Eric Devin has compiled a list of the 10 best young players to watch out for in the upcoming Copa America.
As the centenary version of the Copa America gets set to kick off this Friday, we here at Outside of the Boot are excited to present this list, featuring ten youngsters (22 and under at the start of the tournament) who could play an important role over the coming month. Admittedly, this isn’t the best tournament for young players, as several intriguing players (Paulo Dybala, most notably) weren’t selected while a handful of others (Jesus Manuel Corona, John Brooks) narrowly miss the age cut-off. Nevertheless, much as the likes of Derlis Gonzalez and Romel Quinonez impressed last summer, seemingly from out of nowhere, there are sure to be a few breakout stars this summer. With that in mind, here are ten youngsters to watch in the coming weeks:
Renato Tapia // Peru // 20 // Central Midfield
The subject of a scout report by Outside of the Boot’s South American expert Tom Robinson a few months ago, just prior to his move to Feyenoord from struggling FC Twente, the intervening period hasn’t exactly been kind to Tapia. Splitting time between the senior squad and the U-21s for his club, the Peruvian has had a difficult time finding the amount of time on the pitch that he had enjoyed previously. Even with Peru struggling through a difficult World Cup qualifying campaign, though he has still been at the heart of what success the team has had, including a gritty 1-0 win over Paraguay in November.
In last year’s edition of the Copa, Tapia missed out due to injury, but in the time since his recovery, he has been an important cog for Los Incas. Adept with the ball at his feet, he readily provides drive and energy from midfield, and his time at Twente and with Peru’s youth squads has showed his ability to chip in with the odd goal as well. As befits his age, however, he still needs a bit of refinement when it comes to his tackling and passing. That said, Tapia’s development should continue apace, firmly ensconced in Ricardo Gareca’s starting eleven, considering the time he missed due to injury. While he may not be as eye-catching as some of the other players on this list, if Peru are to have a chance at equalling last summer’s impressive run to the semifinals, Tapia will likely be at the heart of things.
Christian Pulisic // USA // 17 // Attacking Midfield
The United States’ relationship with German-based players has largely centered around the children of members of the armed forces deployed overseas. While a somewhat specious tactic for expanding the player pool, it is hard to argue that the likes of Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and John Brooks haven’t been important players for the USMNT. The latest American to break through in the German top flight, has quite a different story, though. Christian Pulisic was born and raised in Pennsylvania and many eyebrows were raised when Borussia Dortmund signed him to a youth contract early last year. American players had had some level of success in the Bundesliga, but Dortmund are one of the country’s top teams, and were certainly far from bereft of attacking talent.
In the less than 18 months since signing for the club, Pulisic has been quick to silence his doubters, rapidly progressing through BVB’s youth ranks to make his first-team debut this season. With a dozen appearances across all competition, including two goals, Pulisic followed up his fine club form with a goal in the United States’ recent win over Bolivia in Kansas City. Able to play any position across the front line, either as a winger or as a no 10, Pulisic has rapidly become the most talked-about young American player since the rise of Freddy Adu. By no means a guaranteed starter, he is, however, as one would expect from a player under the tutelage of Thomas Tuchel, skilled going forward but also a hard worker defensively. With little in the way of expectations being placed on the hosts, the hope here is that Pulisic will be given the opportunity to test himself against the top-level opposition that the Copa offers.
Marquinhos // Brazil // 22 // Center Back
Having occupied a place in myriad lists of up-and-coming players for years now, it is hard to believe that Marquinhos is still just 22. Having largely struggled for playing time for the French champions over the past two seasons, the former Roma player has surely but slowly supplanted his countryman David Luiz in the pecking order this campaign. While Gil was preferred as a partner for Roberto Miranda in Brazil’s recent win over Panama, Marquinhos has been involved much more often for his country as well in the recent past, featuring against Venezuela and Chile in World Cup Qualifying. Given that he had been involved with his club until just a week beforehand, however, that does not necessarily mean that he won’t feature in the tournament.
Watching the lanky center back for both club and country, it is easy to see why he is held in such high regard. An assured tackler with a strong positional sense, what Marquinhos lacks in aerial ability and physical power, he more than makes up for with a strong mental game. He has continued to develop alongside the veteran Thiago Silva at PSG, largely as a center back, but has also displayed a decent level of versatility, turning in admirable performances at right back and in defensive midfield as well. Having earned the trust of his club manager this season, all that remains for Marquinhos is to hope for the same from Dunga. If he is given that chance, Brazil, despite missing the likes of Douglas Costa and Neymar have every chance to recover from a recent run of poor form dating to the most recent World Cup.
