Is 2021 the Year MLS Finally Becomes a Selling League?
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
For all the talk about MLS becoming a selling league, usually the MLS offseason is all about who is being bought and not who is being sold. Quite frankly, that’s because there just hasn’t been much to talk about. Over the last five years, just 23 players have been sold by MLS teams for $2 million or more and I rounded up to include Joe Scally. Quick reminder, there were 26 teams in MLS in 2020. Tim Howard’s transfer to Man United is still the 17th largest in league history. He was sold in 2003.
It feels like that is beginning to change. A huge reason for that has to be the recent performance of young North Americans in the big five European leagues. Just like the NBA or NFL, There is a copycat element to European soccer. So, seeing guys like Pulisic, McKennie, Reyna, Adams, Davies, Dest, and Richards play and play well for huge clubs in the Champions League can’t help but to have turned some heads towards North America and MLS. Another big factor is that MLS teams are playing more young players more minutes in more important roles than ever before. I haven’t crunched the year end numbers, but at the midway point players who started the season as a teenager had played 4.99% of the total minutes in the league. That isn’t quite Holland level in terms of playing your kids, but it represents a 35% increase versus the prior year.
Given that, you can feel a real buzz around MLS’s outgoing transfer market and it seems like there is actually good reason this offseason. There have already been six transfers for in excess of $2 million during the 20/21 season. Some of those have not been the sexiest transfers. Pity Martinez going to Al-Nassr for $18 million isn’t as sexy as Almiron going to Newcastle or Alphonso Davies going to Bayern Munich for $11 million. In-beom Hwang going to Rubin Kazan for $2.75 million also isn’t going to make Sportscenter. However, those transfers are important to MLS and their teams’ willingness and ability to continue to buy players. It seems clear that more teams in more leagues are scouting MLS for players. Teams like Atlanta are going to be more willing to take chances on spending $10 or $15 million on young South American talent if they know that the sell on market for these players consists of more than just Europe. Reggie Cannon’s transfer to Boavista for a relatively modest $2.75 million dollars with considerable sellon consideration could also prove to be an important one for MLS teams. Again, not that sexy. I’m guessing a lot of casual fans had never heard of Boavista. However, I think the structure of the transfer could provide a roadmap for teams transferring homegrown players. The initial size of the transfer is not going to set twitter afire, but it does allow the team to get the maximum amount of allocation money ($1 million) from the transfer. In addition, by structuring the deal with a lower upfront fee, you expand the marketplace to more leagues. As I said earlier, there really isn’t an established market for MLS players. So, if MLS truly wants to become a selling league, it is going to have to establish that market and that probably means structuring a lot of these deals in such a way to reduce the upfront risk to the buying club.
With all that said, here are some transfer targets I’m keeping an eye on.
Leaving on a jet plane.
1. Diego Rossi (22), LW: LAFC. There just isn’t much more for Rossi to prove in MLS. He put up 17 goals and 4 assists in just over 2,000 minutes in 2020. He’s got speed, he makes tremendous runs and his finishing is absolutely lethal. Rossi’s value is $19.80 million per transfermarkt. That would represent a tremendous return on the $2.75 million fee LAFC paid Penarol for Rossi prior to their inaugural season.
I don’t know if LAFC will actually get $20 mln for Rossi given the pandemic. However, this feels like the window that Rossi is sold. He’s 22 now, certainly not old by any stretch, but the plan was always to develop and sell Rossi for a profit and LAFC don’t need to break the bank to turn a tidy profit and maximize the allocation money they’ll receive. This might be a time to get a bit creative and structure a deal with a sellon. Plus, Bob Bradley has Christian Torres waiting in the wings and he looks ready for prime time. There haven’t been a ton of concrete recent rumors about Rossi’s ultimate destination, but he has been linked to the likes of Fiorentina and RB Leipzig in the past.
2. Mark McKenzie (21), CB: Philadelphia Union. McKenzie could be the best young center back in MLS since Matt Miazga, but he’s a much different player. McKenzie is not the physical presence and aerial ball winner that Miazga was when he was sold for over $5 million to Man City. He’s a smooth, athletic, mobile two footed center back capable of playing the ball out the back. At 6’0” 185 lbs he’s still physical enough to muscle you off the ball and he’s got enough leaping ability to make up for the fact that he lacks prototypical size for a center back. His strength defensively, however, is in his ability to read the game.
Offensively, McKenzie is more than capable of carrying the ball forward into space to initiate the attack and alleviate pressure. However, his best skill is undoubtedly his passing ability out of the back. Kid can ping the ball around the pitch. He can break a press and open a defense up with his ability to deliver pinpoint passes both over the top of a defense or through it. He can, as they say, break lines. In addition, he’s dangerous when he joins the attack on set pieces and makes runs into the box as we saw against El Salvador when he should have had a goal if not for a bogus offsides call. At 21 McKenzie already has over 6,500 professional minutes to his name and he’s a winner, having been a key part of the Union’s Supporter’s Shield winning side in 2020. McKenzie is currently valued at $3.3 million, which feels low, but perhaps its accurate given his lack of prototypical size. He’s been heavily linked with Celtic, but personally I’d like to see him in a more competitive league where a more progressive style is played. There has been rumored interest from teams in Germany and England (though he’d likely struggle to get a work permit there). Personally, I think, if the situation is right, he could start in any league in the world. That said, a top table side in France, Belgium or the Netherlands could be a good place for him to break into Europe.
