Tom Robinson profiles 10 young players to watch out for in the Uruguayan Primera Division.
Uruguay’s ability to punch above its weight in terms of the production of footballers, in quality as well as quantity, is no secret. Cavani and Suarez have long been considered among the best forwards in the world, Godin and Gimenez two of the most revered defenders and the likes of Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur are among the best young midfield prospects around.
You don’t have to look that much further to see there is a depth of talent emerging from the relatively modest environs of the Uruguayan league. Maxi Gomez has established himself in Spain as a proven goalscorer and Darwin Nunez has enjoyed a promising start to life at Almeria, while Nahitan Nandez, Lucas Torreira and Mauro Arambarri have developed nicely too.
Throw in the likes of Brian Rodriguez at LA FC, Matias Viña at Palmeiras and Nicolas de la Cruz at River – who have moved within the Americas but surely will cross the Atlantic before too long – and you appreciate the impressive exportation of young Charruas across the globe.
With the domestic league postponed just 3 games into the new season, the pause in proceedings gives us the perfect opportunity to look at who could be the next batch of young stars emerging from the Uruguayan Primera Division.
Manuel Ugarte // 19 // Fenix
Over the years Uruguay has produced its fair share of fantastic defensive midfielders and Fenix’s Manuel Ugarte seems to be forged from the same furnace. Tough in the tackle, an excellent reader of the game and technical enough to play his way out of trouble or bring the ball forward, Ugarte debuted for Fenix at the age of 15 but properly broke through into the first team last season and is now considered one of the best prospects in the league.
Praised for his great engine and work rate, he also starred for the U-23 national team at the Pre-olimpicos and was arguably one of the best midfielders in the tournament despite being one of the youngest there. There is talk that Jorge Mendes is keen to add him to his stable so don’t be surprised if he moves to Europe sooner rather than later.
Facundo Pellistri // 18 // Peñarol
The latest young prospect from the Peñarol academy, intelligent right winger Pellistri looks to have all the hallmarks of a star in the making. With pace to burn, good dribbling and crossing ability, it’s his clever and varied movement, mature decision-making and his fearlessness that mark him out as a special talent and have attracted attention from some of the top clubs in Spain, as well as a host of MLS clubs and some of the continent’s powerhouses.
Pellistri may only have 25 senior games under his belt and could do with adding more end-product to his game but he’s already become an important member of Diego Forlan’s squad so expect to see plenty more of him in the coming years.
Mathias Laborda // 20 // Nacional
The young defender from Fray Bentos initially broke through into the Nacional squad after an injury to Guzman Corujo and hasn’t looked back since. Also capable of playing at right back, Laborda stepped up and made 10 appearances, scoring twice, as Nacional won the league and in doing so cemented his place in the defence. Part of the excellent Nacional U-20 side that won the 2018 U-20 Libertadores and another standout in the recent Pre-olimpicos, Laborda is dominant in the air, strong in the tackle and comfortable on the ball and has allegedly been watched by Barcelona in the past. Along with Araujo, Mendez, Caceres and Bueno, the future of the Uruguay defence looks to be in safe hands.
Cristian Olivera // 18 // Rentistas
The pacey young winger has been the breakthrough talent for the surprise early league leaders Rentistas. Before proceedings were brought to a halt, the newly promoted minnows had 3 wins from 3 games, with Olivera a central figure despite his young age, scoring once and providing an assist. These performances will come as no surprise to anyone who saw him rip up the second division last year and although three goals in 25 games might not jump off the page, his explosive speed, directness, skills and dribbling all caught the eye.
Hailing from the rough Los Reyes neighbourhood, Olivera comes from the school of hard knocks and has managed to succeed despite being rejected by Danubio and Defensor Sporting when he was younger. The recently turned 18-year-old has also excelled at international level, scoring 3 times in 8 games for the Uruguay U-17s last year, and both Penarol and Nacional are already circling.
