Play Your Kids in 2021: A look at the top 15 young Americans in MLS
June 30, 2021
AS WE APPROACH the 2021 MLS midseason and the break for the Gold Cup, its time to look at what continues to be another strong chapter in the “Play Your Kids” movement. Overall, the league continues to be a hotbed for young domestic talent that is both helping the current teams compete and attracting transfer interest from abroad.
The movement really starting to gain momentum in 2018 with the sale of Tyler Adams and Canadian star Alphonso Davies. Then has continued steadily with the development and sale of domestic players such as Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Zack Steffen, Bryan Reynolds, and Reggie Cannon.
Things have only continued to improve. For example, FC Dallas, the New York Red Bulls, and the Philadelphia Union were always the hotbed for playing kids. While those teams continue to be strong, you’re getting top young players now from other teams such as the Galaxy, Sporting KC, and DC United. It has a ways to go, but the movement is starting to spread at impressive levels.
So who have been the top young American players in the league so far in 2021? Here’s our list of the 15 best so far in 2021 and we will cap it at the 2001 birth year and younger which should fit anyone’s definition of first-team young.
1) Caden Clark
Midfielder, New York Red Bulls
The 2003-born Clark has been terrific for the New York Red Bulls this year and he has already shown a lot of progress from last season. He scores nice goals but his game is far more complete – he passes well and presses well as well. This should see him do well next year with RB Leipzig as that deal has already been announced.
2) Gianluca Busio
Midfielder, Sporting Kansas City
Busio, 19, has always had the talent. The question is what position he will play and for now he is playing deeper in the midfield where he gets on the ball between 90-110 times game. Before that he was a No. 10 but now he’s a deep-lying playmaker. Will he setting into that position moving forward? That will come down to his defensive ability. There are still a lot of questions about his positioning but he has a very nice starting skillset and looks to be set for an expensive transfer soon, likely to Serie A.
3) Julian Araujo
Right back, LA Galaxy
The right back from the LA Galaxy has shown steady progress in his third season of seeing regular first-team minutes. It’s good that Gregg Vanney now has him back at right back instead of as a right wing where he was last season. He’s done really well this year in helping that club return to being one of the better teams in the Western Conference. His crossing has been effective, he covers ground, and he wins his duels. He still has a lot to work on, but his steady progress is very encouraging and he’s thriving under Vanney.
4) Leon Flach
Midfielder, Philadelphia Union
After being acquired in March from St. Pauli, Flach has been a diamond in the rough for the Philadelphia Union. The German-American has been playing either as the No. 6 or on the outside of Jim Curtin’s diamond as a No. 8. He strengths are that he reads the game exceptionally well and he brings a lot of defensive bite to the midfield. He’s also sneaky fast and can hustle to break up plays and chase down opposing attackers. He’s an important reason why Philadelphia hasn’t lost much of a step following the sale of Aaronson and McKenzie.
5) Cole Bassett
Midfielder, Colorado Rapids
The Colorado Rapids midfielder sometimes flies under the radar because Colorado doesn’t draw much national attention. But Colorado returned to the playoffs last season and is doing well against this season. Head coach Robin Fraser has given Bassett a lot of responsibilities and he has been an important factor to the club sitting in fourth place in the West at the moment – featuring in all nine games so far and starting seven times. One thinks that if the U-20 World Cup hadn’t been cancelled, Bassett would be getting far more attention than he has since he seemed to have been a big part of Anthony Hudson’s plans.
6) Ricardo Pepi
Forward, FC Dallas
The FC Dallas forward has played well in limited minutes but now appears ready to take it to another level. He is coming off being named to the MLS Team of the Week after a two-goal outing against New England. Last season he scored an crucial goal against Portland in the playoffs. Still only 18, Pepi has been talked about for years but looks to be on a path towards realizing his potential. He needs to remain in the starting lineup for Dallas and, for now, it looks like that has a good chance of happening.