Hirving Lozano // Mexico // 20 // Winger
Yet another youngster previously covered by this site, Pachuca’s Hirving Lozano has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame as Mexico shift gears for this summer’s Copa America. Last year, the team selected by Miguel Herrera was comprised largely of veteran players based in Mexico. Despite some surprising results, including a 3-all draw with Chile, the team crashed out in the group stage, Herrera preferring to focus on the CONCACAF Gold Cup. At the time, few would have blamed him, given the team’s opportunity to put one over on bitter rivals USA, even if his decisions did little to aid in developing Mexico’s youngsters.
In this edition, however, with Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio at the helm, a much stronger team has been picked, including established European-based players such as Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado. Still, even in selecting what is a quality team, there is still a place for Lozano, an inverted winger who is generally used on the left for his club. For his country, he impressed last summer, finishing top scorer at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships. He notched a goal in March against Canada in World Cup Qualifying, and while he is sure to face a higher standard of defender in the Copa than in the Liga MX, his pace and dribbling ability have him well-poised to be one of the tournament’s most impressive young attackers.
Antonio Sanabria // Paraguay // 20 // Center Forward
The first of three Parguayan attackers in this list, and one of two owned by AS Roma, Sanabria is the youngest, but has also had to deal with a greater level of expectation. Moving to Spain with his parents at the age of 11 in 2007, Sanabria was snapped up by Barcelona in 2009, but his four seasons with the Catalan club were fruitless, even though he did impress with the B team. In January 2014, he moved to Sassuolo, for a fee of nearly €6M, a princely sum for a club of the Neroverdi‘s means. The move to Modena proved to be a smokescreen, however, as he was on the move again to Roma in the summer, the capital club having agreed a fee and the responsibility for Sanabria’s potential bonuses with the Spanish side.
Despite a strong scoring record in the UEFA Youth Champions’ League and with Roma’s youth team, the appearances he made for the first team last season were far and few between. Last summer, a return to Spain was arranged; Sanabria was to spend the season with Sporting Gijon, who had been promoted from the Segunda. With the scoring record of his primary competitor for playing time, Miguel Angel Guerrero uneven at best, even in the second division, Sanabria took his chance with both hands. He easily finished the club’s leading scorer, notching an impressive eleven goals in the league despite missing nine matches with recurring hamstring issues. Sanabria was a late inclusion to the squad due to an injury to Roque Santa Cruz, but his dribbling ability and finishing have seen manager Ramon Diaz recently use a novel 4-4-2, an obvious nod to the youngster’s talents.
Juan Iturbe // 22 // Paraguay // Winger
Long considered one of Paraguay’s stars of the future, Juan Iturbe made his debut for his country at the age of just 16, selected by manager Tata Martino for a friendly against Chile. While the intervening seven years haven’t exactly seen the young winger blossom as some would have hoped, he has had his moments in the sun, including a strong season for Hellas Verona in 2013-14. Born in Argentina to Paraguayan parents, Iturbe gained some notoriety for switching allegiance to the country of his birth after making his Paraguay debut, turning out a dozen times for Argentina’s U-20 side. Earlier this year, having failed to make an impact with the senior side, Iturbe declared his intention to represent Paraguay going forward.
Sparingly used at Roma, Iturbe has figured in his country’s last two matches, but is looking to rebound from a disappointing club season. Despite Roma having paid a high price for his services, Iturbe hasn’t yet set the world alight for the Italian giants, and a recent loan spell at Bournemouth was similarly unproductive. Derlis Gonzalez and Sanabria have had the better seasons for their clubs, but Iturbe may have the most to prove. If he can produce a moment of magic, something of which he is certainly capable, it may be the spark that Paraguay need to advance from a very tough Group A.
Fabinho // Brazil // 22 // Right Back/Midfield
With yet another strong season in the books at Monaco, capped by a return to the Champions’ League, Fabinho continues to look like one of the most astute purchases the club have made under the ownership of Dimitry Ryblovlev. Equally adept at right back and in defensive midfield, the young Brazilian also emerged this year as a sublime penalty taker. A strong tackler but also blessed with a good sense of anticipation, the youngster has done exceptionally well alongside the veteran Jeremy Toulalan in midfield. At right back, while he doesn’t bomb on as some modern fullbacks do, he still maintains enough of a threat to keep opponents honest.
