20 young American players to watch in the 2021 MLS season
April 05, 2021
THE 2019 AND 2020 MLS season were both very positive ones for the league in terms of teams playing young players and achieving success with young players. In 2020, the Philadelphia Union won the Supporters Shield with two young players making the league’s Best XI. Meanwhile, the Columbus Crew won MLS Cup with Aiden Morris playing a staring role in defensive midfield.
The league took positive steps to not just play, but to find ways to have the young players contribute to success, and also sell the players who were the top performers.
What that does, however, is set the stage for an increased number of players in 2021 who have already now gotten their feet wet at the first team level, maybe even achieved some level of success, and now have to take the next steps in their careers.
The upcoming season is going to be one where we learn a lot about a number of young players who have broken through at the first team level. We will get a glimpse of their ceiling and maybe have to adjust how high or now low we rate them. Are they going to make the transition from being good “for a young player” to being just good players?
Here is a look at 20 American players who will be interesting to watch. The age cut of is 1999-born players or younger. All of them have made their professional debuts already (with two coming from Europe, where they made debuts) and the upcoming season will serve as an important benchmark.
20. Dante Sealy
Forward, FC Dallas
Sealy will turn 18 this month and, being a 2003-born player, is one of the younger players on this list. He is also one of the most inexperienced players on this list having made just five appearances for FC Dallas. Still, he looks the part and his development is the next test of the club’s academy which has sent Weston McKennie, Bryan Reynolds, and Chris Richards off to high levels in Europe. The academy has also sent Reggie Cannon off to Portugal’s top flight, and Justin Che seems like another who will get sold.
Sealy took his first professional steps in 2020 but now can he begin making an impact? He is expected to be a part of the 2023 U.S. U-20 team.
19. Frankie Amaya
Midfielder, FC Cincinnati
Frankie Amaya, 20, is a tough player to rate right now. He showed promising glimpses with the U.S. U-20 team and with Cincinnati last year. But Cincinnati has been the worst team in the league by a large margin and it is impossible to stand out there. The 2000-born Amaya has already said he wants to leave the club and this will likely force a trade. If that doesn’t happen, Amaya could lose valuable time in his development.
But if Amaya finds a new destination, he will have to adjust quickly to a new team and integrate. He has talent, but this year will hopefully provide an environment to make an accurate evaluation of the first overall pick in the 2019 draft.
18. Aboubacar Keita
Defender, Columbus Crew
Born in 2000, central defender Aboubacar Keita turned 21 this week and is preparing for his third season on first team of the Columbus Crew. As the 2020 MLS Cup champions, the Crew are a tough team to break into for a young player. Keita made 12 appearances (11 starts) in 2020 and 10 appearances (eight starts) in 2019. The expectations need to be raised. Can he help anchor a backline for one of the best teams in the league? Or is he useful backup?
Thus far, he’s shown himself to be talented but raw but in his third season, can he display a more polished skillset.
17. Leon Flach
Midfielder, Philadelphia Union
Defensive midfielder Leon Flach, 20, is one of two players on the list who has not played in MLS before. Born in Houston but raised in Germany, Flach developed at St. Pauli’s academy and made his first team debut in 2020. With cash on hand due to recent sales, Philadelphia was able to complete a purchase of the 2001-born Flach from cash-strapped St. Paul for under $300,000.
Flach was slated to be part of the U.S. U-20 team in 2021 until the cycle was cancelled. But in Philadelphia, he will get a chance as Jim Curtin will play young players if they are good enough. If Flach lives up to expectations, he will be worth more than the cost of his transfer fee.
16. Cade Cowell
Winger, San Jose Earthquakes
Cade Cowell, 17, is another 2003-born player in the league who made some nice contributions in 2020 – even scoring a big goal against the Galaxy. Physically, Cowell is a handful to defend for a player of his age but this year will be important for him to both play more and show more elements to his game.
15. Andres Perea
Midfielder, Orlando City SC
Andres Perea, 20, defensive midfielder showed promising glimpses in his first season with Orlando City in 2020 where he emerged as a starter in the second half of the season. After the season, he switched his international allegiance from Colombia to the United States, where he was born, and played for the U.S. U-23 team in its failed Olympic qualification effort. There were a lot of reasons why that team failed and the lack of attacking midfielders, and an over reliance of defensive midfielders, was a big factor.
In Orlando, Perea will play with a properly balanced team but he very much needs to add offensive bite to his game. Defensively he is solid and he can cover a lot of ground. It is up to Oscar Pareja and the Orlando City coaching staff to help Perea round out his game. If he can add more progressive passing and offensive movement to his game, he could be good. If not, he might be limited. 2021 will be a big year to show progress.
