By Chris Smith.
The old-timers might still have their place in MLS but, nowadays, it is a league which has very much become a breeding ground for talent.
Yes, the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney still roll through, coming and going with goals to their names but often failing to leave a legacy.
However, in recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Tyler Adams leave for RB Leipzig, Miguel Almiron head to Newcastle and Alphonso Davies swap Vancouver Whitecaps for Bayern Munich, all achieving their own unique levels of success.
So, with MLS very much transitioning from an apparent “retirement” league to a hotbed for young talent, who are the most exciting prospects plying their trade there right now?
Here is one rising star (all aged 22 and under) from every MLS club, starting with the Eastern Conference:
Atlanta United: Ezequiel Barco
Position: Attacking midfield
Ezequiel Barco joined Atalanta United from Independiente in January 2018 for a reported $15m fee but it’s fair to say it took a while for him to find his feet upon leaving South America.
He was very much a bit-part player in the Five Stripes’ 2018 MLS Cup success and many began questioning whether or not he had the physical traits to cut it at the highest level.
Injury and international commitments also hampered his 2019 campaign, but he did manage four goals in 15 MLS appearances — a total which took him 26 games to reach the season prior.
Before the suspension of play, Barco kicked off the 2020 season in style, scoring in Atlanta’s 2-1 wins over Nashville SC and FC Cincinnati — also assisting Emerson Hyndman in the latter.
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) March 1, 2020
Able to play across the front three or as an attacking midfielder, Barco is incredibly flexible and expertly combines direct dribbling, neat link-up passes and deadly finishing. It’s little wonder the likes of Sporting CP, Inter and Roma have reportedly been tracking his progress in recent months.
Chicago Fire: Djordje Mihailovic
Position: Central midfield
The last few years might have been a struggle for Chicago Fire but in Djordje Mihailovic, they’ve produced an absolute gem of a player.
Nominally a central midfielder, the 21-year-old has operated on the left for new coach Raphael Wicky in 2020, while still having licence to roam inside and help the Fire dominate in the middle.
Mihailovic opened the season with two assists in two games, despite the Fire taking just one point during that time, and Wicky believes he could be a “perfect example” for other youth prospects looking to make their way at the club.
Djordje Mihailovic is going to win a lot of #USMNT fans over playing like this. Watch the vision to turn and split the defense with the pass, then the technique on the volley to keep it down and send it towards the top corner. #cf97 pic.twitter.com/C2PRlEnm24
— MLS Buzz (@MLS_Buzz) March 3, 2019
“Djordje is probably the perfect example for every youth player in terms of how he developed,” Wicky said recently. “I believe he has a lot of tools to become a very good player. He has to prove everything on the training field and on the field that he can take the next step.”
As can be seen from the actions map below — courtesy of Smarterscout — Mihailovic spent the 2019 season in a box-to-box role, comfortable taking the ball from his centre-backs and spraying long passes from deep, but also pushing toward the opposition penalty area and allowing his quick thinking and dribbling skills to come to the fore.
That he’s already made 11 tackles in two appearances this season is further indication of how well-rounded Mihailovic is — a midfielder just as capable of stopping the opposition as he is hurting them.
Already capped five times at senior level for the US Men’s National Team, Mihailovic is certainly one to watch for the coming season, while you wouldn’t be surprised to see him line up in Europe in the not too distant future.
FC Cincinnati: Frankie Amaya
Position: Central midfield
Frankie Amaya was drafted first overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft by FC Cincinnati and while his appearances were limited last season, he did show plenty of promise in what was undoubtedly the worst team in MLS.
The US U-20 international is most comfortable as an attacking midfielder but perhaps the most striking aspect of his game is his high-energy robust approach. Smarterscout rate his ability to disrupt opposition moves at 90/99 for the 2019 season, while his defending quality has jumped from 54 to 84 in 2020 — a small sample size, yes, but a sizeable jump for such a diminutive player.
Amaya made more tackles per 90 minutes (4.9) than any other Cincinnati player in MLS last season, while he also averaged 1.8 key passes per 90 — the third-highest amount at the club. His energy allows him to win the ball high up the field while his creative spark lets him feed his fellow attackers — a combination of traits which would make him perfect in a high-pressing system.
Big things are expected of Amaya and if he fulfils his potential, he should do far more than just become the face of the franchise for Cincinnati.
Columbus Crew: Milton Valenzuela
Milton Valenzuela arrived on loan at Columbus Crew from Newell’s Old Boys for the 2018 season and was arguably the best left-back in MLS for that campaign, contributing heavily at both ends of the pitch.
The young Argentine provided four regular-season assists — a total only bettered by Federico Higuain (7) — while no Crew player made more tackles (119) or blocked more passes (39). His form convinced the Crew to sign him permanently for the 2019 season, before a horrific ACL tear ruled him out for the entire campaign.
Valenzuela is back now, however, and in the two games so far at the start of the 2020 MLS season, already looks to be rediscovering the form which helped him earn 10 caps for Argentina’s U-20 side.