Matias Arezo // 17 // River Plate (Montevideo)
Despite being only 17, Arezo already has plenty of experience in his nascent career. An all-round centre forward in the mould of Luis Suarez, the young striker is comfortable across the entire forward line, has great technique and crucially possesses the all-important goalscoring instinct that saw him net 6 goals in 22 appearances as a 16-year-old last season.
Quick, mobile and hard-working, Arezo uses his body well and has a surprisingly good aerial game despite not being the tallest. Naturally he is far from the finished article but all the raw attributes are there and led to him being named the best newcomer of the 2019 season. Capped at U-17 and U-23 level, there are high hopes for Arezo and the City Football Group are rumoured to be interested in capturing his signature.
Gonzalo Napoli // 19 // Defensor Sporting
Defensor have a great history of producing young players and Napoli is one of a number of interesting talents right now. The likes of Ignacio Laquintana, Alan Rodriguez, Luciano Boggio and Facundo Millan could have all made the list but the former U-17 international gets the nod after a breakthrough season last year in which he featured 29 times. A proper box-to-box midfielder, Napoli has good passing, decent technique and vision but can also get stuck in and do his defensive duties too. All that remains to be seen is whether he and the rest of this promising Defensor generation can emulate previous graduates Giorgian de Arrascaeta and Maxi Gomez.
Santiago Rodriguez // 20 // Nacional
Attacking midfielder Rodriguez, another of the excellent 2018 U-20 Libertadores winning squad, is arguably one of the most exciting and watchable talents in the league right now. A mazy dribbler with bags of creativity and pace, Rodriguez can operate off either flank and his goal-scoring ability means he is versatile enough to be used wide on a front three. Lithe, elusive and daring, his exploits have seen a number of clubs in MLS and Mexico enquire about his services, as well as rumoured interest from AC Milan. While he still needs to work on his consistency, there is clearly a diamond in the rough and it will be fascinating to see how far Rodriguez and his fellow Bolso attacking prospects Vecino, Ocampo and Perez can go.
Juan Manuel Gutierrez // 18 // Danubio
Another of the Uruguayan clubs with a storied history in producing young players, 18-year-old Juanma Gutierrez looks to be the latest ‘botija’ with a bright future from la Franja. Gutierrez made history by becoming the youngest debutant this century for Danubio in 2018 at the age of 16 but, like so many players on this list, 2019 was his true breakthrough year. He played 21 times in the league – albeit largely off the bench – and scored his first goal, whilst also starring regularly for the Uruguay U-17s. A forward with pace, balance and quick feet, he is highly thought of by club and country and, although still needing to improve his goal output, was also named in The Guardian’s Next Generation 2019 list.
Yvo Calleros // 22 // Plaza Colonia
One of the lesser known names of the list, Calleros fits the typical tough-tackling deep-lying midfield destroyer role to a tee. Strong and athletic, the 22-year-old was the vital anchor that knitted together a resilient Plaza Colonia side that had a strong second half of 2019 in which they finished fourth in the Clausura with the best defence in the league. One of the best number 5s in the division over the last year, Calleros is capable of dropping back in-between the centre backs and it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to imagine a player with his skill-set switching to a permanent position in defence. Having taken las Patas Blancas from the second division to a place in the Copa Sudamericana, it will be interesting to see if a bigger club comes calling.
Fabricio Diaz // 17 // Liverpool (Montevideo)
Last but by no means least, Liverpool wonderkid Diaz made an immediate splash to first team football by scoring on his debut in none other than the Supercopa final against Nacional two days before his 17th birthday. Still a ballboy less than a year ago, the precocious midfielder has had a sensational rise in recent months but the early hype seems fully justified. Diaz is the epitome of a modern midfielder, impressing with his ability to cover every blade of grass, press opposition, win the ball and then transition into the attacking phase and contribute in the final third.
Tactically intelligent for his age, Diaz models his game on Toni Kroos and has been called up to the Uruguay U-20 set-up. Despite the small sample size, the early signs look extremely promising and Diaz is definitely one to keep an eye on.
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