On Saturday, the 28th season of Major League Soccer will kick off. The opening of any season is always a good time to look forward, and look back. The league is far different now than it used to be. There are a lot more teams, the games are on Apple TV, most of the stadiums are excellent, and the quality has naturally improved. But philosophically, the best improvement in the league has been its growing focus on youth.
The move toward becoming a league friendly towards young players did not happen overnight. First, there was the development of MLS academies and the Homegrown rule to encourage the development of players. Then, there were rules that allowed teams to keep the entire proceeds from the sale of homegrown players. Then, there were other mechanisms such as the U-22 Initiative and the “Young Designated Player” rule that allowed teams to bring in younger foreign players with the idea of later selling them for transfers.
Don Garber gives a lot of media conferences and, like any executive in front of cameras, everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But when Garber expressed at the 2018 “State of the League address” that he wanted MLS to be more of a selling league – he meant it and the various team owners meant it. It has happened.
Yes, before 2018 you had on occasion the sale of young domestic players – Tim Ream, Matt Miazga, DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, etc. But after that address, there was a noticeable uptick both in terms of the sales of young players but also the playing time of young players. It started happening quickly with players like Tyler Adams and Canadian standout Alphonso Davies but it has happened every year since with so many top young American players.
Brenden Aaronson, Joe Scally, Mark McKenzie, Bryan Reynolds, Matt Turner, Ricardo Pepi, Sam Vines, Gianluca Busio, George Bello, Chris Richards, Tanner Tessmann, Gaga Slonina, Paxten Aaronson and several others all followed suit with sales to Europe from MLS clubs. Added investment in academies combined with acquiring younger foreign players, the league has far more of a youthful approach. Sure, the big leagues of Europe are the carrot at the end of the stick, but MLS is now more apart of the global market place and kids domestically and abroad (look no further than the recent case of Jhon Duran) see it as a step to help them get to the top.
Some teams remain better at it than others, but it is no longer simply a case of FC Dallas, Philadelphia, and the New York Red Bulls developing and playing the lion’s share of young domestic players. The current U.S. youth national teams now have players from a wide range of teams in the league.
It's been a very healthy evolution in the league and every year there are more and more young players to watch – who could break out, establish roots with their local team, help it win, earn a spot on a youth national team, force transfers, and maybe fight for a spot on the full national team. It happens every year now.
With that said, here is a look at 15 top young Americans to watch in the 2023 season – and we will define young as 2001 born and younger. This makes everyone on the list eligible for a U.S. youth national team – such as the U.S. U-23 team (2024 Olympic team) or the U.S. U-20 team this year or even next cycle in 2025. I don’t see any of the current U-17 team ready for this list quite yet, even if a few will make their debuts in 2023. They are more likely to start making serious impacts starting next season.
Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union)
The smooth passing left-footed Philadelphia Union midfielder is a top player on the U.S. U-20 team. It’s been tough to get minutes on a Union team that is among the best in the league, but he should find a way this year, particularly after the U-20 World Cup. He’s just too good.
John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)
The left back from New Jersey has played a ton of minutes for the Red Bulls in 2021 and 2022 and that was enough to earn him his first USMNT cap in January against Colombia. Tolkin, 20, should be in line for another 2500+ minute season and could make one of the U.S. national team rosters this summer. After that, he is an excellent candidate for the 2024 U-23 Olympic team.
Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United)
Wiley, 18, is the third-straight left footer to open our list. The Atlanta United homegrown looked very promising last season. While minutes at left back are tough when Andrew Gutman is healthy, Wiley can also play on the wing as a secondary position. He has potentially a high ceiling and Atlanta will find minutes for him in 2023. Internationally, Wiley should be on the 2023 U.S. U-20 World Cup team and compete with Jonathan Gomez for a starting spot.
Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders)
The promising 2005-born defensive midfielder impressed at the start of 2022 and when he came off the bench in the first half to replace an injured Joao Paulo to help Seattle win the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League final, it was a remarkable story. But the second half of 2022 was a nightmare for the Alaskan Vargas, who didn’t play after a back injury in June. Can he return to the level he was at in 2022? If so, he will be on the U-20 World Cup team playing up a cycle.
Benjamin Cremaschi (Inter Miami)
After impressing with Inter Miami’s MLS Next team and with the U.S. U-19 and U-20 teams, it was a wild offseason for Cremaschi, 17. He signed a homegrown deal with Inter Miami and then was called up by Argentina’s U-20 team for a pair of camps. He narrowly missed out on their Conmebol U-20 Championship team but it was a huge sign of confidence heading into his first season with Inter Miami. He is one of the top 2005-born homegrowns on talent. Now it will be about how well he plays and whether he will play for the youth national teams of the United States or Argentina.
Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
The big and powerful winger has been a top prospect for a number of years but he is still U-20 eligible and should be on the U.S. U-20 World Cup team this summer. But Cowell is a bit different than most on this list as he looks primed for a sale this year, given the rumors that have surrounded him for years. He also impressed with the full national team at the January camp. While more and more MLS teams opt to sell players in the winter following the season, Cowell could be a target after the U-20 World Cup this summer.
Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union)
Leon Flach, 21, came to Philadelphia from St. Pauli in 2021 to play. For the past two seasons, he has played over 5000 minutes to have a big role in Philadelphia becoming one of the best teams in the league. The defensive midfielder is now heading into his third season, and he will need to show more capabilities on the ball. Defensively he is excellent. But if he can find ways to contribute to the attack more, the sky is the limit. As another left-footer, he is a good prospect for the U.S. U-23 Olympic team.
Niko Tsakiris (San Jose Earthquakes)
The San Jose Earthquakes are producing a lot of talented homegrowns, and Niko Tsakiris, 17, is one of them. The 2005-born central midfielder scored three goals in five games for the U.S. U-20 team at the Concacaf Championships last season as the team’s only field player to see minutes playing up a cycle. When he broke into San Jose’s first team towards the end of the season, he looked very promising. Now he will get to play under a new head coach in Luchi Gonzalez, who has a strong background in working with youth.
Brian Gutierrez (Chicago Fire)
Gutierrez, 19, is the last young Chicago Fire player standing of the 2022 trifecta that also included Jhon Duran and Gaga Slonina. Both of those players have been sold to Premier League teams for a reported combined value north of $30 million. A versatile attacker who primarily played on the wing in 2022, Gutierrez showed talent with two goals and six assists for a poor Fire team. Most of his contributions were made in the second half of the season. While Chicago did not release Gutierrez to the U.S. U-20 team for the Concacaf Championships last year, the club might be more understanding for the U-20 World Cup this year.
Jalen Neal (LA Galaxy)
The LA Galaxy central defender made his USMNT debut ahead of his first-team Galaxy debut when he started for the U.S. team in January’s loss to Serbia. But he should feature for the Galaxy this year and for the U.S. U-20 World Cup team. Young American central defenders have failed to break through in meaningful numbers in recent MLS seasons, perhaps Neal can spearhead the change.
Chris Brady (Chicago Fire)
The Chicago Fire will replace Gaga Slonina with another U.S. U-20 goalkeeper in Chris Brady. It is a very rare to see a team with so much trust in young goalkeepers but Brady looks to be a strong shot-stopper and the 2023 season will be a massive opportunity for him as it is rare for teenage goalkeepers to have starting jobs with their clubs – not just in MLS but anywhere.
Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union)
The versatile attacker for the Philadelphia Union has found it difficult to get minutes as Jim Curtin has built one of the league’s best teams. But he has played well in limited minutes. He has been one of the most important players for the current U.S. U-20 team with the most goal involvements all cycle (goals plus assists) by a significant margin. While the Union will contend in 2023, Curtin will have to make it a priority to keep his talented homegrowns happy with minutes and a big test will be getting Sullivan on the field.
Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew)
The defensive midfielder returned to the field in 2022 after missing almost all of 2021 with a torn ACL. While it took several months to shake off the rust, towards the end of the season he was back to the level where he was at the end of 2020 when he started MLS Cup and helped the Crew to a surprising win. Now under a new head coach in Wilfried Nancy, Morris will look to find another level. Internationally, he is a strong candidate for the U.S. U-23 Olympic team and he made his USMNT debut in January in the loss to Serbia.
Daniel Edelman (New York Red Bulls)
The U.S. U-20 captain had a strong second half of 2022 where he started for the New York Red Bulls on a regular basis and helped the team to qualify for the playoffs. But more will be expected of Edelman this year as he looks to be a starter on an improved Red Bull team. But Edelman, 19, is a mature player for his age and it is one of the reasons why he is seen as a leader on the U.S. U-20 team.
Esmir Bajraktarevic (New England Revolution)
The versatile player from Wisconsin has a smooth left foot and has been one of the top 2005-born players on U.S. youth national teams over the past year (both the U-19 and U-20 teams). As a left footer, he has a lot of skill and is fun to watch. He made his first-team debut last year for the Revs but Bruce Arena will likely want to play him more in 2023, even if he is not seen as a starter at the beginning of the season.
Darren Yapi (Colorado Rapids)
Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids)
Serge Ngoma (New York Red Bulls)
Noel Buck (New England Revolution)
Owen Wolff (Austin FC)
Ben Bender (Charlotte FC)
Tayvon Gray (New York City FC)
Michael Halliday (Orlando City)
Daniel Leyva (Seattle Sounders)
Reed Baker-Whiting (Seattle Sounders)
Diego Luna (Real Salt Lake)
Brandan Craig (Philadelphia Union)
Nathan Harriel (Philadelphia Union)
Kayden Pierre (Sporting Kansas City)
Matko Miljevic (CF Montreal)
George Campbell (CF Montreal)
Kristian Fletcher (D.C. United)
Interesting to note what MLS teams are listed vs. those importing young talent from South America. Next article should draw a comparison.