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Over the past few years, there has been a rapid rise in European clubs cherry-picking young talent from Major League Soccer.
Alphonso Davies has been the most recent example, going from Vancouver Whitecaps winger to starting left-back for Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich in a matter of months.
Miguel Almiron’s 2019 move from Atlanta United to Newcastle United and Tyler Adams moving from New York Red Bulls to sister club RB Leipzig are just two more success stories from this pathway.
It’s becoming obvious that MLS is no longer the ‘retirement league’ it often gets labelled as. Nowadays, whether coming from South America or through a club’s youth system, players are developing at a rapid rate in this rapidly growing league and clubs across the pond are taking note.
Right now, there is another clutch of players just waiting to traverse the Atlantic ocean to prove themselves on the biggest stage, so, with that in mind, here are 10 MLS wonderkids who could move to Europe in the not-too-distant future.
10. Efrain Alvarez
Club: LA Galaxy
Kicking us off is a player still with plenty to learn, but with a rave review from one of the greatest players ever to play the game.
Aged just 18, Efrain Alvarez has already clocked up 558 minutes of MLS action for the LA Galaxy and last season, providing an impressive three assists in just 14 appearances in 2019. The American-born Mexican showed final-third delivery way beyond his years, while the ease with which he beats a man to get into those situations in the first place points to a player with an incredibly high ceiling — Alvarez completed 64.7% of his take-ons throughout 2019.
Not convinced? Just take a look at what Zlatan Ibrahimovic had to say about him during his time with the Galaxy.
“He’s by far the biggest talent from everybody [in MLS],” Ibrahimovic said last year.
16-year-old Efrain Alvarez stole the show in his MLS debut on Saturday night for the LA Galaxy ? pic.twitter.com/f7YPnIApkP
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 5, 2019
“Because he thinks football. He has that football in him, and it’s natural. It didn’t come by him training or something. [Anyone can] have the training, the physical [work] and all those things that you put together [to become a better player], but you cannot have that football in you. He has it.
He goes on the field, and you see when he plays, he’s all natural: the way he thinks, the way he moves the ball, the way he touches the ball. By far the best player in MLS. He just needs his game time, and he will show it also.”
9. James Sands
Club: New York City FC
Making your debut as a substitute for Andrea Pirlo is bound to bring its own set of pressures, but NYCFC youngster James Sands has developed brilliantly over the last few years and is now being hotly tipped for a move to Europe.
“If he continues to progress like he’s doing now, it will be hard to keep him,” admitted manager Ronnie Deila. “Clubs in Europe are going to be there. James is a big prospect, I’m very impressed by him as a player and his personality. He has all the discipline and mental strength that you need to become a really good player.”
Able to play as a centre-back or defensive midfielder, Sands is an incredibly proactive ball-winner, able to sniff out danger and shut it down with a reading of the game which far exceeds his tender age.
Furthermore, Sands is an extremely adept passer of the ball, able to keep possession flowing or move his side forward by breaking lines — an invaluable skill for modern centre-backs, especially in elite European competition.
8. Miles Robinson
Club: Atlanta United
Slightly older than most of the players on this list, Miles Robinson has had to take the long road to the top after coming through the college and USL systems. However, after a short stint in their second team, the 23-year-old centre-back nailed down his spot at the heart of Atlanta United’s defence in 2019 and has never looked back.
While he has been working hard to improve his ball-playing skills, it is undoubtedly Robinson’s ability in one-on-one duels which is his greatest strength. The Massachusetts-born defender is the perfect fail-safe for shutting down opposition counter-attacks thanks to his pace and defensive composure and during 2019, was dribbled past just 18 times in MLS, while he also made more blocks (56) than any other Atlanta player.
His skillset makes him perfect for an offensive-minded European team which likes to throw numbers forward in the attack, with Robinson able to sit in and keep the back door locked.
7. Brian Rodriguez
Club: Los Angeles FC
It’s taken a while for Brian Rodriguez to hit his stride at club level following his club-record $11.5m move from Penarol in 2019 and, indeed, he only scored his first goal for LAFC during the recent MLS is Back tournament.
That said, he did weigh in with two goals and three assists down in Orlando and at international level, netted three goals in just six senior caps for Uruguay throughout 2019.
Rodriguez is terrifyingly quick in the open field and is incredibly direct when he gets the ball in offensive areas, preferring to drive straight at the opposition defence rather than get too involved in LAFC’s measured build-up play.
The goals and assists are now flowing and the more Rodriguez works on that end product, the more reports linking him to the likes of AC Milan will surface.
6. Reggie Cannon
Club: FC Dallas
If ever there was a player who looked certain to swap MLS for Europe in the near future, it’s Reggie Cannon.
From Freiburg to Anderlecht, the FC Dallas right-back is drawing attention from a number of different clubs and in an interview with mlssoccer.com back in May, admitted his goal is to become ‘one of the best in the world’ in his position.
“I’m trying to be one of the best right-backs in the world one day,” he said. “That’s been my dream since I was little. And I know it’s crazy, this kid from MLS [saying that at age] 21. I don’t care. I have dreams, aspirations. Hopefully one day I’ll reach them, and I’ll go out swinging if I don’t.”
On the pitch, Cannon is part of an attack-minded FC Dallas side who are very easy on the eye under Luchi Gonzalez and the USMNT international looks to get forward at every opportunity, while using his pace to get back and keep his defensive third safe.