D.C. United: Erik Sorga
Having scored 41 goals in 71 league appearances to fire Estonian side FC Flora to two Meistriliiga titles (2017 and 2019), Erik Sorga joined DC United for a reported $500,000 in January and showed real signs of promise during his 76-minute debut in a 2-1 win over Inter Miami in March.
Already a six-time Estonia international, Sorga is equally effective as a centre-forward or a false nine, combining lethal finishing with intelligent link-up play between the lines.
Sorga was initially meant to play in DCU’s USL side, Loudon United, but impressed so much that he was fast-tracked straight into the senior set-up.
“Erik has impressed the coaching staff in preseason training since joining Loudoun United earlier this year,” said DC general manager, Dave Kasper.
“He was a proven goalscorer in the Estonian league and has represented his country at the senior international level. At only 20 years old, we’re excited about his potential and we’re hoping to create a pathway for him to become a successful attacking threat in MLS for years to come.”
Manager Ben Olsen will have to work hard to replace the attacking output of Rooney and Luciano Acosta — even after the Argentine’s sub-par 2019 campaign — so expect Sorga to play a far more prominent role than many expected this season.
Inter Miami CF: Matias Pellegrini
Position: Left wing
While the rumour mill was going wild trying to decide who would be David Beckham’s blockbuster signing for Inter Miami, Matias Pellegrini arrived as the club’s first-ever Designated Player for reported $10m fee.
“We liked that Pellegrini can play inside and out wide, has very good aerobic capacity and can cover a lot of ground,” said Inter Miami sporting director Paul McDonough upon Pellegrini’s signing.
REPORT: According to @MLS, Matias Pellegrini’s current club, #Estudiantes, have released a statement saying the player has passed a medical with @InterMiamiCF and returned to Argentina. Is this a good signing for David Beckham and #InterMiamiCF?#MLS pic.twitter.com/WY9sfIhbjb
— FutbolMan.net (@Futbolman_Net) July 24, 2019
Pellegrini already had five goals in 24 senior appearances under his belt in Argentina for Estudiantes by the time he arrived in Miami, also featuring for the club in the Copa Libertadores.
The 20-year-old is able to operate on either flank, preferring to take the ball inside and to draw centre-backs into one-on-one situations, before unleashing shots on goal.
Pellegrini is an incredibly skilful dribbler of the ball and was given a 92/99 rating in this department by Smarterscout during the 2018 Argentine season. Expect him to be one of the cornerstones of Diego Alonso’s side for the next couple of years.
Montreal Impact: Luis Binks
A brave new era is underway at Montreal Impact under Thierry Henry but whether or not the Canadian side can make the play-offs with the Frenchman at the helm is a whole other question — his managerial career has been controversial so far, to say the least.
One of the more surprising aspects of Henry’s first few games in charge has been his use of teenage centre-back Luis Binks. So far, however, the Englishman has looked every inch an MLS defender.
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) March 5, 2020
Despite standing at 6ft 2in tall, Binks — a product of Tottenham Hotspur’s youth academy — is just as elegant on the ball as he is powerful in the tackle, completing 75.8% of his passes so far, while he displays a reading of the game beyond his years, making six interceptions in his first two MLS games — only veteran defender Rod Fanni (7) has made more.
Binks’ quality was clearly there for all to see during his Tottenham days, with the youngster claiming even Jose Mourinho tried to stop him leaving last season’s Champions League finalists.
“I told the academy staff I was leaving and they said, ‘We’ll get Mourinho here'” Binks said.
“He said how much he liked me, that I would be going on pre-season and, if I did well, I could play a few games next year.
“That made the decision even tougher, but it also reassured me that, if I’m good enough, I will get to the top.”
New England Revolution: Henry Kessler
MLS has famously struggled for centre-backs for years but here we are with another exciting young prospect in that position, Henry Kessler.
The 21-year-old was picked up by New England Revolution in the 2020 SuperDraft having spent two seasons with USL League Two side AC Connecticut and has made a wonderful transition to MLS.
In the Revs’ two MLS games so far, Kessler has made an impressive five tackles, four interceptions and a team-high 14 clearances, while he has shown great composure under pressure for a player his age, passing out from the back with calm authority.
Kessler has impressed so much so that defensive teammate Andrew Farrell has tipped him to one day become a full USMNT international.
“Henry Kessler is going to be a national team center-back,” he said. “You can quote that, because I told him I need his jersey when he gets his first call-up.”
Under the tutelage of esteemed coach Bruce Arena, there’s no telling how high Kessler’s ceiling could be.
New York City FC: James Sands
Position: Centre-back/central midfield
Having made his debut in 2017 as a substitute for Andrea Pirlo, James Sands has been on the radar for some time now, although injury hampered his development during 2019. This season, however, under Ronny Deila, the 19-year-old really seems to be coming into his own, despite NYCFC opening 2020 with two defeats.
James Sands #NYCFC
Columbus Crew SC #crew96
— Kranks (@MisterKranks) April 15, 2020
Sands is comfortable both as a ball-playing centre-back and a holding midfielder and has been deployed in both positions this season already, while previous manager Dome Torrent was keen to praise his ability to transition between centre-back and No.6 during matches.