3. Bryan Reynolds (19), RB: FC Dallas. Followers of USYNTs have known about Reynolds for a while as he has been capped regularly from the U-16 level on up. However, he absolutely burst onto the MLS scene when he took over at right back following Reggie Cannon’s transfer to Boavista. I tweeted this recently, but Reynolds is a prototypical modern outside back. He 6’3”, loves to get forward, can tuck inside with the ball and run at defenses, can get behind the defense up the flank and he delivers a beautiful cross. In addition, while Reynolds isn’t quite Alphonso Davies level fast, he is in the conversation of fastest outside back in the MLS. He just eats up ground and few can match him for pace. Defensively, he is strong and has excellent timing with his challenges.
After Reynolds took over for Cannon, I think most expected he would follow a similar timeline. Start for Dallas for a couple seasons and then move on to Europe. However, his talent is obvious and when you have teams like Juventus sniffing around, you don’t say no. Reynolds has been valued at $2.2 million, but, at a minimum, I’d expect his fee to exceed that of Cannon. He doesn’t have the experience or the senior national team experience, but he’s bigger, faster, stronger and he’s better in the attacking half. High ceiling…High.
Edit: After writing this last night, Tom Bogert dropped the news that AS Roma had submitted a 7.5 million Euro bid for Reynolds. I told ya his ceiling was high.
4. Brian Rodriguez (20), Winger: LAFC. Amongst the four players I’ve listed so far, I’m least confident in Rodriguez moving. Not because he isn’t ready for a move to Europe or there isn’t interest, but because LAFC are going to need to sell Rodriguez for over $13 million in order to recoup the $11.5 million transfer fee they paid Penarol and the roughly $1.5 mln in salary they’ve paid him thus far. Rodriguez’s has more than enough raw talent to justify such a fee. In the same way Reynolds is a prototypical right back, Rodriguez is a prototypical winger. Speed, agility, power and plenty of sauce on the ball. He jumps off the screen when you watch LAFC as he is often carving through defenses at speed. He creates a ton of chances and is constantly working himself into dangerous positions and putting defenses back on their heels. He’s fun to watch.
The problem with Rodriguez is that he just has not finished his chances since joining LAFC. During the regular season Rodriguez had a more than respectable 9 assists in all competitions, however, he had just 4 goals from more than 50 shots. His actual goals were about 40% of his xG on the year, which is...not good. Whereas Rossi consistently buried his chances, Rodriguez consistently flubbed his. Again, his talent is obvious, and given his performance with the senior Uruguayan national team (he’s already been capped 9 times), you have to believe eventually he’ll start finding the back of the net more consistently. However, if you are LAFC do you roll the dice and hope he finds his shooting boots in 2021 or do you get what you can, minimize the downside risk and replace Rodriguez with, I don’t know, say a DP striker. I’d lean toward the second option, even if it means taking a loss. Rodriguez was linked earlier this year to several Serie A sides including AC Milan, Napoli, Sampdoria and Bologna.
Just a matter of time.
1. Paxton Pomykal, Midfielder: FC Dallas (21). Pomykal was riding high following a fantastic 2019 season. In his first full season as a starter, Pomykal made the all-star team, led Dallas to the playoffs and made his USMNT debut. Transfer rumors were swirling with a number of Bundesliga sides reported to be monitoring him.
However, 2020 was a no good, very bad year for Pomykal. He ended 2019 with a nagging core injury and then had to have hernia surgery in the preseason. However, he came off the bench in the 76th minute of FC Dallas’ home opener against the Union and scored a beautiful goal to seal a 2-0 win. He came off the bench again in the Dallas’ 2-2 draw with the Impact and it looked like Pomykal was on his way toward full fitness and a big money transfer to Europe. Then Covid hit.
After MLS announced MLS is back the teams headed to Orlando to enter the bubble. Unfortunately, a number of positive tests for FC Dallas caused them to be dropped from the tournament. As a result, Pomykal didn’t play a competitive match for more than five months before finally coming off the bench against Nashville in August. It became clear over the next two games that Pomykal was not right physically and he was ultimately shut down and forced to have hip surgery in early September ending his season and his chances of a move to Europe in 2020. In the meantime, young Americans midfielders have established themselves in big clubs throughout Europe in unprecedented numbers and Pomykal has faded from the USMNT conversation.