Cannon has already demonstrated a huge amount of quality on and off the ball over the past few seasons and it seems only a matter time before he makes the jump across the Atlantic.
5. Brenden Aaronson
Club: Philadelphia Union
Brenden Aaronson is very quickly becoming one of the most in-demand youngsters in MLS right now and given his form at the MLS is Back tournament, it’s easy to see why.
The 19-year-old put in some truly wonderful performances down in Orlando, controlling the tempo and acting as the creative hub as the Philadelphia Union went all the way to the semi-finals.
Although he only notched two assists, it could have been so much more and whether it’s his ability to turn out of opposition pressure as if it wasn’t there or his eye for a defence-splitting pass from 40 yards, Aaronson is showing all the traits of an elite playmaker.
Are you kidding us with that ABSOLUTE DIME from Brenden Aaronson? ?
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 31, 2020
Right now, a host of Bundesliga clubs — including Borussia Monchengladbach — and Scottish champions Celtic are being linked with Aaronson and to be honest, the more you watch him, the more you understand why he has been dubbed the ‘US Havertz’.
4. Ezequiel Barco
Club: Atlanta United
It’s been a slog for Ezequiel Barco to show his true potential since making a $15m move from Independiente in 2018 but over the past 12 months, the Argentine forward has really started to find his feet.
International duty disrupted his 2019 season but Barco still managed four goals and three assists in just 1,232 MLS minutes, while his form for Argentina at the U-20 World Cup drew plenty of admiring glances. He continued that improvement at the start of this season, too, netting twice in 2-1 Atlanta United wins over FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC before coronavirus interrupted the season.
Barco is a great synthesis of winger and playmaker, happy to take the ball on the outside and beat his full-back, while also willing to move inside to combine and create with his teammates. At 21, he feels primed and ready to move to a European side who can enhance his development.
3. Paxton Pomykal
Club: FC Dallas
Arguably the most exciting young American in MLS right now, Paxton Pomykal has gone from academy hopeful to USMNT international and academy lynchpin for FC Dallas since the start of last season.
Pomykal is an incredibly elegant football, able to receive the ball under pressure with barely a hint of nerves, while his passing range is among the pass in North America right now being both progressive and controlling.
But Pomykal is far more than just a pretty passer. What makes Lewisville-born midfielder so impressive is his ability to win the ball back for his team. The 20-year-old is aggressive in the tackle, measured with his timing and intelligent with his positioning, able to place himself in just the right spot to intercept stray passes.
From the Premier League to the Bundesliga — and even in leagues such as the Eredivise and Portuguese Primeira Liga — there are a host of sides who would benefit from Pomykal’s skillset.
2. Eduard Atuesta
Club: Los Angeles FC
While Pomykal and Aaronson are among the most impressive US midfielders in MLS, that title across the league as a whole must surely go to LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta.
Throughout 2019, the Colombian missed just four of a possible 34 regular-season MLS matches and managed 12 direct goal contributions during that time, compared to just three the season prior.
While those are indeed impressive numbers, it’s Atuesta’s defensive capabilities which make him so important to Bob Bradley.
Despite being just 5’ 11”, Atuesta’s broad frame makes him feel like an extremely imposing physical specimen and the uses that to its full extent, bullying opposition players off the ball and acting as LAFC’s rearguard as the rest of the team bomb forward to swamp the attacking third.
Poise in possession, defensive aggression and final-third productivity, there doesn’t appear to be anything holding Atuesta back from landing in a top-five European league.
1. Diego Rossi
Club: Los Angeles FC
With Carlos Vela understandably choosing to stay at home with his pregnant wife rather than participate in the MLS is Back tournament, there was plenty of talk regarding LAFC’s chances at the tournament and whether their attacking machine would break down.
While the Black and Gold exited at the quarter-final stage, their form prior to that had been spectacular, sweeping aside rivals LA Galaxy in a 6-2 mauling and beating reigning MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders 4-1 along the way. It’s clear that their exit was in no way down to a lack of bite in their Vela-less attack.
Much of that was thanks to the efforts of Uruguayan forward, Diego Rossi, who ran out as the tournament’s top scorer with a remarkable seven goals in five games — including four against the Galaxy — while he also notched a further two assists.
Lightning fast, direct and alive in the box, Rossi has been on the edge of brilliance for a couple of years now, notching 17 and 18-goal totals across his first two campaigns in Los Angeles. His efforts down in Orlando feel like the finished product of years of hard work.
LAFC GM John Thorrington has already confirmed the club have received offers for a number of their top players and given the need for relatively cheap but low-risk forward signings in the current financial climate, you can be absolutely certain Rossi is among them.
Honourable mentions: Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Marcelo Palomino (Houston Dynamo), Thomas Chacon (Minnesota United), Jack Maher (Nashville SC), Cristhian Paredes (Portland Timbers), Jeizon Ramirez (Real Salt Lake), Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes), Danny Leyva (Seattle Sounders), Gianluca Busio (Sporting KC), Ryan Raposo (Vancouver Whitecaps), George Bello (Atlanta United), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati), Milton Valenzuela (Columbus Crew), Erik Sorga (DC United), Matias Pellegrini (Inter Miami CF), Luis Binks (Montreal Impact), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution), Cristian Casseres Jr (New York Red Bulls), Joao Moutinho (Orlando City), Jacob Shaffelburg (Toronto FC)