Lists? MLS has them - every year the league puts out a list of the 22 best players in the league under 22 years old. In years past this has been sort of an odd exercise in a league that based its marketing and player development approach by buying the Cuauhtémoc Blancos and Thierry Henrys of the world rather than developing players. But no more - kinda. This year’s list has a number of exciting young players that could one day feature on future World Cup and Champions League rosters rather than having those days behind them. There are even some Americans on the list this year who could make a difference either in MLS or beyond.
Here’s who made the cut...
22. Derrick Jones - After a good showing in the U-20 World Cup Jones looked like he might have a shot at starting for the Philadelphia Union in central midfield this year. It didn’t quite work out that way and the 21 year-old has 300 less minutes this year than in 2017. Still he has started in two of the last three Union games so perhaps next year is the season he features for the club.
21. Mark McKenzie - The Union central defender paired with Auston Trusty to form one of the most unlikely American center back duos in MLS this year. Playing in front of Jamaican National Team keeper Andre Blake, McKenzie has helped a scrappy Philly team all but clinch a playoff spot in 2018.
20. Jaylin Lindsey - The right back who plays left back sometimes fought his way into the Sporting KC lineup in the middle of the season over a seven game stretch through June and July. In that time he managed an assist with six starts and 555 total minutes played. Lindsey has the makings of a good attacking option and could be the next player wedged into the left back spot for the USMNT despite that not being his best position.
19. Andrew Carleton - 2018 will go down as a frustrating year for Carleton. He’s had his chances in USL Premier Tippeligaen or whatever it’s called now but that hasn’t won him starts or significant minutes with Atlanta United. The creative attacking player seems to have what it takes to make an MLS roster - vision, pace, passing accuracy, and more technical skills than a Waffle House line cook. Maybe next year will be different if Miguel Almiron, or Carleton himself, goes to Europe (and Tata Martino scratches that three year itch).
17. Efrain Alvarez - Are we really going to do this? Are we going to raise our hopes and think that a Mexican-American is going to pick the Stars and Stripes over El Tri? At the very least can we see him play in MLS for the Galaxy? I want to believe but I don’t think the youngster is going to stay in the states when it comes time to pick a senior national team. It’s really too bad, because my word...
15. Brooks Lennon - The Liverpool academy attacker turned Real Salt Lake right back has secured his spot as a starter in MLS this year. RSL has leaked a lot of goals this year as Kyle Beckerman seems more like a dead weight than a midfield anchor and Nick Rimando hopes nobody notices his Tim Howard impression is getting a little too close to the real thing, but Lennon has logged a respectable 2580 minutes so far this year along with five assists. This ranking seems a little low for Lennon, I would have expected to see him higher than a player like Latif Blessing at 11 but right backs get no respect.
14. Chris Durkin - At 18 Durkin has cemented himself in a DC United lineup that now looks like it could defy imagination and make the playoffs despite a terrible start to the season. Durkin is a solid defensive midfielder with great positional awareness - but it’s his passing that should be really exciting. As much as nobody wants to say it, the USMNT will have a difficult time replacing Michael Bradley’s ability to spray accurate long passes down the field and Durkin seems to have that skill set. That along with knowing what position he should play could have him poised to play as the no. 6 as the USA looks to replace Bradley.
Chris Durkin isn’t the fastest player, but his defensive positioning is one of his best abilities. In this clip, he positions himself to track the runs of three Galaxy players, wins the ball, and plays it forward. This is quintessential “defensive-midfielding”. pic.twitter.com/YwGowqe4Up— Joseph Lowery (@joeInCleats) July 24, 2018
10. Austin Trusty - The 20 year-old center back has what it takes to anchor an MLS backline for the Union for the next decade unless he decides to test himself at the highest level. Trusty ticks two important boxes in that he’s a physically strong boxes and is good with his feet. Whether or not that translates to the national team is another issue, but he has time to show that he can fight for a spot with the USMNT.
9. Justen Glad - Real Salt Lake makes the list again with another defender. Justen Glad is the kind of player who has had a lot of attention throughout his time in US youth levels and has grown into a reliable starter for RSL.
7. Reggie Cannon - Ah yes, finally something to get excited about, a right back. Reggie Cannon is another surprising young American who won a starting spot on a backline and hasn’t looked back in 2018. His play for FC Dallas has earned him a call-up to the USMNT and should he play his best, Cannon could be capable of pushing DeAndre Yedlin for the starting right back spot for the Stars and Stripes.
2. Tyler Adams - Does he even count if he’s already been sold to Leipzig? I guess so. Adams is one of the more impressive American central midfielders to come along in MLS in quite a while. At this point his ability to control a game from midfield has been deeply examined but he could be poised to take the role of tempo setter from... Claudio Reyna. Clearly his skill set has been severely lacking for the Red, White, and Blue in a position that has been more of a puzzle to be solved than a reliable spot on the field for the past decade.
Tyler Adams doing Tyler Adams things. pic.twitter.com/thOH6Qs8et— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) August 12, 2018
Big picture - Looking at the international players on the list there is something that is clear - the best young attackers in MLS are not Americans. Andrew Carleton can’t get a game, Efrain Alvarez is tearing up the minor leagues but who knows where he’ll end up at the senior international level while seven of the attackers on the list come from outside of the US. Of the 11 Americans on the list six are defenders, two are defensive midfielders, one is Tyler Adams, one is an attacker and one seems like he’s going to go to Mexico.
While it’s obviously good that a majority of the of best under 22 year-olds in the domestic league are from the country the league is in, it shows obvious gaps in the talent pool for goal scorers and creative American players that are being produced by MLS clubs. There is a lot of talk about US academies coaching and training the joy out of soccer and it having a negative effect on producing creative players. That obviously didn’t happen with Andrew Carleton, but the lack of depth at forward, creative midfielder, and winger seems to anecdotally back that notion up.