People should not sleep on the mustachioed midfield maestro, though. At his best Pomykal is still a unique talent and he will ultimately earn a move to Europe. Pomykal is a pitbull with skill. A ball winner with tremendous anticipation, tenacity, and a non stop engine. That alone makes him an attractive prospect to any team looking to employ an aggressive pressing style. However, Pomykal is much more than that. He has a natural feel for the game and an ability to turn opponents and create space for himself both with and without the ball. He is nearly impossible to take off the ball and he possesses the ability to play in tight space and break lines with either foot. He’s instinctive and aggressive with his runs forward and he regularly works into dangerous positions, but he also knows when to pick his spots. That said, I don’t think he’ll ever put up gaudy stats, but he’s a winner who can bury chances when he gets them. Assuming Pomykal can return to his preinjury level and display the same ability he showed in 2019, I think you’ll see him draw significant interest from big five teams and ultimately he’ll move to Europe and push himself back into the USMNT conversation. The USMNT‘s crowded schedule of competitions in 2021 should give him plenty of opportunity. I look for him to have a big impact with Olympic qualifying, if he’s healthy.
2. Caden Clark (17), Midfielder: Red Bulls New York. I gotta be honest, Clark was not on my radar before word spread that the Red Bulls’ attempt to sign him to a first team contract was being held up by Minnesota United’s asinine claim to his homegrown rights. However, that kerfuffle led me to review his film with NYRB II. Needless to say, I liked what I saw. The Barca Academy product is a fearless attacking midfielder with a toolbox that belies the fact that he won’t turn 18 until next May. I mean if you are looking for a comparison, he looks like a bigger, better version of Brenden Aaronson. By the way, I love Brenden Aaronson. Clark is just filthy, though. Great touch with both feet, can play in traffic, break lines with his passes, is physical, and has an innate creativity and ability to finish with either foot from distance.
It didn’t take long for Clark to show that ability as NYRB immediately inserted Clark into the starting lineup following his signing with the first team. He certainly didn’t look out of place in the first half, but he would place his stamp on the game and set MLS and USMNT twitter afire early in the second half when he took an attempted headed clearance off a corner on the half volley with his right foot from the top of the 18 and buried it in the bottom right corner to beat a stunned Brad Guzan. He would do it again four days later against Toronto FC. This time the ball was played to him about 35 yards from goal in traffic on the right. He used a beautiful first touch to turn to the middle and create space for himself and uncorked a left footed shot from about 25 yards out and buried it in the upper left corner. A legend was born.
The sample size is small for Clark, but it is obvious he is special, and word is that his contract with RBNY includes a clause giving Leipzig the option to purchase him. I don’t think Mr. Clark is long for MLS and it would surprise if he does not move to Leipzig soon after his 18th birthday.
3. Eduard Atuesta (23), Defensive Midfielder: LAFC. Anyone who watched LAFC in 2019 knows what kind of player Atuesta is and how important he was to LAFC’s record breaking season. The Columbian U23 Captain posted an incredible 4 goals and 10 assists from his defensive midfield position over more than 3,000 minutes in all competitions for LAFC in 2019. Atuesta was overshadowed by the likes of Vela, Rossi, Zimmerman, Kaye, Rodriguez, and Blessing, but, outside of Vela, there was perhaps no one more important to LAFC’s unprecedented success.
LAFC brought Atuesta on board prior to their inaugural season from Independiente Medellin in Columbia principally on the back of his performance for Columbia in the 2017 South American U20 Championship. His arrival was overshadowed by bigger name signings, but Atuesta’s tenacity, passing, and his ability to jump into the attack quickly allowed him to establish himself in the starting lineup and he established himself as a critical piece for LAFC and one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. His performance over his first two seasons resulted in a ton of interest from European sides, including Ajax, who were rumored to be targeting him. The hype train died down a bit when Atuesta picked up a foot injury that caused him to miss the first five games following the MLS is Back tourney. However, Atuesta would return and close out the season by going the full 90 in ten straight games to close out the season.
Atuesta is currently valued at $3.85 million. I question whether or not LAFC would accept an offer in that range given his importance to the team and the number of other players who could potentially be on the move. Still, at some point, you have to believe that Atuesta will make the move to Europe. He’s just that good.
1. Jordan Morris (26), Winger: Seattle Sounders. Unlike a lot of USMNT fans, I think Morris’ time in MLS has served him well. Coming out of Stanford, Morris was a raw, exclusively right footed player with a dicey first touch who relied almost exclusively on his speed and athletic ability. I’m not sure that Morris would have been given the time to develop had he gone to Werder Bremen vs signing with Seattle. I also wonder if he would have gotten buried on the bench, never to be seen again ala Aron Johannsson after he went down with a season ending knee injury in 2018.
Anyway, thats clearly a conversation for twitter. Five years later Morris still has that world class speed. He is still a powerful 6’0” 185 lb athlete. However, he is now a much more well-rounded player who has found his niche a marauding left winger capable of getting behind a defense at any time. He’s an efficient finisher who also creates chances for his teammates. His passing and touch have vastly improved and his movement off the ball can absolutely pull a defense apart as you constantly have to track his movement. Morris has helped lead Seattle to the MLS Cup final every single year he has been healthy for a reason.