7) George Bello
Left back, Atlanta United
The Atlanta United left back was another player who looked set to start for the U.S. U-20 World Cup team in 2021. He’s finally a staple in Atlanta’s starting XI and should be a player that attracts foreign interest sooner than later. He’s remarkably skillful on the ball. The question has always been his defensive positioning and, for now, that is improving as well. He hasn’t outgrown Atlanta and he can play a role in helping that team return to being among the best in the East before he leaves.
8) Moses Nyemann
Midfielder, DC United
Possibly a bit of a stretch to have him on this list since his American citizenship is still getting squared away. Since he’s on the USMNT provisional Gold Cup roster, he’s close enough to being included. The 2021 season has seen Nyeman make impressive strides in his game as a deeper lying midfielder for DC United. Eligible for the 2023 U-20 team, Nyeman has a nice future ahead of him and he is ahead of schedule.
9) Tanner Tessmann
Midfielder, FC Dallas
A physically strong and tall midfielder, Tessmann has shown impressive quality at times – although he has drifted out of the starting XI for FC Dallas lately. Still, he is a smart player who will eventually return to that role within the team. He’s has good feet for a player of his size but will hopefully learn to use his body more to his advantage and impose himself on the game. He’s in a good environment at FC Dallas where he’ll get the benefit of the doubt since that organization is typically eager to paly youth.
10) Cade Cowell
Winger, San Jose Earthquakes
Last year, Cowell earned headlines when scoring against the Galaxy as a 16 year old. This year, he’s started off the season in red hot fashion before cooling off a bit – mostly due to the fact that San Jose is playing terrible soccer at the moment. He still has three goals on the season and that is certainly solid for a winger of his age. His strong physical frame along with a decent amount of skill should attract interest from European clubs and a move in 2022 seems very plausible. In the meantime, he’s stuck with an underachieving club that has more questions than answers. Hopefully, the U.S. U-20 team returns to the field and he can take on a big role with that team as well.
11) Kevin Paredes
Midfielder, DC United
As another member of the promising 2003-born class, Paredes has played a big role with DC United this season and he seems to be a good fit for Hernan Losada’s frantic, fast-paced, pressing system. As an outside midfielder, he presses well, wins balls, and helps transition the play into the attack effectively. The goals and the assists have yet to come, but that seems like only a matter of time.
12) Justin Che
Defender, FC Dallas
As one of the top 2003-born American player in the game, the only reason why Che is not near the top of this list is because he has only played two games for FC Dallas so far. In another month, he'd proobably be in the top 5. After spending the first half of 2021 on loan at Bayern Munich, Che returned to Dallas and started the last two games – which were both against two of the league’s better teams in LAFC and now the New England Revolution. While still young and learning, Che showed a very high ceiling in both games. He’s been playing right wingback but will probably eventually return to central defense – where he is most comfortable. With Bayern already on his resume, his time at FC Dallas might be short. In the meantime, perhaps he can find a way to help get the team back to the playoffs.
13) David Ochoa
Goalkeeper, Real Salt Lake
Once the strongest position in the USMNT pool, quality young American goalkeepers have been few and far between the past 6-7 years. Ochoa is the best young keeper to emerge in recent years and despite being 2001-born, has already earned a starting job with Real Salt Lake. He’s a good shot stopper and is on the USMNT radar with Gregg Berhalter admitting that he needed to bring youth to that position.
14) Josh Atencio
Midfielder, Seattle Sounders
Breaking into the Seattle Sounders midfield is not an easy thing to do as it has typically consisted of star players like Nicholas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan. But 2002-born Josh Atencio has been getting a lot of looks lately and the youngster has looked the part so far this season, despite missing some games with injuries. Given the schedule congestion along with Roldan likely missing time at the Gold Cup and Lodeiro getting older, Atencio should continue to get opportunities. Seattle has a great winning culture and that is a good environment for a young player earning minutes.
15) Dante Sealy
Forward, FC Dallas
It’s not necessarily easy for Sealy to play regularly at Dallas as he is behind Pepi and more expensive imports. He’s only earned limited minutes this season but it seems like with the kids at Dallas outplaying the veterans, yet again, Sealy will eventually get more chances. There is also the possibility he goes on loan and he recently travelled to Holland in June to train with PSV during the Nations League break. He’s young and is still finding his path, but he remains a true talent in the league.