U.S. U-21 Impact Rankings: MLS 2023 Season Preview

The MLS season is less than a week away and if you are like me, your primary reason for watching the MLS is to monitor young American talent that could impact the United States Youth and Men’s National Teams. The MLS rosters will continue to change as the season starts, but at this point, we have a strong sense of how each team will be constructed, and consequentially, what roles young American could play for their clubs. This list is comprised of United States eligible players that are born in 2002 or later.

Likely Locked Starters

GK, Chris Brady, Chicago Fire (2004)

Chicago did not go out and acquire a starting level, veteran goalkeeper this offseason which strongly indicates that they are going to give Brady the opportunity. After selling Gaga Slonina to Chelsea for seven figures, Brady is the next super talented keeper born in 2004 that will have a chance to shine in MLS.

LB, John Tolkin, New York Red BUlls (2002)

Tolkin finished at the top of last year’s MLS U-21 impact rankings and if he stays with RBNY throughout the season he will likely finish near the top again. I am surprised Tolkin did not get a move to Europe in January, but a strong start to the season could lead to a summer move. 

RB, Tayvon Gray, New York City FC (2002)

I was expecting last season to be a breakout year for Gray, but injuries and some competition from Anton Tinnerholm got in the way of that. With Tinnerholm gone, this could be the year Gray becomes one of the better right-backs in MLS. 

SPOT Starters

RB, Bode Hidalgo, Real Salt Lake (2002)

Aaron Herrera was traded to Montreal and that leaves Hidalgo as the only right-back/right wing-back type player on the RSL roster to start the season. It’s possible that RSL brings in competition at some point this season, but for now, it looks like Hidalgo is going to get a lot of minutes for Salt Lake. 

RB, Kayden Pierre, Sporting Kansas City (2003)

Pierre was one of the most improved young American players in MLS and received spot starts for Sporting KC throughout the year. I was hoping Pierre would get a chance to be the full time starter this year, but KC brought back MLS veteran, Graham Zusi, so my bet is that they will split time at the position at the beginning of the year. Hopefully Pierre will win the job outright before the end of the season. 

RB/CB, Michael Halliday, Orlando City (2003)

Orlando’s starting right-back from last season, Ruan, moved to DC United and so that leaves three right-backs on the roster battling for minutes. Kyle Smith is the veteran while Halliday will be pushing for the starting spot along with the next player on the list, Alex Freeman. I expect Smith to begin the season as the starter, but both young right-backs should push for starts. 

RB, Alex Freeman, Orlando City (2004)

Freeman is the younger and more inexperienced player of the two young right-backs for Orlando, but he is the more talented player. I am going a little out on a limb in saying that I think Freeman will get some starts, but I think by the end of the year Freeman could solidify himself as the first choice right-back. Freeman has a Bryan Reynolds type profile at right-back. 

LB, Isaiah Foster, FC Cincinnati (2003

Cincinnati made a move for Isaiah Foster this offseason from the Colorado Switchbacks in USL. Young players moving from USL to MLS is a positive development and a pathway I’d like to see more of. I don’t expect him to start week in and week out, but he should get ample opportunity to play for FCC this year because they lack any other true left-footed full-backs. 

LB, Caleb Wiley, Atlanta United (2004)

Wiley was a spot starter at both left-back and left-wing for an injury depleted Atlanta squad last season. With Andrew Gutman fit and Derrick Etienne at left-wing, starts could be harder to come by for Wiley at the beginning of the season. Wiley’s talent is too good to not count on a significant role for the club before the end of the season. 

RCB, Jalen Neal, LA Galaxy (2003)

Predicting Neal to get spot starts for LA Galaxy is a speculative pick and I may be predicting this more with my heart than my mind, but I am hoping LAG sees the light. The Galaxy have a stable of veteran and uninspiring players at center-back and I think Neal is ready to play center-back at an MLS level, but it will come down to whether he gets the opportunity. If he does, I think he’ll take it and not look back.

RCB, Brandan Craig, Philadelphia Union (2004)

Craig is the second United States U-20 center-back that I think will get some minutes this year and coincidentally, both are the likely starting center-backs for the United States U-20 team for the U-20 World Cup in May and June of this year. Philadelphia Union has alluded to the idea that Craig will get some starts this year, likely in a three-back shape. Given the amount of games Philly will play this season, I think it’s a safe bet that we will see more of Craig.