That said Morris is now 26 and there is nothing left for him to prove in MLS. I have heard no concrete rumors about Morris moving to Europe, but if only to shut up the haters on Twitter, I’d love to see him go and take a shot. I personally think he is more than good enough to play and play well in a Big 5 European League. However, Morris’ current valuation is $3.85 million and for a 26-year-old MLS lifer, you’re probably not going to get a significantly better offer. In addition, Morris is on an incredibly team friendly deal for another 2 years. Seattle is getting DP production from Morris without using a DP slot and that has, in essence, given them four DPs and a big competitive advantage. Even if Seattle were to get, say, $5 million for Morris. They could not invest that money in a DP replacement as their DP slots are occupied by Lodeiro, Ruidiaz and Joao Paulo. They would free up around $1 million in salary budget space and receive $1 million in allocation money, but can you really expect to replace Morris’ 11 goals and 8 assists for that? Doubtful and certainly not over two seasons. No, the only way such a move happens is if Seattle allows it to happen knowing it will likely hurt them competitively. However, Morris is club legend and a hometown kid who has given a ton to this squad. In my opinion, if he has an opportunity, you should let him go and wish him well. Although, that‘s assuming he wants to go…
2. Chris Mueller (24), Forward/Winger: Orlando City. Mueller had a breakout season under Oscar Pareja’s leadership. He looked dangerous at times during his first two seasons in MLS, but was consistently fantastic in 2020 recording 10 goals and 6 assists in about 1,900 minutes. He helped lead Orlando to the finals of the MLS is Back tournament and the team’s first ever appearance in the playoffs. Kid’s just a baller. I love his game. He’s a dynamic athlete with plenty of speed and agility who plays bigger than he is. Solid first touch, works well in tight spaces and he can finish with either foot. Combine that with a fiery competitive spirit and a willingness to go at anyone at any time and you’ve got yourself a player. I love watching him. He showed ALL of that ability in an absolutely dominant USMNT debut against El Salvador scoring 2 goals and adding an assist (could’ve been 2) on a night that saw him embarrass everyone in front of him.
That said, Mueller is a perfect test case about whether MLS and its team are really serious about being a selling club. He’s 24-years-old and on a team friendly contract. This is the type of player teams in the past that a team would’ve slapped a big valuation on and said, “Meet our price or pound sand.” Mueller could stay in MLS and have himself a Taylor Twellmanesque career and there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think this kid’s special, though, and he could really elevate himself in Europe and potentially push himself into the conversation to make the 23 man roster at the 2022 World Cup. Can you picture Mueller in the Eredivisie? I can, he’d tear it apart.
3. James Sands (20), Defensive Midfielder: NYCFC. I’ll admit right up front that James Sands is one of my favorite young players in MLS right now. I love his game. He never seems hurried and has tremendous awareness. He does a great job reading the game and breaks up a ton opposing attacks. He is tenacious and averaged 2.1 interceptions per game, which was good for 16th in MLS. He’s also not afraid of a challenge and is smart about when to take a foul. He’s 6’1’ 185 lbs, plays the game with a high level of physicality and can cover a ton of ground. He won’t wow you with his passing or get forward a ton, but he’s also not asked to. Still he completed over 87% of his passes and he is comfortable on the ball and does a really nice job of being an outlet in front of the center backs and quickly getting the ball out of feet. He has a nice first touch as well and can play the ball with either foot seamlessly. There is a lot of chatter about Sands ultimately moving back to Center Back and that could certainly happen. He would probably perform well as a RCB in a three-man backline. However, I don’t think that is set in stone. Sands’ season ended early due to a fractured foot so that complicates things a bit. However, he already has nearly 4,000 first team minutes under his belt. NYCFC is obviously a part of the City Football Group so a move to a related team is certainly possible, though they’ve shown a willingness to sell outside of the organization. Sands’ current valuation stands at $2.75 million and that seems right. I think a move to Germany would fit Sands’ game really nicely and there are a number of sides he could walk right into.
4. Sam Vines (21), Left Back: Colorado Rapids. Vines is not a sexy outside back like Reynolds. He’s just a lock down defender who has pace and athleticism. He is capable of getting forward, but he’s not going to wow. He just does a nice job of getting the ball up the field and making well timed runs. He’s one of those guys who is above average at just about everything, but elite at nothing. That said, the thing you love most about Vines is his competitive spirit. He backs down from no one as evidence by the Rapids recent game against LAFC where Vines effectively shut down Carlos Vela.
Vines has worked himself into the conversation at Left Back for the USMNT.Unquestionably a big part of that is down to his strong play, however, you also have to acknowledge its been a shallow pool at left back. With the number of players breaking through in Europe, including Antonee Robinson at Fulham, Vines risks dropping out of contention for the 23 in Qatar if he does not elevate his game. He will get plenty of opportunities to play for the national team in 2021 with the glut of games scheduled, but he probably he needs to step up a level if he wants to reach his potential and give himself a true shot to make that roster and perhaps even a starting position. Vines is another one of those tests to see if MLS is really ready to be a selling year. He is currently valued at $1.65 million and that feels about right. That is still enough to give Colorado, a team that does not spend, a big chunk of allocation money, but MLS teams in the past have been loathe to sell young talent like Vines for that type of fee, preferring, instead, to let them ride out their team friendly homegrown contracts. I have a feeling, if given the opportunity and the right situation, Vines can shine abroad. Lets hope he gets that chance.
