Andrew Thompson sits down and takes a look at, who in his opinion, have been the best of a bright group of U-22 players in the MLS in 2017
Despite its obvious shortcomings, the MLS isn’t the massive pile of refuse that it’s so often billed to be. It has had its fair share of struggles over the years, many of them in fact, but success doesn’t come without finding ways that do not work.
Many will bang on – and rightfully so – about no relegation, the playoff format, different conferences, a usual heavy reliance on the NCAA draft (at the very least historically), and a convoluted system for roster management and player acquisition. But what Major League Soccer does seem to be making headway in, is its propping up of young talent.
The MLS has always promoted faith in young players. I can remember back to the days of players like a young Taylor Twellman, Kyle Martino, Alecko Eskandarian, and many others; players who at the time were themselves under-22 and made waves domestically. But young players of the past and young players who currently ply their trade on American shores are vastly different; young players today in the states are vastly superior.
As the league moves forward in search of an improved reputation and the right identity, it’s the younger players who will lead the way in either making or breaking an MLS project which just completed its twenty-first season. Here now are our top five U-22 players of the 2017 MLS season.
5. Cyle Larin // 22 // Orlando City SC // Centre-Forward
They may be dominant at hockey, but Canada has never excelled at producing talented footballers in abundance. However, the careers of all-time leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario, and the likes of Paul Stalteri and Atiba Hutchinson, prove that there is potential; so maybe it’s fitting that one of the most potent strikers in MLS over the last three years happens to be Canadian.
A product of early exposure to a higher level, Cyle Larin owes much of his success to the early years of his development at Sigma FC, a local youth academy near his native Brampton. Larin joined age eleven in 2007, and by the time he graduated six years later, the center-forward had trained with Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen, Club Brugge, and Racing Genk, all thanks to his time with Sigma. It was these experiences at a higher level that found him committing to the University of Connecticut, one of the most laudable college programs in the US. After spending two years with UConn, and a brief return with Sigma, Larin was drafted by the newly formed Orlando City SC in MLS, despite rumored European interest.
Three years on, Larin sits with a near 50% strike rate for Orlando (43 goals in 87 appearances), and has led The Lions in scoring in all three seasons, including seventeen goals in his rookie season in 2015. Bobby Smyrniotis, Technical Director at Sigma, had the highest praise for Larin before he left the academy, and it appears that said praise was well founded. A very good all-around center forward, with a strong eye for goal and strength on the ball, it can be argued that Larin has been Orlando’s most important player since their inception. Though he does suffer with a bit of inconsistency from time to time, and can be unreliable on the defensive side of the ball, Larin’s goal record in MLS, for such a young player, more than makes up for his short comings.
With rumors beginning to pick up steam that the Canadian international will swap MLS for Europe before the beginning of next season in a bid to fulfill a long-standing career goal of playing abroad, one must wonder if Smyrniotis will be fancied for his sage-like words on Larin four years ago. Like every other player on this list, Larin could certainly find himself in Europe eventually.
4. Diego Fagundez // 22 // New England Revolution // Left Winger
One of three foreign-born players to make this list, Diego Fagundez has been one to watch for quite some time. His root to the professional ranks was more traditional than Roldan and Harrison, though. Born in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, Fagundez moved to Massachusetts at the age of five, and soon joined his local youth side. After two additional stints at other clubs, as well as three years in the Olympic Development Program, he signed with New England Revolution’s youth academy in 2009. A year later, the Revs made him their first-ever homegrown player to sign a contract with the club, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he genuinely broke into the first-team.
After making twenty appearances in 2012, the soon-to-be Uruguayan U-20 international would explode in the following season to the tune of thirteen goals and five assists in thirty-one league appearances; he’s been a key asset ever since.
Incredibly confident on the ball, Fagundez lives and dies by cutting into central areas from the left-hand channel. A creative outlet when both providing as well as generating space when on the ball, his decreased yearly goal production since 2013 is not indicative of just how influential he really is. While he may not be all that reliable on the defensive side of the game, going forward, he’s everything you want in a modern left-sided player; tricky, intelligent, decisive, and an effective finisher overall.
Most importantly perhaps, is the potential that he could possibly switch allegiances and represent the US at the full national level. Though capped six times for the Uruguay U-20’s, Fagundez, now twenty-two, must only have one more year of continuous residency in the US (per FIFA rules) before this could become an option. If he does consider it, the USMNT program would be foolish to not give him serious consideration as they look to rebuild after failing to qualify for Russia 2018.
