MLS Notebook

MLS Youth Report, U-20 & U-23 stockwatch, Champions Cup, weekend preview

ASN's Brian Sciaretta opens up up MLS Notebook with a full rundown of how USYNT eligible players are doing ahead of major tournaments, plus a talk aobut the Champions Cup, and a look ahead to the weekend. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 12, 2024
11:10 AM

AS WITH ANY MLS season there are always young players trying to break through and but in the first half of 2024, it is especially important to track how young players are performing since this summer the U-23 team will take part in the Olympics and the U-20 team will have World Cup qualifying.

 As is typical with youth teams, they will draw heavily from domestic leagues. Right now, form matters in two important ways. First, many players are still competing to make the team. Second, if a player makes the team, how will they do at the tournament.

Also in MLS, the Columbus Crew is the last team standing in the CONCACAF Champions Cup after downing Tigres in a shootout. We’ll also have some words about that.

But here is the MLS Youth report.


Youth Report

U-23 Olympic team

The U-23 team is extremely difficult to make. With just an 18-player roster, it’s mostly the starting lineup and backups who are versatile to cover a few different positions.

Here are updates on several of the players who are pushing to make the team this summer.

Patrick Schulte: The Columbus Crew goalkeeper is essentially a lock at this point to make the team – and that is hard to do. We don’t know if it will be him or Gaga Slonina starting at the Olympics, but Schulte should be there. And he’s trending upward. Yes, he had a terrible error for Columbus in the second leg of the CONCACACF Champions Cup against Tigres, but he made up for it in the shootout with big saves in the first two rounds. After winning MLS Cup and now showing up in the Champions Cup, he is trying to build his resume to be the Olympic starter.

Brian Gutierrez:
The Chicago Fire midfielder is probably on the outside looking in with the Olympic team given he did not take part in the team’s second camp in November, the USMNT January camp (which featured many Olympic hopefuls), nor was he part of the March Olympic camp. He needs to catch fire now and force his way onto the roster for the June camp – the team’s final camp before France. Last weekend, he had this outstanding goal in a win over Houston but  he needs to put up big numbers over the next six weeks to have a shot.

Duncan McGuire
: Everyone knows about how he was close to moving to Blackburn and saw the deal go up in flames at the 11th hour. But he’s returned to Orlando and has done fairly well. Right now, he has three goals in 514 minutes in all competitions. Orlando was off last weekend but has had a poor start to the season with five points from six games. McGuire has a lot to play for. First, he has competition for minutes with Luis Muriel and he needs to win playing time or prove he can play with Muriel. Second, for the Olympic team, he has some pressure. First, he’s likely going to France but it’s not automatic because of roster competition with an overage option (Brandon Vazquez would be my guess). McGuire needs to prove he can/should start but if not, that he’s worth a backup spot because a winger like Cade Cowell can also backup the No. 9.

Diego Luna: The RSL attacking mid/winger has been inconsistent to start the season with his most recent outing lasting 63 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Minnesota. He’s another player who is on the bubble of the Olympic roster but faces a lot of competition for the wing/attacking midfield positions. With players like Kevin Paredes, Griffin Yow, Paxten Aaronson, and Cade Cowell all playing well, there aren’t many spaces open. Luna has had some nice moments to start the 2024 season, but he needs to play better to make the team.

Jack McGlynn: The Philadelphia Union central midfielder has had a good start to the season and as played a big part in why Philadelphia remains the last undefeated team in the league. He only has two assists, but he’s showing progress in helping his team in possession and in building attacks. It’s not a breakthrough start to the year, but there is noticeable progress from last year. At this point, it’s hard to see him not making the small Olympic roster.

John Atencio: The Seattle central midfielder has been starter for most of this season, but the Sounders have had a slow start. Atencio has been up and down but is coming off a strong performance against Montreal in a 5-0 win. But unfortunately for Atencio, the central midfield position is crowded for the U.S. U-23 team. He’s probably an alternate at this point but is probably among the first to get a call if McGlynn, Gianluca Busio, or Tanner Tessman run into injuries or release issues.

Jalen Neal: The LA Galaxy central defender hasn’t played since last July due to a sports hernia followed by some complications. But the U.S. U-23 team is short on age-eligible central defenders. Most likely the starting jobs will be filled by overage players but at least one age-eligible central defender will go to Paris. Neal is about two weeks from returning and no age-eligible U-23 central defender has sealed the deal. He’s one of the more talented young American central defenders in the league and if he can play well immediately upon his return, he has chance for Paris – not a great chance, but a chance.