Maybe just one more year.
1. Gianluca Busio (18), Midfielder: Sporting Kansas City. Busio was very good in 2020 and he definitely improved his stock, so why not move now?
First, Kansas City need him. It is not clear if Felipe Gutierrez or Roger Espinoza will be back, both may be, but at 34 and 30 years old respectively and coming off a season where both missed significant time due to injury (in Gutierrez’s case, the entire season) it is likely that both will miss some time in 2021. In addition, Ilie Sanchez, who is coming back, is also now 30. While he missed time in 2020 primarily due to personal issues and not injury, you need cover for him. Busio proved in 2020 that he can play at a high level at the 6, 8 and 10. He’ll likely start the season where he finished it, as an eight in Peter Vermes’ 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation, but the fact that he can play anywhere in that central midfield and even as a winger at times gives him tremendous value.
Second, Busio could use one more year to develop. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Busio stan. I was very impressed with his development in pretty much every area in 2020. That said, I think, like Brenden Aaronson last year, another year as a full-time starter in MLS would benefit both Busio’s game and his market value. Like Aaronson, I think Busio needs to show some improvement both creating and finishing chances in the final third. He has it in him, as he showed in the MLS Playoffs against San Jose where he became the youngest MLS player to ever record both a goal and an assist in a playoff game. However, on the year he had just 2 goals and 4 assists over 1,565 minutes. In fairness, about 40% of those minutes came at defensive midfield, but he could still improve in this area. In addition, I think teams in Europe are still going to have some questions about Busio’s ability to adjust to the speed and physicality of game there. I think Busio went a LONG way toward answering those questions in 2020. His stretch of games in August and September at DM really forced him to improve his positioning and defensive awareness and he had to commit playing physically. Frankly, I was surprised at how well he adjusted. I think a lot of casual supporters would be surprised to learn that Busio averaged 2.3 tackles per game (good for 26th in MLS in 2020) and racked up five yellow cards. Kid is not afraid to put in a challenge, he reads the game well, and he’s just gotten much stronger. Still, he’s just 5’7” and while he’s certainly mobile, he doesn’t have elite speed. Where he’ll make his name and money is with his playmaking. His agility and balance are already elite, but if he can also show that he can ride a challenge and play in traffic under pressure, well you’ve got yourself a player who can start as an attacking midfielder in a big five European side.
With all that said, Busio’s current value is $4.4 million according to Transfermarkt and that feels about right. If a team in say Serie A comes with an offer in that range, I think you have to let the kid pursue that opportunity. However, I think it is more likely that the offers now will be in the $2-$3 million range with a sellon akin to what Dallas got for Reggie Cannon. If that is the case, I think you’ve got to keep him, play him and hope that, Like Aaronson, an offer in the range of $6 million with sellons comes following the 2021 because I think he has that upside. Also, let’s remember that Busio won’t turn 19 until the end of May 2021. Finally, staying stateside will likely give him more opportunities to show out in 2021 in Olympic Qualifying and perhaps even get some run in the Gold Cup with the USMNT’s European contingent likely focused on WCQ and the Nation’s League.
Edit: After writing this several reports from accounts and outlets covering Barcelona began reporting that the La Liga giants were chasing Busio. If that is the case, Buena Suerte Senor Busio!
2. Ayo Akinola (20), Forward: Toronto FC. With Jose Altidore sidelined, Ayo Akinola absolutely exploded onto the scene in the MLS is Back tournament with five goals in three games, including a hat trick against the Montreal Impact. Akinola has been well known to USYNT followers for years. He has more than 50 YNT caps and 38 goals from the U15 to the U20 level. He made his MLS debut as an 18-year-old in 2018 and he made 8 appearances scoring one goal in 2019. However, with Jose Altidore the clear starter when healthy, MLS minutes were scarce and Akinola spent a lot of time with TFC II where he’s logged nearly 2,000 minutes. That said, after his stunning display at MLS is Back his days in the 2nd division are over.
Akinola is a powerful athlete with good pace, a good first touch and the ability to finish with either foot or his head. He’s only 5’10”, but he a solidly built 180 lbs and guys just bounce off him and he loves to put a shoulder in. Seriously, google “Akinola Farrell Goal” and watch him just bully Andrew Farrell (one of the stronger center backs in MLS) off the ball and then bury then bury the ball in the back of the net. However, the thing I love most about Akinola is his movement. He has pace, but he’s not a burner. What sets him apart is his ability to just constantly stretch and pull apart defenses with beautifully timed runs off the back shoulder of center backs. He loves to sit off the shoulder of a center back before peeling off to find space and he does a great job timing and shaping his runs. He just has a natural feel for the game and when he gets chances he finishes them.
