competitive mentality.

Key growth area

I’d like to see Quinn improve his off ball movement so he can get in more positions to use said deadly right foot. 

Brian Gutierrez
12 | Brian Gutiérrez, Chicago Fire (2003)

Club Position: AM / Ideal Position: AM, WING

Brian might have been in line for a starting role before Chicago signed Shaqiri a few weeks ago, but even with that signing I expect Brian to have a significant role with the Fire this season and he is pushing for a spot on the US U20 roster. Last year Brian logged over 600 minutes and had an assist. He is a player that has consistently exceeded expectations as a prospect so it might be time to stop overlooking him. He is a bold, attacking playing that can play as a 10 and on the wing. After watching him at the Revelations Cup last year with the U20s, I couldn’t shake how much he reminded me of Matthew Hoppe. He’s fearless, confident and at times a little reckless, but I love his “go for it” mentality and he was one of the few bright players in the first game against Brazil.

What makes him special

I really love Brian’s mentality and the way he plays with reckless abandon. He is fearless and will try whatever feels right in the moment, it’s fun to watch. 

Key growth area

I’d like to see him be a little more technically clean with the ball and a little more clinical. He’ll never be a super technical attacker, but a little improvement could go a long way with his confident mentality. 

Bryce Duke
13 | Bryce Duke, Inter Miami (2001)

Club Position: CM, AM / Ideal Position: CM

Bryce was never able to get a consistent run of play from Bob Bradley in LAFC. There was a lot of midfield talent in LA and it didn’t seem like Bob trusted him too much. I think the move to Miami is going to be good for him. You never know what to expect when a young player moves to a new club, but Miami’s midfield is pretty underwhelming and Bryce should get a chance to be a starter in South Beach at some point this season. Bryce is true box to box midfielder that can provide value on offense and defense.

What makes him special

I really like the way Bryce distributes the ball and keeps it moving. He’s got a lot of different types of passes in his repertoire. 

Key growth area

I would like to see Bryce become a little more goal dangerous. I think he has the skill set, he just hasn’t scored a lot of goals throughout his young career. 

CONSISTENT SUBS

Jack McGlynn
14 | Jack McGlynn, Philadelphia Union (2003)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: CM

Jack McGlynn is another Union prospect that saw a decent amount of time last year (600+ minutes) and with the Union trading Monteiro, he could be in for an even bigger role within the midfield. Jack is part of a very talented crop of 2003s and 2004s within Philadelphia’s system (they have five players on this list) and he is another player looking to make the U20 World Cup Qualifying team this summer. I am not as bullish on Jack as some analysts are. I am not sure the technical skills can overcome the physical limitations, but he’s still young and he could develop a little more, physically, as he gets older. It’s hard not to get a little excited about that smooth left foot.

What makes him special

He’s got a very talented left foot that he deploys as both a progressive passer and shooter. 

Key growth area

I am hoping he can get a little quicker and stronger. If not, he’ll really need to develop a 6th sense for the game to overcome his mobility limitations. 

Matko Miljevic
15 | Matko Miljevic, Club de Foot Montréal (2001)

Club Position: LW / Ideal Position: LW, RW

Matko is an Argentinian-American who developed at the Argentinos Jr Academy in Argentina. There was a weird falling out with the club and after a long period of nothing, he was able to free himself of that contract and he signed with Montreal midway through the 2021 season. I wasn’t super impressed with what I saw from Matko last year. He seems to have lost some quickness from his Boca days and he’s looked a bit out of shape to me. He did one goal last year in five appearances. He was also brought in as a sub in Montreal’s CONCACAF Champion’s League match last week, so he is likely in for a fairly significant role. If Matko can return to his form of a few years ago he is a prospect worth keeping track of.

What makes him special

He has really quick feet which help be an effective 1v1 dribbler. 

Key growth area

Fitness. He looked a bit out of shape and a little slow when I saw him in action for Montreal last year. 

