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Five U.S. youth internationals to watch this NCAA season

These five future pros and potential USMNT players are some of the best NCAA soccer has to offer.

NCAA Soccer: College Cup-Stanford vs Indiana James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

College soccer receives a lot of criticism for being a poor environment for player development. While NCAA soccer certainly has significant flaws, it still manages to produce some high quality players. With the season starting on Friday, here’s a look at five former United States youth internationals to keep an eye on this fall.

John Nelson-Defender-University of North Carolina

The sophomore outside back had a dominant freshman year, starting all 22 games for UNC. Nelson is one of the best 1 v.1 defenders in the country and will be a key player for a loaded Tar Heels squad. He led the team to a 0.86 Goals Against Average (GAA) and 17-4-1 record, which included a College Cup Semifinal appearance.

Nelson was a highly touted youth prospect, playing with the U.S. U-15, U-17, and U-19 National Teams. He was a member of the 2015 U.S. U-17 World Cup squad, as well as the U-17 National Team residency program.

Brad Dunwell-Midfielder-Wake Forest University

Defensive midfielders generally don’t garner a lot of attention, but Dunwell rightfully draws praise for his elite play. The senior, and former U.S. U-15 National team member, is a hard-tackling workhorse who has started every game at Wake since his freshmen year.

In 2017, he helped guide the Demon Deacons to a 19-2-2 record and a quarterfinal appearance in the NCAA tournament. With Dunwell shielding the backline, Wake was one of the best defensive teams in the country as it recorded 13 shutouts. Dunwell has the potential to be a first round pick in the MLS draft and is an important leader for a Wake team that has championship aspirations.

Rey Ortiz-Midfielder-University of Portland

Rey Ortiz burst onto the during his 2017 sophomore season, proving to be one of the best playmakers in the country. He notched 6 goals and 13 assists in just 17 games last season and was one of the few bright spots on a Portland team that finished 9-7-1. Ortiz’s passing is arguably better than any other college player in the country and this coupled with his high soccer IQ makes him an exciting player to watch.

He spent the summer playing for the Portland Timbers U-23 side and recorded 2 assists despite only playing 3 games. In high school, the diminutive #10 was a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Academy and played with U.S. U-15 National team. He is eligible for both the U.S. and Mexico.

Manny Perez-Midfielder-North Carolina State University

Sophomore Manny Perez had a somewhat modest stat line in 2017 (5 goals, 4 assists in 15 appearances), but demonstrated glimpses of talent that suggest he will soon be playing at a higher level. Despite his excellent play, NC State posted a disappointing 8-6-4 record in 2017. While he often features as a wide midfielder for NC State, he projects as a right-back on the professional level.

Perez’s athleticism and comfort on the ball sets him apart and resulted in a Generation Adidas contract offer from Major League Soccer. Perez rejected the contract and may test his options abroad after this college season. Perez has received call-ups to the U.S. U-18 and U-20 National teams. Like Ortiz, Perez is eligible for the Mexican national team, but has yet to receive a senior or youth call-up from El Tri.

Siad Haji-Forward-Virginia Commonwealth University

Junior Siad Haji is listed as a forward on the VCU website, but is actually a dynamic winger who is more of a playmaker than goal scorer. Haji transferred to VCU (from Division III New England College) for the 2017 season, recording 2 goals and 8 assists in 17 starts.

His electric pace and impeccable low, driven crosses make him integral to the Ram’s offense. He helped lead the team to a 12-7 record and an NCAA Tournament Second Round appearance. Haji was a member of the U.S. U-15, U-17, and U-19 National Teams.