Deep pool of young forwards in MLS and Europe is cause for cautious optimism

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

9 comments about "Deep pool of young forwards in MLS and Europe is cause for cautious optimism".
  1. beautiful game, September 4, 2019 at 9:04 a.m.

    This article about Toye is like the second coming of CR7 or Messi et al. I'm happy for his success so far, but until a player proves his consistency to deliver, it's too early to get excited.  

  2. humble 1, September 4, 2019 at 10:37 a.m.

    These are good points, the pool is larger, but behind he scenes what is also true is that the relationship USSF had/has with the 'clubs', and conversley the confidence that the 'clubs' have that their players will be well served by being released to USSF for the U23/Olympic cycle, will determine in large part which players are released.

  3. R2 Dad, September 4, 2019 at 2 p.m.

    This is a postive trend, thanks for this report PK. From a macro standpoint, more is better. But for goal scorers, it's always about the system in which they play. Are most of our forwards in the Jozy mold (target men), or wingers like CP? I go back to Bas Dost, who has been a sucessful goal scorer in the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. But he only had 18 caps and 1 international goal to his name, and finally gave up the international game at the age of 28. Why? Did he not fit into the Dutch system? Clearly he is an excellent goal scorer. If this kind of talent-wasting is possible with Orange, we would most certainly be capable of it, too.

  4. frank schoon replied, September 4, 2019 at 2:25 p.m.

    R2. playing at the National team level is a step too high for a limited player like Bas Dost. Dutch style of soccer at that level requires much better skills and accuracy, movement and other aspects. There is a reason why he is bounced around to different teams.

  5. R2 Dad replied, September 4, 2019 at 3:18 p.m.

    Frank, that might be, but for the past 5 years Orange has been less-than-stellar: didn't qualify for the 2018 WC, didn't qualify for the 2016 Euros. During that time, what were the reasons why Hiddink/Blind/Advocaat didn't want to use him? 
    Big picture, if the Dutch can avoid using a goal scorer (for whatever their reasons) the USA can, too. Was it style, and Dost doesn't fit their style? is it his functionality? Is he a target man and the Dutch don't use that type of forward? I haven't seen him play other than highlights of him poaching goals in Portugal (and now back in Germany), so I'm genuinely curious.

  6. frank schoon replied, September 4, 2019 at 4:03 p.m.

    R2, your right that Holland has not been stellar  and it has lost some of its great scorers/attackers of which Robben was the last one after a long list of great goal scorers/attackers. It's because of the loss of these types of players that Doss is even considered for the dutch national team. This guy 12years ago would be lucky to sell peanuts at the stadium.
    Doss is an old-fashioned striker, like you say a targetman. He's slow, lacks ballhandling expertise in small spaces which further makes a very stationary type of player, fitting the targetman style usually with his back facing the goal making him slow in the turn.
    Targetman soccer has never a salient feature of dutch soccer, more so in England or teams that play a 4-4-2. Todays wings cut inside more and not cross which further eliminates his usefullness as well as spontaneity of attack. Like you say, he is a poacher , hoping for something. That is not the history of dutch goal scorers for the dutch like to control the ball, control the game, construct, and than after creating a space, a 2v1 situation or a good 1v1 move score. You have to look at the players the dutch have and then fit in. It is not that the best players play but who best fit together
    that makes a good team. Doss is not really a dutch style/type of player he would be better in England or Germany where there is more poaching....

  7. frank schoon replied, September 4, 2019 at 4:05 p.m.

    R2, I would like to see him in the see how he fares...I think it would be an excellent league for him

  8. beautiful game replied, September 4, 2019 at 6:19 p.m.

    Too many soccer officianados over-analyze talented players who do not succeed at the next level. It's quite simple amigos, the high Soccer IQ packaged with all other qualities is a must to climb the ladder of success. Let me return to the saga of Giuseppe Rossi, NJ born and raised of Italian parents. As a youth travel referee I noticed the following during a U-8 game about Rossi: he had total awareness around him, he had extraordinary technical skills, his soccer instincts were years ahead of schedule, he had an ability to avoid pressure and when pressured he was always calm...IMHO, his Soccer IQ at at age 8 was off the charts. He was a superior player on his team, yet he always played with team purpose, never a ball-hog, and took every attacking individual advantage provided him by the opposition. At an early age he had a personal goal to be a member of the Azzurri squad. He honed his youth skills at Parma Academy (Parma, Italy) for five years. He was selected to the Azzurri U-16, U-17, U-18, U-21, and the Italian Olympic team in 2008. He became a fixture with La Liga Villarreal (2007-2013) and Fiorentina (2013-2017) before his second ACL injury ended his career. He represented the Azzurri in several friendlies, and was a last cut twice for the WC. Rossi is no CR7, Messi, Kane, etc. He was a brilliant player motivated by soccer passion and someone who brought everything to the team table on a consistent basis.   

  9. frank schoon replied, September 4, 2019 at 6:39 p.m.

    BG, great story, loved reading it. Reminds of Ric Fonseca stories....

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