MLS is back this weekend, complete with two shiny new clubs for the 2017 season. And while most MLS teams are still working hard to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of academy systems and youth development, in many ways, right now is the best time it’s ever been to be a young, promising player in MLS. The Homegrown Player rule has led to more opportunities for young players to sign with MLS teams close to them, and there’s a growing trend of MLS teams going younger and younger with their signings. Even the LA Galaxy have two designated players in their twenties. The league is shifting from being heavily import-centric, the main pathway to success ever since the adoption of the Designated Player rule, to a more balanced approach towards filling rosters.
Into this climate steps the next wave of U.S. youth internationals on the cusp of their professional breakthroughs. Historically, this is where the U.S. has been mostly terrible at development. We have seen plenty of good U-17 teams in the past, and a few good U-20 teams as well. But the U-23s haven’t been to an Olympic Games since Beijing 2008. When the moment has come for players to move from youth international games and U.S. residency in Florida to actual pro teams, more often than not those players have faltered, not getting enough games or opportunities at the pro level. In an MLS climate more attune to the professional needs of this age group, however, five players signed to MLS teams this season stand a good chance of breaking out with their clubs.
Zack Steffen (GK, Columbus Crew SC)
This was probably the last time you saw Zack Steffen.
The 2015 edition of the U.S. U-20s had a pretty good showing at the World Cup, bowing out to eventual champions Serbia in the quarterfinals upon losing a penalty shootout. It was the Round of 16 against Colombia where Steffen showed his true mettle, decisively turning away a penalty to hold the U.S. lead and stopping a talented Cafeteros side, up a man, from mounting a comeback. Steffen soon followed up his World Cup performance by signing a contract with SC Freiburg in Germany.
Homesickness seemed to win out for Steffen. He signed with the Crew only a year later. Steve Clark was still the unquestioned number one in Colombus, and more than a few U.S. fans scratched their heads at choosing to be a backup in MLS versus being a backup in Germany.
However, Steffen may very well stand the best chance of anyone in this group at becoming a regular starter. The Crew didn’t pick up Clark’s option this season, and he moved to Denmark, leaving a more or less untested Brad Stuver, rookie Logan Ketterer, and 21 year old Zack Steffen, the youngest of the three, but perhaps the most accomplished, too. Steffen trained with the senior national team under Jurgen Klinsmann, and it’s clear he’s still highly rated both by his club and in the international scene. With the goalkeeper race in Columbus very much up in the air, Steffen could find himself on the field sooner rather than later.
Tyler Adams (MF, New York Red Bulls)
Adams’s importance to the current U-20s was just shown in his return from injury to help the team beat Mexico in CONCACAF competition for the first time since 1986. His tireless running, defensive awareness, and ability to get into the mix offensively provides the midfield with a steady engine, one that was missing against Panama when he was subbed off after 20 minutes due to an on-field collision.
Still just 18, his emergence isn’t any surprise to his club teammates.
I remember a year ago Sacha Kljestan telling me to keep an eye on Tyler Adams. So noted. Adams was immense today. #usynt— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) February 28, 2017
Red Bulls have run on Dax McCarty the past few seasons to great effect, but with McCarty gone, there’s a void in the midfield engine room. Sean Davis covered admirably for McCarty last season, and Felipe will still be sure to roam the midfield, but don’t be surprised to see Adams snag minutes, especially if and when an injury bug hits Harrison. Or when Felipe gets suspended. My bet is mid-April.
Brooks Lennon (MF/F, Real Salt Lake)
Lennon’s return to Real Salt Lake from Liverpool is a tricky one. His contract with Liverpool runs through the end of the 2017/2018 season, so if he wants an extension at Anfield, some tangible results on the field for RSL will most likely play a big role in that happening. On the other hand, he’s still just 19 years old, and spent most of his time at Liverpool playing for their U-23 side, scoring 2 goals in 12 appearances. He’s scoring goals left and right for the U.S. U-20s in Costa Rica for the moment, so at least it’s safe to say he’s feeling more comfortable being back in the red, white, and blue.
Capable of playing on the wings and in the middle as a forward as well, his main competition for playing time will ironically be some of his national teammates. Sebastian Saucedo has lined up on the wing for the U.S. U-20s as well, although he’s more comfortable at the number 10 spot in the middle. Jordan Allen has also represented the U.S. at the youth level and has spent the last two seasons in and out of the first team lineup, poking and prodding for a consistent starting position. We know that RSL will have Joao Plata, Yura Movsisyan, and Albert Rusnak in their full strength lineup. Lennon will be hoping to claim that last spot on the wing as his own.
Erik Palmer-Brown (CB, Sporting KC)
Erik Palmer-Brown has been the once and future center back for a couple years now. The big-framed defender that Juventus once reportedly offered a cool $1 million for has still yet to consistently break the Sporting KC lineup, however, and his contract runs out after this season. The current U-20s captain will be hungry for a spot on the SKC teamsheet going into the season.
Ahead of him on the depth chart are Ike Opara, Matt Besler, and Kevin Ellis. When Opara is healthy and in form, he is one of the most dominant center backs MLS has ever seen. Unfortunately, his tendons are made of glass. Besler is still team captain and local hero, but his powers seem to be in the wane, and he struggled for form and fitness for a large chunk of last season as well. Ellis doesn’t share the same injury concerns, but he is primarily on this team because of his utility, being able to play basically any position in the back line. If someone goes down hurt, don’t be surprised if Peter Vermes turns to Palmer-Brown more often this season.
Andrew Carleton (MF, Atlanta United FC)
Ok, fine. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. But hear me out: at just 16 years old, Carleton has the goods to make an impact for his club, and Atlanta United are uniquely situated to give him that opportunity. There are big-money acquisitions ahead of him on the wings (Tito Villalba, Josef Martinez, and Yamil Asad all seem most comfortable playing as a winger or wide forward). And, yeah, he’s only 16.
How to impress Tata pic.twitter.com/RmXcQEU2bm— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 26, 2017
I don’t care how old you are. First touch like that gets your head coach’s attention. Sure, Andrew Carleton is young. But he has a head coach who knows how to use young, quick skill players, a home field advantage in Georgia, and he’s signed to an expansion side. Even if the pressure is ramped up a bit from the rabid response Atlanta has shown to their new team, if things go South this season, it will be a learning experience for everyone and provide even more opportunities for Carleton to win some coveted game time. With skill checks like his, it might be hard not to throw him some minutes.
Who are you looking forward to watching in MLS this season? Let us know in the comments!