Akinola could certainly move now, but it will take a sizeable offer for Toronto FC to part with him. Especially with Altidore’s injury history in recent years. Akinola’s current value is $3.3 million, but he could certainly improve his stock with another strong year for TFC and the USMNT. Akinola recently joined the US’ December camp and made his senior national team debut against El Salvador, scoring the US’ 5th in the 27th minute. There will be plenty more opportunities in 2021 to shine in a US shirt and further enhance his profile abroad.
3. Daryl Dike (20), Forward: Orlando City. Remember when everyone used to ask, “What would happen if America’s best athletes played soccer instead of football or basketball?” Daryl Dike might be the answer. A 6’2” 220lb striker with pace and agility, soft feet, and a cannon of a shot with either foot… yes please. Daryl Dike signed as a Generation Adidas player following his sophomore season at Virginia and entered the 2020 MLS draft. Shockingly four teams passed on Dike before he was selected with the 5th pick by Orlando City. He played sparingly early on, with Tesho Akindele getting most of the early run. However, when Oscar Pareja inserted him in the starting lineup against Miami on August 23rd he made an immediate impact. The first goal of his career almost perfectly illustrated what makes Dike such an outstanding prospect. First, he bodied up Brek Shea and turned to receive the ball using his size and strength to shield the ball. He then used a lovely first touch and a quick turn to shed Shea and put him on his back side. He then strode into the 18 and uncorked a missile with his right foot. Luis Robles saved the initial effort, but the pace on the shot gave him no chance to control it and the ball bounced back to Dike who one timed another powerful shot, this time with his left. That shot was blocked, but Dike stayed with the play and immediately fired another missile with his left. This time he buried it in the bottom left corner. Sometimes the big man just gets what the big man wants. Dike would go on to record 8 goals and 3 assists in 1,444 total minutes and finished the year hot with 4 goals in Orlando City‘s last five games.
Dike plays the game with joy and passion and he’s just fun to watch. He constantly seems to surprise opponents with pace, he has a really nice first touch, and good luck getting him off the ball when he is running at you. He uses his size really well to receive the ball with his back to goal and either lay it off to teammates or turn into space. He’s strong in the air and I can not emphasize enough how the ball explode off this kid’s feet. He is still a bit raw and he doesn’t make the type of runs that Akinola does, preferring to receive the ball deeper and turn and run at defenders. He’s currently valued at $1.65 million and Orlando City would be insane to sell Dike for that. However, with a full season in the starting 11 and plenty of chances to shine for the US in 2021, I expect plenty of suitors for Dike in short order.
4. Julian Araujo (19), Right Back: LA Galaxy. You can apply a lot of what I said about Busio to Araujo. Sure, they are very different players, but I think Araujo too could use another year of seasoning. Araujo is about a year older than Busio and he’s probably more on top of the average USMNT fan’s mind due to him playing in LA and being a dual national who has been actively recruited by Tata Martino. However, I think another year in MLS would really benefit him.
Let me be clear, I like Araujo. A lot. He brings something different to the pool of right backs for the US. Julian Araujo is a grown ass man with speed, strength and a nasty streak that I love. Julian Araujo is built for games in August in Azteca and I hope he’s wearing red, white and blue when he ultimately plays in them. However, he’s still only got about 2,200 MLS minutes under his belt and there are parts of his game that needs to round out. At times Araujo was played on the wing for LA and we’ve seen him in similar areas on the pitch in a YNT shirt. However, he is not the most dynamic guy on the ball and going forward. You can see flashes of his ability in this area, but he certainly is not Sergino Dest or even Bryan Reynolds (more on him later). Now, in fairness to him, Guillermo Schelotto‘s system seemed to consist of kick, run and chase. His game plans felt like they were drawn up by my high school coach after he watched a VHS tape. It was tough for anyone to look good going forward for the Galaxy in 2020. That said, if Araujo can round out his game, his $660K valuation goes way up and his opportunities improve dramatically. Also, once again, plenty of opportunities to shine a national team shirt.
5. Efrain Alvarez (18), Midfielder: LA Galaxy. Let’s just stick with the Galaxy, shall we? Gonna be honest, I really don’t know what to think about Efrain Alvarez. That has nothing to do with his indecision in terms of what national team to play for. That is for him to decide. Selfishly I hope he chooses the US and I think his presence at the December camp was a very good sign. No, my confusion lies with the fact that he hasn’t broken through to a greater extent. The kid is obviously a special and unique talent, but he has still played fewer than 1,300 MLS minutes and has just 1 league goal. In fairness he’s still just 18, but he’s also only three weeks younger than Busio. In fairness again, he does have 13 goals in ~1,500 minutes in the USLC. However, I certainly would have thought he’d have carved out a larger role with the first team given LA’s roster the last two years. Again, Schelotto, but still.