Josh Atencio
16 | Josh Atencio, Seattle Sounders (2002)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: DM, CB

Josh Atencio is going to be one of the key backup midfielders in Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 system. Last year Josh accumulated over 1,500 minutes and 18 starts because of a series of injuries to the Seattle midfield. I expect to see both of those numbers go down if Seattle has a little better luck. Cristian Roldan, João Paulo and Kelyn Rowe are all likely ahead of him in the depth chart and he’ll be competing with other talented prospects that narrowly missed this list: Danny Leyva, Reed Baker-Whiting and Obed Vargas. Even with this crowded midfield, he should carve out a nice role, especially late in games when Seattle is up and they need to preserve a lead. I still maintain that Josh’s future is at CB, but I’ve heard that Seattle sees him as a midfielder.

What makes him special

He has good defensive awareness, ball security and he can pick out a pass. He’s a little like James Sands with a thicker frame. 

Key growth area

If he is going to stick in the midfield I’d like to see him be a bit more ambitious with his passing. He often sticks with the simplest safe play more times than not. 

Cameron Duke
17 | Cameron Duke, Sporting Kansas City (2001)

Club Position: RB, CM / Ideal Position: RB

Cameron has played both as an 8 and as a RB for KC. Jaylin Lindsey is now with Charlotte and even though Graham Zusi is back for another year, he’s getting up there in years and you have to think there will be a fair amount of rotation happening at RB. The good news is I think RB is a better fit for Cameron Duke. 

What makes him special

He’s a very pacey player that can break lines with his dribbling ability. 

Key growth area

He’s small in stature and that makes him a little bit of a liability defensively, more specifically tackling and in duels. I’d love to see him get a little more consistently stuck in and add a little muscle mass to be more stout defensively. 

Ben Bender
18 | Ben Bender, Charlotte FC (2001)

Club Position: CM / Ideal Position: CM

Ben was the first overall selection by Charlotte as a Sophomore out of Maryland. At Maryland, Ben a United Soccer Coaches first-team All American after scoring 7 goals and 5 assists in his Soph season. I have not seen Ben play but from what I have read on him he is an intelligent and technical midfielder who is stronger on the offensive side of things. Ben should be able to compete for spot starts and bench minutes in the Charlotte midfield rotation.

What makes him special

Reports are that Ben is a very intelligent and aware midfielder. He is aware of his surroundings and threats and has the technical ability to create positive plays towards goal through dribbling, passing and movement. 

Key growth area

Not sure, can’t find tape on him. Defense? We’ll find out. 

BACK UPS WHO SHOULD GET AN OPPORTUNITY

George Campbell
19 | George Campbell, Atlanta United FC (2001)

Club Position: RCB / Ideal Position: RCB

If Atlanta was to continue with a three-back formation George would be higher on this list, but it sounds like Atlanta is going to move to a four-back, with two CBs. I don’t see George surpassing Franco anytime soon, but I expect him to get more spot starts than last year and If Miles transfers abroad this summer, that would open up a spot for George to be a locked in starter. It’s also possible that Atlanta uses the 3-back system in some matchups in which case George would be added to the starting lineup.

What makes him special

George is a big and strong guy that has the ability to dominate in the air both defensively and as a set piece weapon, but what I like most about his game is his passing. He can pick out and execute a long diagonal and he is consistently looking for a line breaking pass. 

Key growth area

I have noticed a concerning trend with George that he gets caught up field too often and he doesn’t have the foot speed of someone like Miles Robinson to recover. He needs to be more selective with his decisions to press up the field. His profile is very similar to John Brooks, but right footed. 

Jalen Neal
20 | Jalen Neal, LA Galaxy (2003)

Club Position: RCB, LCB / Ideal Position: RCB, LCB

It’s very hard for young CBs to break through because it requires a high level of physicality once you are playing on the first team. Jalen has been getting a bunch of praise from his manager this offseason and I think this could be the year he breaks through, if he does, he might be too low on this list. 

What makes him special

He’s got a great feel for the game and a great touch and passing ability. He is one of the better ball playing CBs in the youth pool. 

Key growth area

Like most young CBs, he needs to get stronger to be able to consistently compete with full grown, professional strikers. 

Isaiah Parker
21 | Isaiah Parker, FC Dallas (2002)

Club Position: LB / Ideal Position: LWB

Isaiah was the third pick in this year’s Super Draft out of Saint Louis University, selected by FC Dallas as a Freshman. At Saint Louis, Isaiah played as a winger and was a Top Drawer Soccer first-team Freshman Best XI team. He scored 3 goals and added 7 assists. For Dallas, the plan is for him to play LB as the primary substitute behind recently traded for Marco Farfan. Isaiah has been getting a lot of minutes in preseason and I think he’ll see a decent amount of time coming on for Marco. I am not super high on Farfan, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Parker pushes for that starting role this season or next.