George Campbell: The Montreal central defender has played the most of any U.S. U-23 central defender in MLS and he’s been involved in Olympic camps. Montreal has been a tough place to play to start the season with an extended road trip, but Campbell has been decent. He had a tough outing in his last game against Seattle, but he has a chance to make the Olympic roster, likely as a backup, but he has a chance.

Quinn Sullivan: The Philadelphia Union central/attacking midfielder has raised his stock more than just about anyone in the domestic U.S. U-23 pool. The question is whether it is too late because he hasn’t been called up yet. He’s been great for Philadelphia to start this season, and if he continues this another month, he’s one of the few players who has a chance who hasn’t yet been involved in a U-23 camp. It’s too early to pencil him into a projected Olympic roster, but you can’t quite write him off yet.

Nathan Harriel: The Philadelphia Union right back isn’t flashy, but he’s steady, gets the job done, and is versatile. That is very important for a small roster because he can provide cover across the entire backline. He’s also been steadily involved with the U-23 team, he starts for a good team in the Union, plays across the backline, and is quietly competent. At this point, the evidence suggests he’s going to Olympics.  

Bernard Kamungo: The FC Dallas winger has not had a good start to the 2024 season with FC Dallas – who have disappointed as a team. The winger/attacking midfield pool is tight and the competition is intense. It was always a challenge for Kamungo and he appeared to be in a good place at the end of the 2023 season but that’s not the case right now.

John Tolkin: The New York Red Bulls left back seems to be in the driver’s seat right now as the starting left back for the U-23 team. Aside from a poor outing against Columbus, Tolkin has had a good start to the season and has kept up a fair level. His Red Bulls are now atop the table and Tolkin is a consistent starter and was part of the latest U-23 camp.

Caleb Wiley: Wiley is still young at 19, but he’s already in his third season as the Atlanta United left back. He’s going to be a close call for the U-23 team. If Tolkin gets the nod as the U-23 starter at left back, it becomes hard for Wiley since U.S. U-23 head coach Marko Mitrovic can’t have set backups at each position on an 18-player roster. Can Mitrovic take two dedicated left backs? Probably not. The ideal is for him to take his starter and then have a versatile guy like Harriel backup a number of positions. Wiley needs to be sharper thank Tolkin over the next six months. The good news is that he’s coming off one of best outings of 2024 in a 1-1 draw at NYCFC.

Chris Brady: The Chicago goalkeeper is a good starter but is in an uphill climb to make this team because Patrick Schulte and Gaga Slonina appear to be the duo right now and neither have done anything to change that. But Brady has a bright long term future and is not out of the picture for the U-23 team. He had a nice cleansheet win with the U-23 team vs. Guinea in March.


The U-20 team

With the U.S. U-20 team set to have World Cup qualifying open in July, head coach Michael Nsien will need to build off his first camp in March as well as take the most in-form players. Fortunately for him, a number of players have started to breakthrough domestically in MLS.

Esmir Bajraktarevic: The New England Revolution winger is one of the most promising players in the U-20 pool and has been spending time playing with the U-23 team (playing up a cycle). The Olympics are a possibility for Bajraktarevic, but the U-20 team is likely if he comes up short with the U-23 team this cycle. The Revs are off to a terrible starter and while Bajraktarevic hasn’t always been effective, he’s done well enough to show he has a high ceiling. He’s in a good position right now to play a lot.

Obed Vargas: The Seattle Sounders midfielder participated in the first U-23 camps of the cycle, but the U-20 team this year seems far more likely. He’s looked better the past two games for Seattle. He should be a leader for this U-20 team.  

Benja Cremaschi: The Inter Miami attacking midfielder, like Obed Vargas, has played with the U-23 team but seems more likely to be with the U-20 team this summer. He’s missed the first three months of the year due to a sports hernia but is now back to making the bench for Inter Miami – where his youth will be needed on an old team. He took important steps in 2023, but he has an important job at the club level this year. The weeks ahead will seem him start his 2024 campaign.

Reed Baker Whiting: The Seattle Sounders right back is expected to be one of the key U-20 players but he continues to miss time due to a hamstring injury.

Niko Tsakiris: The San Jose No. 10 struggled to get going in 2023 due to injuries but he’s made three starts for the Quakes to start the 2024 season. He is in a good position to play a lot but he hasn’t produced much – yet. But he’s very likely to be with the U-20 team this summer.

