The United Soccer League Championship is the second highest level of soccer in the United States and it is quickly becoming a destination for young American talent to get professional minutes, in a mature league, against grown men. Major League Soccer territory rules are not player friendly. When a talented young player that has been “claimed” by an MLS academy does not get the opportunity that is optimal for their development from that MLS academy, the USL is becoming an attractive option. USL clubs have shown the willingness to give young players opportunities to play and now bigger leagues and bigger clubs are scouting USL with intent.
Jonathan Gomez left FC Dallas’ academy to sign with Louisville City and parlayed that into a move to Real Sociedad in Spain’s LaLiga. Kobi Henry moved from Inter Miami’s Academy to Orange County and he is now in the Stade Reims system in France. Diego Luna left the San Jose Earthquakes Academy to join the Barcelona Residency in Arizona and then get an opportunity to join El Paso Locomotive — from there he was signed by Real Salt Lake. These pathways are showing that USL is a viable bridge to higher levels, and as a result, we have seen more talented players join USL this offseason. These are the players I will be keeping an eye on this season:
RCB, Josh Wynder, Louisville City (2005)
Wynder is arguably the most talented young player to ever play in USL, and as a result, he is likely to shatter the USL transfer fee record this summer. What is so cool about Wynder’s story is that he is a true product of Louisville’s Academy system, he did not come from MLS. He became a full-time starter for Lou City last season, as a 16 year old, and he played really well. He is now being targeted by some of the best talent development clubs in the world: Benfica, RB Salzburg and Monaco. Wynder does not turn 18 until May, so he is not eligible to move to Europe until then. If all goes to plan, Wynder will play a few month with Louisville City and then decide on his next destination in the summer transfer window. My advice is to watch Wynder play while you can this season.
WING, Korede Osundina, Orange County (2004)
No club has embraced the youth movement in USL quite like Orange County. They currently hold the record outbound transfer fee when they sold Kobi Henry to Stade Reims for just over 600 thousand. Orange County’s most prolific pipeline is from the Barcelona Residency program in Arizona. OCSC has now signed three players from that Academy, Osundina being the first. He signed with Orange County in January 2022 and logged over 500 minutes and three assists in his first professional season. This season is an important year for Osundina. I expect him to become a regular starter and a big season is likely to lead to a move to MLS or another step up in competition. Osundina has been a consistent selection to the United States U19 team and has an outside chance of making the U20 World Cup roster, though I think that is unlikely.
WING, Bryce Jamison, Orange County (2006)
Jamison is another winger that was signed from the Barca Residency in Arizona. Jamison is a big and strong and winger with a powerful right foot. Jamison started to get some sub minutes towards the end of last year and I expect his role to increase this year. Jamison is eligible for the United States U17 team that just qualified for the World Cup. He has been in Youth National Team camps and I think he is a player that the United States could take another look at after a lackluster performance by the wings in the Concacaf Championships. If Jamison impresses, he may be one of the next players to garner interest from Europe. He turns 18 in January 2024.
GK, Duran Ferree, San Diego Loyal (2006)
Ferree is a player familiar to some because he played with the United States U17s in the recent Concacaf Championships. He was an alternate on the initial roster release, but was then moved to the active roster because of an injury to another goalkeeper. Ferree earned the start in the U17 finals against Mexico, but was unfortunately sent off after his second yellow card that led to a second penalty kick. That was a tough end to what was otherwise a good tournament for Ferree. It will be interesting to see how many starts Ferree gets under Landon Donovan.
CM, Luis Moreno, El Paso Locomotive (2006)
Moreno is the most recent MLS Academy signing in USL. He is a product of the Houston Dynamo Academy and he is a player I rate highly. He is one of the top central-midfielders in the 2006 class. Moreno has also been capped with the United States U17s. Moreno is a highly skilled and intelligent player, but is undersized. I am very intrigued to see how his skillset translated to USL and if he will be able to make an immediate impact at his size.
WING, Fidel Barajas, Charleston Battery (2006)
Barajas is another player that featured at the Concacaf U17 Championships for tournament winner, Mexico. Barajas has played for both the United States and Mexico and he comes from the San Jose Earthquakes Academy. Barajas joined Charleston midseason last year and like Jamison, is looking to increase his impact in his first full season. Barajas is a player that likely sees USL as a stepping stone to a bigger league. He turns 18 in April of 2024 which is when he’d be eligible to move to Europe.
DM, Matthew Corcoran, Birmingham Legion (2006)
Corcoran is a former FC Dallas Academy player and was arguably the best player in FCDs 2006 class. Corcoran will be in his second season for Birmingham after earning 166 minutes in his rookie season. Corcoran is a technically sound defensive-midfielder than can also play as a number eight. I expect Corcoran to take a step forward in development and production and also look to make a move after this season. He turns 18 in February of 2024.
LB, Tate Johnson, Tampa Bay Rowdies (2005)
Johnson, like Wynder, is a player that has been developed through the USL Academy system. Johnson has come up through the Tampa Bay Academy and received his professional debut last season. Johnson is a well-rounded left-back that does not have a lot of elite attributes, but is consistent. He is a player I can see taking a similar path as Isaiah Foster, who recently signed with FC Cincinnati after playing with Colorado Springs.
LCB, Eric Kinzner, Rio Grande Valley Toros (2003)
Solid ball playing, left-footed center-back are hard to come by, which is why I was surprised that the Seattle Sounders did not offer Kinzner a professional contract. Nonetheless, Kinzner has signed with Rio Grande after a successful loan spell with FC Tuscon in USL League One, the tier below USL Championship. Kinzner is likely looking to parlay a solid year or two in USL into an opportunity in MLS, which I think is a good level for him strive for.
RCB, Drew Murray, Oakland Roots (2005)
Murray is one of two San Jose Earthquakes Academy players that have signed a one-year deal with nearby club, Oakland Roots. Murray is a tall center-back with good passing accuracy. I’ve heard rumors that he has a reserve team deal lined up with a club in Germany which he would join after this season.
DM, Ethan Kohler, Oakland Roots (2005)
Kohler is the second San Jose Earthquake product to join Oakland this offseason. Kohler is an athletic and tenacious number six that I thought San Jose might offer a homegrown deal to, but they didn’t and Kohler is looking to get his professional career started in Oakland. Like Murray, I’ve heard this is a one and done deal and Kohler could be headed to Germany after this season.
CF, Nighte Pickering, Memphis 901 (2005)
Pickering was one of the first MLS Academy players from the 2005 age group to sign with a USL club, moving from FC Dallas Academy to Memphis. Pickering didn’t get a ton of minutes last year, but made the most of the minutes he received, scoring two goals in seven appearances, one of which was an overhead kick. Pickering will look to become more of a regular rotational player for Memphis this season.
AM, Luca Sowinsky, Tulsa (2004)
Sowinsky is the third player on this list from the Barca Residency in Arizona. Sowinsky made headlines last year when scoring a hat-trick in his second professional start, becoming the third youngest player to do so in USL, behind big name MLS players Efrain Alvarez and Jesus Ferreira. This year Sowinsky looks to become a regular starter for Tulsa and make a case to be looked at by bigger leagues.