So, what does Alvarez need to improve? Fitness and defensive awareness and effort. Get a better coach and play him and I think Alvarez will give you plenty on the offensive side of the ball. He’s just so intuitive and talented with the ball at his feet. He can play in space, he can play in traffic. Kid has sauce oozing out of his pours. However, there just aren’t that many teams in Europe whose system does not place significant defensive responsibility on its midfielders. The game has moved toward the press and your central midfielders are key to that. A huge factor, in my opinion, in Brenden Aaronson being sold for $6 mln (plus sellons) to a Champions League side (I know, it’s in Austria, but still) is his workrate, and both his ability and his aggressiveness in both the press and counter press (emphasis on counter press). Aaronson just does not stop, ever. IMO one of the most impressive things I saw from Aaronson in his recent cap vs El Salvador was his ability to seamlessly adjust from the Union’s tactical pressing style to Gregg Berhalter’s. It frankly wasn’t his best game on the ball, but he just harassed El Salvador’s admittedly overmatched midfield. Do you trust Alvarez in that system? In Liverpool’s? In RB Leipzig’s? Alvarez currently has a $2.2 mln valuation and, frankly, that feels high to me. It wouldn’t shock me if a Liga MX side came in with an offer in that range and if you’re the Galaxy you might have to consider it. However, I think Alvarez would be better served by another year in MLS during which he shows are more well-rounded game.
6. Cole Bassett (19), Midfielder: Colorado Rapids. A lot of young American attacking midfielders have struggled a bit to score goals and create chances in the final third. Not Bassett. He’s already got 8 goals and 6 assists in ~2,600 minutes over the last two seasons. Bassett is not as dynamic on the ball as a guy like Brenden Aaronson and he’s still growing into his 5’11” frame, but he is a smooth athlete who makes great runs, has fantastic vision, soft feet, and a good feel for the game. He is already one of the best and most impactful CAMs in MLS (whoscored rating of 7.13) and he’ll only improve as he matures. He needs to work on his defensive awareness and physical strength, so another year in MLS would not hurt him at all in my opinion. That said, he’s got a $4.4 million valuation and if Colorado can get that for him, I think you’ve got to wish him well.
7. Ezequiel Barco (21), Midfielder: Atlanta United. When Atlanta United bought Barco for $13.5 million from Independiente, I think everyone thought he would immediately challenge for a Best 11 spot. I sure did. He had been a star at U-20 World Cup and then shined in the Copa Sudamericana. It was an absolute coup for Atlanta. After arriving in Atlanta, Barco was a solid player on Atlanta’s 2018 MLS Cup Championship team. However, Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron departed after the season and so did their aggressive counter attacking style. Barco was just not a fit in Frank De Boer’s system as Atlanta United shifted philosophies disastrously. Like Brian Rodriguez, Barco still flashes elite ability and can do some highlight reel stuff. However, he has been sorely lacking in producing the final product. A ton of rumors swirled around Barco during the summer with Sevilla reportedly interested. With Barco sitting with a mysterious injury for an extended run of games, it certainly appeared that his time with Atlanta was coming to a close.
However, the window came and went, and Barco is still a member of Atlanta United. Barco started for Atlanta in the CCL match against Club America and looked dangerous over 62 minutes of action. With fellow Argentine Gabriel Heinze taking over the reigns in Atlanta and bringing with him an attacking style perfectly suited for his game, it could be the perfect opportunity for Barco to finally become the impact player in MLS that we all thought he could be. That also may be Atlanta United’s only hope to turn a profit on the young Argentine.
Should be getting more love.
1. Jose Cifuentes (21), Defensive Midfielder: LAFC. At 21 years old, the Ecuadorian international is flat out one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. He’s a true box to box midfielder who covers a ton of ground. His stats don’t jump off the page, but if you look a little deeper you see his value. Kid has speed, instincts, passion and skill. He certainly has the ability to make the jump to Europe, but he is in a great spot right now at LAFC who spent $3 million to bring him to MLS. Odds are he doesn’t go anywhere this year, but this guy doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Probably because of the injuries and regression of guys around him.
2. Cristhian Casseres Jr (20), Midfielder: New York Red Bull. Casseres is a 20-year-old Venezuelan international who already has over 6,500 professional minutes. He’s creative, dynamic and skilled and he can cover a ton of ground. He has been an advanced, creative, playmaking midfielder for Venezuela at the youth national team level and, in my opinion, that is where he is best suited. However, he plays deeper and is asked to do a lot more defending in the Red Bulls pressing system with Kaku occupying that more advanced role. Thus, Casseres hasn’t really been able to showcase his full skill set. He isn’t on a huge salary and I’ve heard zero buzz about him moving to Europe. The Red Bulls have expressed that they do not intend to break the bank spending in MLS and will instead continue to focus on development and signing young players their extensive scouting network identifies. Well, I think they are kind of wasting a kid and a potential asset right now in Casseres. If I’m them, I sell or trade Kaku and hand the keys to Casseres.