3. Tyler Adams // 18 // New York Red Bulls // Defensive Midfielder
Americans truly are sports crazed, and there is no denying that. But one story line above most others tends to occupy our way of thinking when it comes to the games we follow, and that’s meteoric rises of talented young players. Though the careers of Freddie Adu and (likely) Gedion Zelalem did not materialize as wanted, it was Landon Donovan that ignited a hope in many of Uncle Sam’s faithful followers that the country can continue to bring through young players of quality.
The continued success of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund and with the national team continuing to supply USMNT supporters with young players to support with the likes of Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent. For Tyler Adams, it’s a near guarantee that expectations will grow around him like wildfire.
A New York boy from the Hudson Valley town of Wappinger Falls north of New York City, Adams is a direct product of the NY Red Bulls academy. Joining in 2010 at age eleven, he featured prominently at all youth levels for the club before being promoted to the reserves in 2015, and making the jump to the first-team the following year.
An intelligent player who predominantly features in the holding midfield role, Adams shows maturity beyond his years. Good in the tackle, with a very good understanding of space, Adams even exhibits creativity from deeper areas and the eye for a killer pass. Equally adept at being direct or retaining possession, his success at club level in the youth ranks and now in the MLS has been mirrored by his progression through the national ranks. He featured for the U-15’s, and played a key role for both the U-17’s and U-20’s in their respective World Cup campaigns, including playing in every match for the US this past summer in South Korea.
Now a full US international after making his debut in the 1-1 draw against Portugal earlier this month, Adams will no doubt continue to be a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Red Bulls, but it could be only a matter of time before he bids farewell to MLS for a higher standard of league.
2. Jack Harrison // 21 // NYCFC // Winger
You would be hard pressed to find a more highly touted young player in the MLS than Jack Harrison. A native of Stoke-on-Trent, Harrison began his formal education at Liverpool’s youth academy, before moving to Manchester United where he would spend seven years.
Upon moving to the United States at the age of fourteen, he would spend a further two years with Manhattan Soccer Club in New York City to complete his time as a youth player, before starting in college for Wake Forest in North Carolina. His eight goals in twenty-two appearances during his Freshman year, along with countless influential performances, saw Harrison drafted first overall in the 2016 MLS Superdraft after being recognized as the top college player in the country in 2015.
Now two years into his senior career with NYCFC, Harrison is undoubtedly heading for bigger and better things. Ten goals and three assists in thirty-four appearances for Patrick Vieira’s men was a brilliant return, and such has been the nature of his performances that Harrison was called up to the England U-21’s during their Euro qualification campaign.
Confident on the ball, always willing to run at players, and very much a dynamic focal point on the right-hand side of the attack, Harrison is a constant threat throughout ninety minutes. Even if he’s not finding the back of the net, his overall ability is such that the attention he attracts creates space for others consistently. With multiple Premier League clubs now allegedly interested in bringing him back to Albion shores, Harrison may yet get his wish to test himself in arguably the best league in the world.
1. Cristian Roldan // 22 // Seattle Sounders // Central Midfielder
Titles are won and lost in midfield. It’s true that many live by the adage that you win titles at the back, but so often, it’s those just in front, being that ever reliable shield, that make dreams come true on the pitch. Currently on course for a second MLS Cup finals appearance in two seasons at the time of writing – and hopefully a second win – Cristian Roldan is unquestionably a star in the making.
A California native, Roldan grew up in one of the best regions of the United States for developing young talent. The west-coast hot bed is home to countless youth clubs with wonderful track records, not to mention vaunted high school and college programs. After being named High School National Player of the Year in 2013, Roldan went on to play two seasons at with the highly reputable University of Washington, wining a conference title in his first season. Upon being drafted in 2015 by the Seattle Sounders, Roldan made twenty-two appearances in his first season, registering just one assist. Two years later, it’s hard to argue against the notion that Roldan is one of the most complete and competent midfielders in MLS.
Though he’s only been capped once by the full US men’s side, and just twice for the U-20’s, Seattle’s number seven has a body of work that cannot be ignored much longer. Incredibly versatile through the middle, his ability in the tackle, challenges in the air, and work rate to regain possession make him the ideal holding midfielder. Capable of playing in a number of other deployments, he’s certainly creative, but exhibits a sneaky eye for goal. Roldan registered six goals during the regular season, while averaging just 1.1 shots/90minutes (per whoscored.com), signaling an excellent return for a midfield anchor.
In the span of five years, Roldan has gone from nearly missing out on being recruited to playing in college altogether, to now being one of the most consistent players in the entire league. Dreams certainly do come true, and for this son of Central American immigrants, his dreams will undoubtedly become reality.