What makes him special

Isaiah is a pacey, attacking minded player who loves to go at people one on one.

Key growth area

Isaiah is going to need to adjust to the pace of play and build an understanding of how to find solutions in his new position. He’ll also have to learn his various defensive assignments. 

Cameron Harper
22 | Cameron Harper, New York Red Bulls (2001)

Club Position: LW, RW / Ideal Position: LW, RW

Cameron Harper is a Scottish-American who has spent some time within the Celtic Academy. Cameron is a true winger that likes to take defenders on 1v1. I was surprised Cameron didn’t get more time last year. He is a talented player with some intriguing skills. It looks like NYRB is moving to a 4-3-3 system that will leverage more traditional wing play and I think this will be beneficial to Cameron’s success at the club.

What makes him special

Cameron is a very talented dribbling and can consistently beat people in 1v1 situations

Key growth area

Cameron, like a lot of young wingers, needs to become more consistent with his final product. 

Daniel Edelman
23 | Daniel Edelman, New York Red Bulls (2003)

Club Position: CDM / Ideal Position: CDM

Daniel Edelman signed a homegrown contract with New York Red Bulls this offseason and was one of the last 2003 born players to do so. Daniel had a nice season with NYRB II last year as the primary defensive midfielder. He also has had a few call-ups with with U20 team. He will be competing with Danny Leyva and potentially Moses Nyeman for the “Tyler Adams” role within the U20 team. He is another player that will benefit from NYRBs move to a 4-3-3. Daniel has the range and tenacity to play the center defensive midfield position that is responsible for cleaning up mistakes in the backline. I expect to see him get regular minutes at some point this season.

What makes him special

Daniel has good pace and I love his defensive bite. He’s the type of play that can be that sideline to sideline cleanup man for the midfield.

Key growth area

He needs to develop a little more to offer going forward. I’d like to see him become a more consistent and aggressive passer. 

Caleb Wiley
24 | CALEB WILEY, Atlanta UNITED (2004)

Club Position: LB / Ideal Position: LB

Caleb Wiley is a big reason why Atlanta was comfortable with transferring George Bellow overseas. Caleb has shown an incredible amount of development over the last 1.5 years and became the primary LB for Atlanta II last year. With George Bello off to Germany, Caleb is in line for a role with Atlanta. Andrew Gutman will be the starter but I expect Caleb to earn some minutes and spot starts. Caleb is also very much in the mix for one of the two LB positions within the US U20 squad. This time next year he’ll likely be ranked within the top 10 of this list.

What makes him special

He’s a very good 1v1 defender both from an awareness standpoint and because of his size and speed profile. 

Key growth area

He’s been developing nicely as an offensively player, but I’d still like to see him become a more effective crosser.

Brandan Craig
25 | Brandan Craig, Philadelphia Union (2004)

Club Position: CB, CDM / Ideal Position: CDM

Brandan Craig is the final member of the Philadelphia contingent on this list. Brandan has played as a center-back for the majority of his youth career, but his future might be at defensive-mid and that is his best chance to get minutes with Philadelphia this year. I do think this is the year Brandan breaks through and gets his first minutes with the senior Union team. Brandan was called into the last US U20 camp where he’ll likely play center-back. He’s got the technical ability to play in Europe. The question is whether his physical profile will keep him at CB or move him to DM. 

What makes him special

He is silky smooth on the ball and he is a very good progressive passer. 

Key growth area

He needs to fill out and get stronger so he is able to consistently compete with grown men. 

Club Representation

Philadelphia (5), NYRB (4), Atlanta (2), Chicago (2), DC (2), Charlotte (1), Columbus (1), Dallas (1), Kansas City (1), LA Galaxy (1), Miami (1), Montreal (1), NYCFC (1), San Jose (1), Seattle (1)

Positional Representation (IDEAL POSITIONS)

AM (5), DM (5), CM (4), LB (3), CB (2), Wing (2), RB (2), ST (1), GK (1)

Age Group Representation

2003 (8), 2001 (8), 2002 (5), 2004 (4)