14. Kevin Paredes
Midfielder, DC United
The 2003-birth year is strong in MLS and Paredes is another one of the players who is looking to make further inroads in 2021. In 2021, the Virginia native made 17 first team appearance but the club failed to make the playoffs. Now under a new manager in Hernan Losada, the entire team will need to adapt.
Paredes had some very good games in 2020 but 2021 will be another time for him to show added growth – to move from starter to an impact player who can the team into the playoffs.
13. Julian Araujo
Fullback, LA Galaxy
It seems like Julian Araujo has been around for a long time now, but the Galaxy right back still won’t turn 20 until August. This past offseason Araujo earned his first cap with the U.S. national team and was part of the of the U-23 team’s failed Olympic qualifying team – while playing up a U-23 cycle. He should have been a part of the U-20 team in 2021 until the cycle was cancelled.
There are a lot of questions for Araujo this year and the Galaxy has been a tough place for a young player in recent years. Zlatan overshadowed everyone in 2019. Chicharito was terrible in 2020 and Guillermo Barros Schelotto was eventually fired. Now Greg Vanney will attempt to bring some needed stability and that should benefit Araujo – who will likely return to the right back position after playing right midfield in 2020.
Araujo is known for being a hard worker and this should help him in a year where he’s trying to take the next steps in his career. He has the potential to be a very good right back and this year will be an important time for him.
12. Gianluca Busio
Midfielder, Sporting Kansas City
Still only 18, Gianluca Busio has played 52 games and 2,572 minutes while notching six goals for Sporting Kansas City’s first team so far. That’s a lot of playing time for the midfielder. In 2020 he moved from attacking midfielder to holding midfielder. In 2021, he seems likely to move back into the attack.
While young, he is moving out of the prospect stage and more into that of a known-player. He holds European-ambitions to get into one of UEFA’s big leagues. But to do that, he’s going to need to produce with Sporting Kansas City.
11. Jesus Ferreira
Forward, FC Dallas
Jesus Ferreira, 20, comes into this season looking to reverse a tough trend. As an 18-year old in 2019, he showed a lot of promise but 2020 was a rough year for Ferreira. He moved around from position to position. He had a strong January camp and was the MOTM in a 7-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago but then struggled in the failed Olympic qualifying run with the U-23s.
Part of it with Ferreira is that he shines in a second striker role in a 4-4-2 formation but hasn’t found a solid second position yet. That is necessary given the limited number of teams that play a 4-4-2. Right now, he seems to be talented but limited. He needs to find other positions and roles to thrive in the game because Luchi Gonzalez doesn’t appear as if he’ll be using a 4-4-2 formation anytime soon.
10. George Bello
Left Back, Atlanta United
After dealing with injuries in 2019, George Bello made significant strides in 2020 where he played 1648 minutes for Atlanta United across 20 appearances. At times he looked like the best and most consistent performer for an Atlanta team wrapped up in Frank de Boer and the struggles of the interim staff that followed.
Now he will get to play under new manager Gabriel Heinze, who played left back and who has shown a lot of promise as a manager.
The elements are there for Bello to be a breakout player this year – a more stable club situation, health, a better surrounding team, and a good manager. Bello has always had a lot of promise but it seems like things are teed up for him in 2021.
9. Tanner Tessmann
Midfielder, FC Dallas
Tessmann, 19, was one of the biggest American victims of the cancellation of the 2021 U-20 World Cup. In 2020, he mostly impressed in his 19 appearances for FC Dallas but also showed that there were a lot of areas he needed to grow. When he’s on his game, however, it seems to come easily to him. This year will be about settling into a position, using his big frame to his advantage more, and contributing more offensively. It’s certainly within reach for him.
8. Aidan Morris
Midfielder, Columbus Crew
It was a dream ending to 2020 for Aidan Morris who filled in for Darlington Nagbe at MLS Cup after Nagbe tested positive for COVID-19. Morris, 19, was outstanding in the win over Seattle and won an impressive piece of silverware early in his career. He was supposed to be preparing for the U-20 World Cup in the first part of the season but, due to COVID, he will instead will be hoping to nail down consistent minutes with the club.
Whenever given the chance, Morris played well in 2020 but it must on a more regular basis in 2021. If anything, he should have earned Caleb Porter’s trust after MLS Cup. He could have a nice upside if he can play regularly – but Columbus is a tough lineup to break into right now.