DM, JOsh Atencio, Seattle Sounders (2002)

The Seattle Sounders typically play in a 4-2-3-1 shape and they have a lot of players that play in that second line of two. Atencio is one of those players and one of three U-21 U.S. eligible players that can play in that role. Last year it appeared that Obed Vargas was higher on the depth chart than Atencio and Danny Leyva, but with his injury challenges, Atencio could see the most minutes this season. We saw that he was the preferred choice over Danny Leyva in the Club World Cup a few weeks ago.

DM, Daniel Edelman, New York Red Bulls (2003)

Edelman earned a starting role towards the end of last season and I expect him to get a good amount of starts this season. He might become a locked starter fairly soon, but there is a good amount of competition in central midfield for RBNY and so I think Edelman will have to play really well to earn that role.

CM, Jack McGlynn, Philadelphia Union (2003)

McGlynn was one of the U-21 breakout players in MLS last season and this year he looks to build on that and become an even more impactful professional. He’ll likely split time with veteran Alejandro Bedoya. Further progression by lefty McGlynn could lead to a move to Europe this summer or next winter. 

CM, Niko Tsakiris, San Jose Earthquakes (2005)

Tsakiris is one of the most talented U.S. players born in 2005 and was the only 2005 player to make the Concacaf U-20 Championship roster for the United States. Tsakiris started to get more minutes as the season went on last year and started the last couple of games and looked good. With Luchi Gonzalez as the new manager I would expect Tsakiris to have a significant role in the midfield for San Jose.

CM, Obed Vargas, Seattle Sounders (2005)

Vargas was looking like the breakout player early in the MLS season last year after a really impressive showing in the Concacaf Champions League, but unfortunately Vargas’ season was cut short because of a significant back injury. He was back in preseason training and reportedly looking really good before picking up a muscle injury. It’s not thought to be significant and hopefully Vargas can work his way back into the starting lineup.

AM, Brian Gutierrez, Chicago Fire (2003)

Gutierrez had a very good season last year — contributing two goals and five assists. He can play left-wing, attacking-mid and right-wing in Chicago’s preferred 4-2-3-1 setup and that flexibility and emerging talent should lead to a lot of minutes and potentially some European interest this season. He may not start every game, but he’ll likely appear in every game he is available for.

AM, Diego Luna, Real Salt Lake (2003)

Luna moved to Real Salt Lake last summer from USL side El Paso. Luna is still adjusting to the increased physicality and speed of play in MLS, but should start to get more minutes and more starts in his first full season at Salt Lake.

WING, Cade Cowell, San Jose Earthquakes (2003)

Cowell very well be a locked in starter for Luchi Gonzalez this year, but with Ben Kikanovic still in the South Bay he will likely rotate a bit. Gonzalez has said that he has “big plans” for Cowell who has had rumored interest from big clubs in Europe over the last two seasons. Cowell is an elite athlete that is still developing the technical and tactical aspects of his game. If he takes considerable steps forward in those areas this year he could require a handsome transfer fee.

WING, Jackson Hopkins, DC United (2004)

Hopkins is well liked by manager Wayne Rooney and was a spot starter for a poor DC United team last year. The attack has been bolstered a bit, so Hopkins likely isn’t a locked starter, but he should get a lot of minutes in his second MLS season.

Consistently Used Substitutes

LB, Noah Allen, Inter Miami (2004)

Allen was reportedly looking improved in preseason this year, but an injury has cut his preseason short. I expect that Allen will work his way into the rotation at some point this year. 

DM, Peter Stroud, New York Red Bulls (2002)

Stroud signed a homegrown deal with RBNY this year and will be entering his first season in MLS. He was considered by most to be the best player in NCAA soccer last year and those in the scouting community believe that if he had not had to deal with serious injury issues as a youth player he’d be one of the most hyped USYNT/USMNT prospects. Stroud is good enough to earn a role in the RBNY midfield pretty early on in the season. 

DM, Danny Leyva, Seattle Sounders (2003)

Leyva was rumored to be on the move this offseason because Seattle knew minutes would be hard to come by and he seems to be behind Josh Atencio and Obed Vargas on the depth chart. Nonetheless, he should still get consistent sub minutes.

CM, Owen Wolff, Austin FC (2004)

Wolff surprisingly earned a considerable role for Austin last season, much of which he played out of position at right-wing. I expect Wolff to build on that and be a key rotational player for father Wolff this season.