Gavin Beavers: The RSL goalkeeper is still the backup at the club level with just one game so far in 2024 but is a promising prospect. He is likely the backup on the U-20 team behind Barcelona’s Diego Kochen but if Kochen isn’t released for the U-20 World Cup qualifiers (a realistic scenario), Beavers likely starts.

Kristian Fletcher: The forward/winger is a regular off the bench for DC United but as the schedule becomes more condensed, he should play more regularly. From there, it will be up to him. For now, he should be expected to be with the U-20 team at qualifying this summer.

Matai Akinmboni: The DC United central defender was part of the U.S. U-20 team’s first camp and could factor into the team heavily this cycle. It wasn’t expected that he’d be a starter for DC United this season, but he’s made one appearance and should feature more as the season progresses and there are more midweek games.

Noah Cobb: The Atlanta United homegrown centerback Noah Cobb has started the last three games for Atlanta United and his last two outings have been solid, a 3-0 win over Chicago and a 1-1 win over NYCFC. The more minutes he gets, the more it will put him in contention to be part of the U-20 team this summer. But he’s getting the most first team minutes among all the U-20 central defenders right now.


U-20 World Cup Qualifying set


Speaking of the U-20 team, the draw took place for U-20 World Cup qualifying and the U.S. team was draw into Group A with Cuba, Jamaica, and Costa Rica.


Bottom line is that there are three groups of four teams. The top two teams from each group along with two of the three third place teams advance to the quarterfinals. Then the winners of each of the quarterfinals advance to the 2025 U-20 World Cup in Chile.

The tournament will take place in Mexico. The U.S. team will most likely avoid Mexico if it wins its group.


Other MLS thoughts


The Columbus Crew were the only MLS team to advance to the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinal following a great showing in Mexico where the defeated Tigres in a shootout after a 1-1 draw (2-2 on aggregate).

A few quick thoughts on this game. Patrick Schulte rebounded from a terrible mistake and ended up being a difference maker in the shootout. Despite the mistake, it was a net positive for Schulte to put the mistake behind him and move forward.

Also, Darlington Nagbe had a gutsy performance in the win. He was extremely sharp on both sides of the ball, and he drew six fouls in 120 minutes. This was a big time performance from Nagbe to step up, especially with Aidan Morris out injured.

Wilfried Nany has don’t a great job with this team and he did it while suspending potential MVP candidate Cucho Hernandez for two games – including the first leg against Tigres.


The Crew will now have to face Monterrey, which will be even more difficult. They’re going to need to cut back on the mistakes and then be ruthless with their finishing. They’re the underdogs, but they could pull off an upset.

Monterrey advanced to the semifinals after getting past Miami in a high-profile contest where Miami came out and looked old. Then you had the New England Revolution, who were blown off the field by Club America. Both Tata Martino and Caleb Porter were quick to point out the huge budget differences between the top Liga MX teams and the remaining MLS teams.

This has been a question for a long time. How much should MLS loosen budgets restriction rules? But investing more in roster construction comes with the consequences of having fewer minutes for younger and upcoming players.

MLS teams can hang with a big chunk of Liga MX. But the wealthy big Mexican clubs are far more elusive.


Looking ahead to the weekend


A few things about this weekend’s games.

Montreal gets to play its first home game of the season after stadium construction forced them on the road for the first six games. After a good start, they lost their last three games including a horrible 5-0 beat down by Seattle last weekend. How will they respond to returning home against a good Cincinnati team?

The New York Red Bulls have had a terrific start to the season and they are favored against Chicago. But how will RBNY deal with higher expectations?

Columbus now has to deal with the consequences of a CONCACAF run. This was a problem for LAFC and Seattle in recent years. How will a tired and weary Crew team handle a road trip to altitude to face RSL?

At some point, Dallas is going to have to wake up. They have been very disappointing. But can they raise their game against Seattle.

The same could be said for New England that is fresh off a terrible showing in CONCACAF against Club America and now has to head to NYCFC - who are also bad. Regarding NYCFC, now that the team secured approvals for their stadium, I am expecting the club to start building that team more aggressively.

Vancouver against the LA Galaxy will be among the better matchups of the weekend between teams who have improved themselves. The Galaxy still need better defense to be a true contender.

Meanwhile, the best game of the weekend is Atlanta vs. Philadelphia. The Union have been getting their act together, but going to Atlanta will be a test.


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