7. Cameron Harper
Winger, New York Red Bulls
Last month, Cameron Harper completed a transfer from Celtic to the New York Red Bulls and the winger will look to boost the club’s attack while immersing himself into the global Red Bull organization. Whenever U.S. U-20 manager Anthony Hudson gave interviews in 2020, he was always quick to praise Harper as an important part of the team – and other U.S. U-20 players often singled out Harper as well.
After making just one appearance for Celtic as his contract negotiations fell apart, Harper will make his adjustment to first-team soccer in Harrison. It is an organization that wants to continue to go younger and be streamlined with the Red Bull teams in Europe. In being part of that, Harper has a very nice opportunity with an organization that values him and was willing to pay a transfer fee to bring him over to start preseason.
6. Ricardo Pepi
Forwards, FC Dallas
One of the top teenager American forwards, Ricardo Pepi, 18, began to showcase his anticipated talent in 2020 and scored a memorable goal against Portland in the playoffs to salvage a late draw. The question now becomes getting more consistent minutes and working on his finishing ability. He is still so young (eligible for the 2023 U.S. U-20 team) and it makes sense why FC Dallas was easing in his minutes.
Like with every other player on this list, it will be ratcheting up expectations and Pepi seems ready for a lot more in 2021.
5. Anthony Fontana
Midfielder, Philadelphia Union
Fontana, 21, is one of the most perplexing players on the list. He played just 526 minutes for Philadelphia in 2020 but had six goals during that time and was explosive at times. In his career, he has eight goals in 683 minutes. It’s a small sample size, but Fontana has looked the part.
In 2021, the Delaware native will look to fill the void left by the departure of Brenden Aaronson. Fontana is a very different player but will need to improve a bunch of different areas. He’s going to have to press more and notch more assists.
It’s a huge jump to go from a sub/spot starter to replacing a U.S. national team player who was league Best XI, but Fontana has earned the right to try. When he’s on, he is fun to watch and he can score big goals.
4. Paxton Pomykal
Midfielder, FC Dallas
No one questions Paxton Pomykal’s talent but injuries have ravaged the Dallas homegrown box-to-box midfielder. Now 21, he has played just 2336 first team minutes in his career and 2020 was essentially a lost year for him.
When on the field, he looks class and he finally looks as if he is returning to health. It is only fair to expect that he will have to fight through rust but it is imperative that he have a season that is free from any major injury. It is the only way for him to salvage the high trajectory his career was on pace for during the 2019 U-20 World Cup.
3. Sam Vines
Left Back, Colorado Rapids
Sam Vines, 21, is the product of good and steady development. A full 2018 season in the USL of 2303 minutes followed by 3830 combined minutes with Colorado’s first team in 2019 and 2020 has given Vines a very solid professional base to build his career. That has translated to three national team caps and he was one of the few U-23 players who acquitted himself well last month in the failed Olympic qualifying effort.
Vines should absolutely be shooting for Europe sooner than later. He’s a smart player who has already played a lot in this league. He also plays left back, and teams often struggle to find players at this position.
There are still parts of his game he needs to work on. His defensive position needs to be better because unlike U.S. national team starter Antonee Robinson, he doesn’t have the athleticism to overcome poor positioning. But Vines can pass and read the game. He deserves to be in the national team player pool and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his upward rise.
2. Cole Bassett
Midfielder, Colorado Rapids
Bassett, 19, is another player who should be aiming for Europe with another big start to the 2021 season. Thus far in his MLS career he has eight goals and five assists in 2290 minutes for Colorado. He’s played well and is one of the better young American attacking midfielders in the league. He’s been gaining interest since last season when he helped get Colorado into the playoffs with a big season.
Bassett should continue to improve this season and that should only continue to open doors. If he plays well to start the season, a Gold Cup invite for the U.S. national team might also be in the mix. He is certainly one to watch for both what he could do for Colorado, what doors he can open in Europe, and whether or not he can get into the equation internationally.
Midfielder, New York Red Bulls
Caden Clark, 17, will be exciting to follow because he probably the most highly regarded 2003-born American prospect at the moment. It’s widely reported that a deal is already in the works that will move him to RB Leipzig in January.
As MLS improves at both the academy and first team levels, top prospects seem more inclined to begin their careers domestically before moving abroad. Clark is that case. But many top players recently have also won before they left. Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, and Matt Miazga all won Supporters’ Shields. Daryl Dike, who seems unlikely to return to Orlando, helped his team qualify for the post season for the first time and win a playoff game.
Clark is certainly one to follow in 2021 to see what kind of impact he can make this early in his career.