Despite coming in at just under 6ft, Sands is strong in the air and unrelenting in the tackle, but also a calm and adept passer of the ball. In fact, of all NYCFC players to start both MLS games so far in 2020, only Alexander Callens (89.1%) has a higher pass completion rate than Sands (82.4%)
Sands has an incredible 42 caps at U-17 level for the USA and with the level of authority he’s shown on the pitch so far this season, it’s only a matter of time before he makes the step up to senior level, as well as European football.
New York Red Bulls: Cristian Casseres Jr.
Position: Central midfield
Cristian Casseres Jr arrived at New York Red Bulls from Deportivo La Guaira in 2018 and after a stint in their reserves, was promoted to the first team midway through 2019 to great effect, adding wonderful balance to Chris Armas’ side.
Casseres Jr netted during the Red Bulls’ 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake earlier this season but it’s his high-energy, robust approach which best marries him to Armas’ demanding, pressing style.
The Venezuelan youngster tears around the pitch in a Tyler Adams-esque fashion and during that aforementioned draw with Salt Lake, made a match-high eight tackles — four in his own half and four in the opposition half.
As per FBref, Casserers Jr has also applied the second-highest number of pressures (58) on the opposition among Red Bulls players in 2020 so far, achieving the highest success rate at the club (48.3%) with those pressures.
To compare him to Adams, given his success so far at Leipzig, would be unfair and puts far too much pressure on young shoulders, but Casseres Jr is showing all the attributes to be a fantastic combative midfielder at MLS level and beyond.
Orlando City: Joao Moutinho
Having come through Sporting CP’s youth system, Joao Moutinho headed stateside in 2017 and initially struggled to make a breakthrough in MLS with LAFC, who he joined from College side Akron Zips.
However, since signing for Orlando City in 2018, the 22-year-old left-back has really come into his own, making a name for himself as one of the most technically gifted left-backs in the league.
“I think Joao Moutinho has a really high soccer IQ,” said former Orlando goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, who now serves as the club’s broadcast analyst.
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) April 8, 2020
“We know him for his ability to combine in small spaces, and also a great ability to get high on the flanks and deliver a quality cross with his left foot.”
That quality of delivery helped Moutinho provide two assists in just 16 MLS appearances last season, while the action map below perfectly illustrates how he likes to combine with his teammates in the attacking third with short, intricate passes.
Moutinho is intelligent with his position and generally strong in the tackle. He could play a key role in Orlando finally ending their wait for a play-off spot.
Philadelphia Union: Brenden Aaronson
Position: Attacking midfielder
Having made the step-up from Philadelphia Union’s USL side, Bethlehem Steel, 2019 was a hell of a breakthrough campaign from Brenden Aaronson and give his influence on Jim Curtin’s side so far, it’s easy to forget he’s still only 19 years old.
As can be seen in the action map below, Aaronson is a wonderfully gifted playmaker who likes to roam from left to right, playing intricate short passes with his teammates, as well as committing defenders to one-on-ones with his dribbling skills.
After an impressive start to MLS life in 2019, Aaronson was shortlisted for the Rookie of the Year award and earned his first USMNT cap earlier this year. However, it was his performance in a manic 3-3 draw with LAFC earlier this season — in which Aaronson scored in style — which Curtin believes was his best for the club so far, a sure sign his trajectory is only going up.
“It’s something he’s worked very hard on, arranging his feet a little quicker in and around the box but still having the composure to make the right decision and you saw that on the goal,” Curtin said. “Brenden had a really, really impressive outing, both offensively and defensively so happy for him to now move on to the Olympic team.
“His performance against LA, I think it was his best game for Philadelphia.”
Toronto FC: Jacob Shaffelburg
Given the talent at Toronto FC’s disposal, Jacob Shaffelburg has had to be patient in waiting for his chances, but that hasn’t stopped manager Gregg Vanney raving about his incredible speed and work ethic.
“Outstanding. The kid can run all day and he’s incredibly fast,” he said after Shaffelburg’s first start, against Atlanta United in June.
Some goals from soon-to-be TFC forward Jacob Shaffelburg. pic.twitter.com/wnX5V1j3xb
— Travis Clark (@travismclark) November 21, 2018
Fast and hard-working he may be, but there’s still plenty of work for Shaffelburg to do on the training ground if he’s to make it in MLS and at international level for Canada — who he already has one senior cap for.
The 20-year-old has a ball retention rating of just 51/99 according to Smarterscout and, indeed, he completed just 68.5% of his passes during the 2019 MLS season.
However, he did score 86/99 for his defending quality and with the likes of Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio on hand to crack open defences via decisive passing or mesmeric dribbling, the value of an industrial wide man isn’t lost on Vanney.
“Those guys are good passers. You’ve got to have runners,” the TFC manager said.
There is room yet for a hard-working forward who defends from the front and this might just be the niche in which Shaffelburg makes a success of himself in MLS.