Despite a fine campaign in the principality, it is admittedly difficult to see where Fabinho fits in for his country. Dani Alves is getting a bit long in the tooth, but still is the consummate right back, while Luis Gustavo and the emerging Casemiro look like better bets in defensive midfield. It’s not the case that Fabinho suffers without a primary position, as his versatility has made him a consistent selection for Brazil. However, earning a starting berth consistently should be within his reach, and should any of the aforementioned trio struggle in this tournament, Dunga can rest easy knowing that he can call upon the former Fluminense player.
Jose Maria Gimenez // Uruguay // 21 // Center Back
As impressive as Marquinhos’ development has been at Paris Saint-Germain, being recently linked with a move to the likes of Barcelona, he still comes a distant second as regards who is the best young defender set to participate this summer. The continued growth of the ultra-impressive Jose Maria Gimenez has been at the heart of the unprecedented success enjoyed by Atletico Madrid of late, and he and his club defensive partner, Diego Godin, have similarly made Uruguay a tough proposition on the international stage. Last summer’s quarterfinal exit was a disappointment for the defending champions, but it was no fault of the defense.
An attack blunted without Luis Suarez was undoubtedly the culprit, and Gimenez and Godin were firmly at the heart of the team’s resolute defense. Things should be no different this time around, even with Gimenez having struggled with an Achilles problem that caused him to miss a month of action, including Atletico’s defeat of Barcelona. He was bizarrely rested for the Champions’ League final, with Stefan Savic preferred, but Gimenez is still undoubtedly a top class player. He does have a bit of fondness for a booking, and could be a bit more cultured of a passer, but his aerial prowess and anticipation allow him to generally get away with these at his club, and Uruguay’s industrious midfield should provide him with a similar comfort zone in the coming weeks.
Derlis Gonzalez // Paraguay // 22 // Attacking Midfield/Winger
Derlis Gonzalez failed to win the young player of the tournament award last summer, a shocking result even given the poise displayed by the winner, Colombian center back Jeison Murrillo. A half time substitute for Richard Ortiz against heavy favorites Argentina in the group stage, Gonzalez’s entry into the match instantly changed its complexion. An early booking was unfortunate (and is still a feature of his game) but his energy and pace did much to silence the enterprising Marcos Rojo, and his slick dribbling skills earned Paraguay several free kicks in dangerous areas.
He continued to impress in the quarterfinals, notching a penalty on 71 minutes to draw level with Brazil in a terse affair before scoring the winning penalty in the shootout. A decisive loss to Argentina followed, but Gonzalez had earned himself a lucrative move to Dynamo Kiev, affording the youngster the chance to compete in the Champions’ League again. While an early-season injury made for a difficult start to life in Ukraine, Gonzalez recovered admirably, even if he was most often used as a substitute. Whether being used off the bench or from the start, the fiery winger will undoubtedly be Paraguay’s biggest weapon once again.
Juanpi // Venezuela // 22 // Winger
The ups and downs of Malaga under the stewardship of Abdullah al Thani have been too numerous to count, but despite continually having to sell their best assets, the club have remained competitive in La Liga. A productive academy, combined with a good eye for spotting talent have allowed the Andalusian club to keep a sense of pride, even as the likes of Santi Cazorla, Isco and Nacho Monreal departed. The latest academy graduate to make an impact at La Rosaleda has been Juan Pablo Anor, better known as Juanpi. With the club selling off the important attackers Samu Castillejo, Juanmi and Samuel in the summer, there was a great opportunity for a creative spark, and the pint-sized Venezuelan took his chance with aplomb.
Arriving from Caracas in 2009, it took a few years for the youngster to play his way into the first team, being relatively little-used until the mid-point of the season that just ended. Likewise an afterthought for his country, he has blossomed in the run-in for his club, and turned in strong performances in the March World Cup Qualifying matches, notching a pair of assists in a key draw away to Peru. While his finishing and tackling still leave a bit to be desired, his dribbling ability, pace, and set-piece prowess give Venezuela, with an otherwise largely veteran team, real potential to surprise in what is arguably the most difficult group to predict.
Written by Eric Devin