3. George Bello (18), Left Back: Atlanta United. There was plenty of buzz about Bello after he made his debut as a 16-year-old for Atlanta with many projecting him as a potential long-term solution for the US’s hole at left back. Many hoped he would grab hold of the Left Back spot in 2019, but instead Frank De Boer sent him to Atlanta’s USL side. Then Bello suffered a groin injury and was forced to miss over 4 months of the season. In the end he did manage to log nearly 1,000 minutes in the USL in 2019 and played pretty well in an otherwise disastrous U17 World Cup. In a perfect metaphor for Frank De Boer in Atlanta, the Dutchman chose to deploy Bello on the left wing to start the 2020 season. The results were, as you would expect, mixed.
However, after De Boer was dumped, and Stephen Glass was installed as caretaker manager, the former Atlanta United 2 head coach immediately moved Bello back to left back and just let the kid play. He would start 17 of the Atlanta’s remaining 18 games and was a bright spot during an otherwise disappointing year for Atlanta. Bello is not a completed product. He needs to improve his crossing and ball striking and he has a bit of a habit of taking one touch too many. That said, there is a reason he likes the ball at his feet. He has a ton of speed, zero compunction in running at people and made a bit of habit of embarrassing defenders last year. He is a true left footed left back, but he’s certainly not one foot dominant. He plays and moves well in tight spaces and completed a more than respectable 86.8% of his passes. He’s also a solid one v one defender. He’s strong enough to body an opponent off the ball, and his recovery speed is truly elite. Rare that you are gonna see him beat for pace. Again, he needs to round out his passing game, but there is a lot to like about George Bello and his lovely floated cross to Jackson Conway’s head for a goal against Club America on Wednesday was a positive sign. He’s currently valued $1.1 million and Atlanta are not going to let him go for that, but I like he chances to continue his upward trajectory in Heinze’s aggressive tactical style.
4. Tanner Tessmann (19), Midfielder: FC Dallas. I absolutely love Tanner Tessmann’s potential. At 6’2” 190 lbs he’s a superior athlete who can really cover ground. He needs to improve his ability going forward and playing with the ball at his feet in tight spaces. However, he’s a two footed player who can ping pinpoint passes all over the field. His ability to switch the point of attack and spring runners with long balls is really fun to watch. Ultimately, he may be best suited for a move to center back, where his size, strength and athleticism would be assets. In addition, his ability to play the ball with both feet could make him a versatile option in a back line. He’s currently only valued at $660K, but I think he’s a guy to watch in 2021.
5. Frankie Amaya (20), Midfielder: FC Cincinnati. When Frankie Amaya was drafted, following his lone season at UCLA, with the number one overall pick by FC Cincinnati, most people pegged the former US U-20 standout as a smooth creator who might struggle to adjust to the physicality of MLS. Two seasons and over 3,200 MLS minutes later, Amaya is a ball winning defensive midfielder in Jaap Stam’s defensive system. Amaya still has that technical ability, though you rarely see it given FC Cincinnatti’s bunker ball approach. However, he has also proven to be an absolute pitbull in the midfield and is absolutely unafraid of a challenge or a professional foul. He finished 8th in MLS in tackles per game and has become an automatic starter for Stam. Amaya may be the closest thing there is to a Tyler Adams comp in the US player pool. I was really looking forward to seeing him in his first camp with the senior US national team, but a positive Covid test kept him from participating. I would love to see what Amaya can do surrounded by better talent and playing within a more progressive system, but we’ll likely see him back in Cinci in 2021. That said, Olympic Qualifying could give Amaya an opportunity to shine and further elevate his game and improve his stock with scout overseas.
Guys who could use a change of scenery.
1. Jesus Ferreira (19), Forward: Dallas. You rarely see players loaned out within MLS, but that just might be the best move for both Dallas and Ferreira. Ferreira was riding high coming in to 2020. He was coming off a season in which he scored 8 goals, notched 6 assists and led all MLS teenagers in minutes played. He made his senior national team debut for US following the season and looked solid playing up top. He certainly appeared poised for an even better season in 2020 and an eventual move to Europe looked like a foregone conclusion.
However, Dallas signed DP striker Franco Jara from Pachuca prior to the season and his presence pushed Ferreira into a reserve role or out on the wing. He still got around 1,000 minutes during the Covid shortened season, but his confidence looked shook and another year like this for him doesn’t do anyone any good. To me he needs a change of scenery and there are plenty of teams in MLS who could use a striker like Ferreira. Loaning him out would give him the ability to reestablish himself and his value.
2. Aidan Morris (19), Midfielder: Columbus. If you watched the MLS Cup, you know what this kid brings to the table. Kid was probably the second-best player on the pitch for Columbus in just his third career start. That said, he probably isn’t going to get much run in that midfield in 2021. If you are Columbus, you love that kind of depth, however, Morris is also an asset and his value is not going to be helped by sitting on the bench for another season. I’d loan him out and let him get the playing time he deserves.
Finally… Here are some kids to watch. This novel has been long enough, so I’m not gonna go into detail on these guys. Just do yourself a favor and look up some highlights. You’ll thank me.
1. Cade Cowell (17), Forward: San Jose
2. Moses Nyeman (17), Midfielder: DC United
3. Christian Torres (16), Winger: LAFC