CM, Ben Cremaschi, Inter Miami (2005)

Cremaschi is a new homegrown for Inter Miami and is a big talent, probably the most talented homegrown IMCF has signed to date. It will be interesting to see how Neville incorporates him into the squad — I think he’ll earn consistent minutes before too long. 

CM, Noel Buck, New England Revs (2005)

Buck was pretty good in his first season in MLS and I expect that he will continue to get spot minutes off the bench for the Revs. 

CM, Brooklyn Raines, Houston Dynamo (2005)

Raines was not eligible to play for the Dynamo last year because of the transfer rules around homegrown players moving from one Academy to another, but he should get his MLS debut early in the season and become a rotational piece in the midfield.

CM, Sergio Oregel Jr, Chicago Fire (2005)

The Fire’s midfield depth is fairly thin and Oregel has been developing nicely in MLS Next Pro. It’s possible he works his way into the rotation before too long. 

AM, Ted Ku-DiPietro, DC United (2002)

Ku-DiPietro has long been a player I rate highly and a player I thought would have a breakout season in 2022, but he never really earned or received an opportunity to get consistent minutes. He has had a nice preseason and this could be the year he puts it all together at the MLS level.

AM, Esmir Bajraktarevic, New England Revs (2005)

I think Bajraktarevic is the most talented of the New England Homegrowns even though he struggled some in MLS Next Pro last year. I am betting on his talent to come through and earn a rotation role out wide and as a number ten.

AM, Favion Loyola, Orlando City (2005)

Loyola is a new homegrown from the Orlando City Academy and he is also a U.S. Youth International. Orlando added a lot of attacking firepower this offseason, but I still think Loyola could carve out a roll for himself this year.

WING, BeRnard Kamungo, FC Dallas (2002)

Kamungo is a really cool story. He earned a North Texas SC contract after an open tryout to the public and he recently became a U.S. Citizen after moving from Tanzania. After flourishing for FCDs second team he earned a first team contract and will be entering his first full year with the first team. I think Kamungo will earn the role as the first winger off the bench behind starters Pail Arriola and Alan Velasco. 

WING, Jonathan Perez, LA Galaxy (2003)

The Galaxy sold a bunch of wingers and are actively trying to get rid of one of the last two, Douglas Costa, which would leave Perez as the only natural winger on the roster. Will Galaxy play with wingers? Who knows what Chris Klein is doing, but it would seem that Perez is going to have a role with the first team this year. 

WING, Serge Ngoma, New York Red Bulls (2005)

When Ngoma was healthy last season he looked really dynamic. The problem is that Ngoma was rarely fit. If he can stay healthy, he will be a consistent sub and potential starter for RBNY this season. 

WING, Kris Fletcher, DC United (2005)

Fletcher was signed to a homegrown deal last year after impressing for reserve club Loudoun United. Fletcher should get more of a first team role this year as either a left-winger or striker. Fletcher is a talented kid with a powerful right-foot.

CF, Quimi Ordonez, FC Cincinnati (2003)

Ordonez is provisionally cap-tied to Guatemala after an outstanding Concacaf U-20 Championship and he has been impressing in preseason. The striker depth chart is deep in Cincinnati so opportunities are going to be tough to come by, but I think Ordonez will work his way into some minutes. 

CF, Quinn Sullivan, Philadelphia Union (2004)

Sullivan is one of the most talented young Americans in the MLS, but consistent minutes for a very good Philadelphia Union squad have been tough to come by. It looks like he is moving from the midfield to second-striker this year, which I believe is a much better fit in this system. He should be the first striker called off the bench and I bet he bags some goals this year.

CF, Darren Yapi, Colorado Rapids (2004)

It is very hard for young strikers to get minutes in MLS because most clubs invest heavily in that position. Nonetheless, Diego Rubio is the only other option at center-forward for the Rapids and Yapi started to get more of a role towards the end of last season, even with Gyasi Zardes there, so Yapi could have a consistent role this year.

CF, Axel Kei, Real Salt Lake (2007)

Kei is still only 15 years of age and will be 15 throughout the 2023 season, but he showed pretty well in MLS Next Pro and he has the physical profile of a grown man. Add to the fact that RSLs striker depth is thin, so it’s not impossible to think that Kei could get some minutes in the second half of the season.