Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike might have become the latest fledgling talents to leave Major League Soccer, but they certainly won’t be the last.
The pipeline between MLS and Europe is now fully functional and even the youngest players can now dream of crossing the pond and joining some of the world’s biggest leagues.
So, as the 2022 season draws near, here are 10 teenagers 90min will be keeping an eye on – this is by no means a definitive list, however, so feel free to give us your picks on social media!
As the Chicago Fire’s hopes of making the MLS Cup Playoffs faded, so their desire to blood the homegrowns in grew.
Gabriel Slonina was by far the biggest benefactor to that, replacing Bobby Shuttleworth as the Fire’s No.1 goalkeeper for the final 11 games of the season at just 17 years old.
During that time, he kept four clean sheets and averaged 3.91 saves per 90 minutes, some of which were truly outstanding.
If there’s a weakness in Slonina’s game, it’s with the ball at his feet, but that’ll come as he gains composure through experience. It’s only a matter of time until this young stopper crosses the pond…
Given he played 24 times in MLS, you could argue 2021 was a breakout season for Kevin Paredes. And yet, despite his three goals, three assists, and dazzling skill, he still isn’t talked about in the same manner as some of the league’s other budding talents.
If anything, you could argue Paredes hasn’t quite been unleashed enough in the final third yet. And there’s a worry that if he were to go to Europe in the near future, he’d be pushed into a left-back role, as is often the case with young wingers.
Then again, that hasn’t done Alphonso Davies any harm, and Paredes certainly has the talent to get close to his Canadian counterpart.
Older brother Brenden is already making waves in the UEFA Champions League with RB Salzburg and if the early signs are anything to go by, Paxten Aaronson’s time will come soon.
The 18-year-old scored three goals in just 590 minutes of MLS regular-season action last season and has already proven his ability to hit the net from remarkable angles.
Paxten has the same low center of gravity and ability to snake away from opposing defenders as Brenden – a big year in MLS will undoubtedly draw the gazes of some big European clubs.
There are few (if any) youngsters in MLS more underrated than Josh Atencio. The 19-year-old played 1,514 minutes for a Seattle Sounders side that finished second in the Western Conference last season, ranking third among his teammates for passes into the final third (4.11) and recoveries (11.1) per 90.
Those two states are a good summary of Atencio’s skillset; an effective and progressive passer, and a measured defensive presence.
Atencio’s absence from the MLS 22 Under-22 list was incredibly harsh, but those of a Sounders persuasion know his worth. Another big year in 2022 and they won’t be the only ones.
Thanks to the long-term injury of Anton Tinnerholm, 19-year-old Bronx-native Tayvon Gray was thrust into the right-back spot for NYCFC.
But Gray coped superbly, giving the Cityzens thrust up and down the flank and showing few signs of inexperience as he helped his side go all the way to MLS Cup glory.
Sure, Gray still has some kinks in his game to iron out, not least some frustrating decision-making in the final third. But find us a teenager who is the complete package.
Gray will have plenty of chances to learn as Tinnerholm continues his long recovery.
LAFC suffered in 2021, missing out on the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in their history. But there was a handful of positives, one of them being the emergence of Mamadou Fall.
The 19-year-old center-back played 16 times for the Black and Gold, proving himself a capable defensive presence both in the air and on the ground.
Most surprisingly, Fall was also a huge set-piece threat, finding the net four times – only four LAFC players scored more goals last season.
Though he can be a little untidy with his passing, Fall has already shown real technical prowess in spells and will be targeting improvement in that area this year.
There’s already plenty of reported interest in Cade Cowell from Europe – not least Barcelona. 2021 was a good stepping stone for the 18-year-old, who grabbed five goals and five assists in 33 MLS appearances for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Cowell has already shown he has all the technical ability to compete with the best – he can dribble, he can finish, and he can create. And he’s one hell of a physical specimen.
All that’s left now is putting all the pieces together on a consistent basis.
Despite Andrew Gutman being around, John Tolkin still managed 28 regular-season appearances for the Red Bulls in 2021, thanks in part to his versatility in being able to operate through the medal as well as left-back. The youngster definitely passed the test, proving a strong defensive presence and causing some havoc in the final third when he got the chance.
“I think the big advantage for him is that he has a very, very good technical ability to handle the moments in tight spaces, with pressure, with our time in a very good way, and I think this helps us him to play in more positions,” RBNY head coach Gerhard Struber said. “And also I think his reorientation to realize the spaces around him, he can handle this in a very interesting way. And I think this is also for me a little bit a surprise that he handled also this position very well.”
Now, Gutman has returned to Atlanta United following the expiration of his loan. Tolkin has the chance to make an even bigger impression this year, potentially following in the footsteps of the other big names to get their start at Red Bull Arena.
Returning to Chicago for a moment, Brian Gutierrez didn’t quite turn heads like Slonina last year, but he’s definitely just as talented.
The 18-year-old midfielder looks like a seriously talented passer and already has the composure to dribble his way out of the tightest corners. Press resistance is incredibly important for midfielders nowadays.
The Fire look set to give their homegrowns even more minutes this year under new coach Ezra Hendrickson, so make sure you’re keeping tabs on Gutierrez’s progress.
Jack McGlynn is just 18 years old and he looks it. But in no way does he act it. His cameo exploits for the Union in 2021 gave us all a taste of his ability as a playmaker and, indeed, he ranked second among Philly players for shot-creating actions per 90 (3.38).
McGlynn also showed he has composure way beyond his years, stepping up and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way to win the Union’s penalty shootout against Nashville SC in the Playoffs.
Ice runs through his veins, but McGlynn is sure to be red hot property soon enough.
Honorable mentions: Girffin Yow, Moses Nyeman, Efrain Alvarez, Pedro Vite, Danny Leyva, Wikelman Carmona, Jhon Duran, Cameron Dunbar, Christian Torres.