Mason Toye's two spectacular goals for Minnesota United in its
stunning 2-0 victory at LAFC on Sunday night highlighted what has been a breakout season for the 20-year-old forward from South Orange, New Jersey.
The next day he headed down to Chula Vista to join the U.S. under-23 national team for training camp as it continues it preparations for Olympic qualifying in March 2020.
Toye is not yet a full-time starter on the Loons, but he has been a big part of their success in reaching the U.S. Open Cup final and contending for their first berth in the MLS playoffs.
Toye, who three years ago was still playing high school soccer, has eight goals in just 711 minutes in the two competitions for a ratio of 1.013 goals/per 90 minutes. Of MLS's top scorers, only LAFC's Carlos Vela has a higher scoring ratio than Toye has in 2019 MLS and Open Cup competition, and that's just barely: 1.016 goals/per 90 minutes.
Toye joins what is an unprecedented pool of talent among American forwards in the under-23 age range of players born in 1997-2000. (For purposes of this look, we've also included Uly Llanez, who was born in 2001 and is therefore eligible as a U-23 player for the 2024 Olympics.)
Previous Olympic cycles have included most of the best American forwards of the last two decades -- including Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore -- but none has had close to the depth of the current group.
U.S. U-23 coach Jason Kreis called in seven players listed as forwards -- and added on Tuesday an eighth forward, Chula Vista native Brandon Vazquez. They include Jesus Ferreira and Toye, who are both having outstanding MLS seasons for their MLS clubs.
But it says almost as much about the current pool of talent coming through to mention who's not in Chula Vista. Among them: Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic (now listed as a forward) with the senior national team in New Jersey, Tim Weah, back in France rehabbing his hamstring tear, and Emmanuel Sabbi, whose transfer from Danish club Hobro fell through on Monday.
Also not in Chula Vista is Jeremy Ebobisse, who leads all U-23 MLS players with eight goals this season for Portland, which has a game against Sporting KC on Saturday, or Jonathan Lewis, who scored twice last weekend for Colorado, which also has a match on Saturday against Seattle.
Ebobisse broke through in MLS at the end of last season with the Timbers, and Ferreira and Toye have done so this season. If MLS is to be producing young U.S. attacking talent like them at a rate comparable to that at a major foreign league, it probably needs to double the number of forwards breaking through each year.
Still, it is a good start, and the number will pick up as more MLS academies begin pushing players through to the pro ranks. Ferreira is a pure product of the FC Dallas academy program -- his father David starred for FC Dallas -- but Toye and Ebobisse both played high school soccer and finished up at independent Development Academy programs in MLS markets.
FORWARDS (2020 U-23 pool):
Jonathan Amon (FC Nordsjaelland/DEN, 6 goals)
Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers, 11 goals)
*Omir Fernandez (NY Red Bulls, 2 goals)
*Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas, 8 goals)
*Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, 3 goals)
Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids, 8 goals)
Uly Llanez (Wolfsburg/GER, 0 goals)
Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG, 13 goals)
Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro/DEN, 8 goals)
Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen/GER, 3 goals)
*Sebastian Saucedo (Real Salt Lake, 5 goals)
*Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96/GER, 0 goals)
*Mason Toye (Minnesota United, 6 goals)
*Brandon Vazquez (Atlanta United, 3 goals)
Tim Weah (Lille/FRA, 4 goals)
*Haji Wright (VVV Venlo/NED, 1 goal)
*In Chula Vista U-23 camp.
Note: In parentheses are first-team goals scored.
FIFA rules not requiring clubs to release players for age group competitions will greatly restrict Kreis' choices, but the pool of talent he has to choose from is remarkable when you consider the dearth of options U-23 coach Andi Herzog had to work with four years ago.
None of the four forwards he called in for qualifying in October 2015 had scored a professional goal up until that point. And of the nine forwards he brought into various camps in 2015 and 2016, only two are at first division clubs today: Jordan Morris, who is in his fourth season at the Seattle Sounders, and Khiry Shelton, who is a reserve at promoted Bundesliga club Paderborn.
Other players are scattered at second division teams in France (Maki Tall), Germany (Julian Green) and Mexico (Alonso Hernandez and Rubio Rubin) or in the USL Championship (Jerome Kiesewetter). Alfred Koroma and Mario Rodriguezare both out of professional soccer.
FORWARDS (2016 U-23 pool):
Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany, 0 goals)
Alonso Hernandez (Juarez, Mexico, 0 goals)
Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart, Germany, 0 goals)
Alfred Koroma (Austin Aztex, 0 goals)
Jordan Morris (Stanford University, 0 goals)
Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Moenchengladbach, Germany, 0 goals)
Rubio Rubin (FC Utrecht, Netherlands, 3 goals)
Maki Tall (FC Sion, Switzerland, 0 goals).
Khiry Shelton (NYCFC, 1 goal)
Note: In parentheses are first-team goals scored before qualifying.
In earlier cycles, U-23 teams had one or more players who had scored 10 or more goals when they entered qualifying. None had the depth of talent of the current group of forwards.
Probably the deepest was Caleb Porter's 2012 group. All six forwards have played internationally for the USA or (in the case of Tony Taylor) Panama. But it was a group that did not even make it to the final round of qualifying, finishing third behind Canada and El Salvador in the group stage.
It's a lesson for the current group that will seek to become the first U.S. team to qualify for Olympic men's soccer in 12 years and just the second in two decades.
FORWARDS (U-23 qualifying):
2000 (finished fourth in Sydney): Chris Albright (D.C. United, 0 goals), Conor Casey (University of Portland, 0 goals), Landon Donovan (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany, 0 goals), Josh Wolff (Chicago Fire, 18 goals).
2004 (did not qualify): Landon Donovan (San Jose Earthquakes, 26 goals), Alecko Eskandarian (D.C. United, 3 goals), Eddie Johnson (Dallas, 7 goals), David Testo (Richmond Kickers, 6 goals).
2008 (eliminated in first round): Freddy Adu (Benfica, Portugal, 14 goals), Jozy Altidore (NY Red Bulls, 12 goals), Chad Barrett (Chicago Fire, 13 goals), Charlie Davies (Hammarby, Sweden, 3 goals), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake, 8 goals).
2012 (did not qualify): Juan Agudelo (NY Red Bulls, 6 goals), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund, 0 goals), Teal Bunbury (Sporting KC, 16 goals), Joe Gyau (Hoffenheim, Germany, 0 goals), Brek Shea (FC Dallas, 16 goals), Tony Taylor (Estoril, Portugal, 5 goals).
2016 (did not qualify): Alonso Hernandez (Juarez, Mexico, 0 goals), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart, Germany, 0 goals), Jordan Morris (Stanford University, 0 goals), Maki Tall (FC Sion, Switzerland, 0 goals).
Note: In parentheses are first-team goals scored before qualifying.
Photos: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire, Seattle Sounders FC