15 Young American players to watch in the 2022 MLS Season
February 10, 2022
THIS PAST OFFSEASON saw a ton of movement for American players. Players such as Cole Bassett, James Sands, Kevin Paredes, Ricardo Pepi, Justin Che, and George Bello were either sold or loaned to clubs in top European leagues. But as those players have departed, other young players will aim to emerge.
Part of being a league known for its development is that there are always or should always be young players breaking through.
Here area list of young American players (2002-born and younger) who could be among the next to break through in the upcoming 2022 season
#1: Gabriel Slonina
Chicago Fire: Goalkeeper
It’s rare to see a goalkeeper at such a young impress but the Chicago Fire keeper earned the starting spot in August last season and impressed. His rise has come at a time when U.S. national team manager Gregg Berhalter has recognized the need for younger goalkeepers in his player pool. Slonina earned a lot of attention in the fall for his play – and for good reason. In any league, it is extremely rare to have a 17 year old staring goalkeeper and but now will Slonina be able to help Chicago contend for a playoff spot? That is the hope in the Windy City - provided that the club can hang onto him. That is far from assured as big European teams have reportedly taking interest.
Also, in his wheelhouse this year is a starting spot on the U.S. U-20 team which has a very important year ahead to qualify for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. Slonina should be a big part of that effort. In December and again in January, he became the first player from the 2004 birth year to be called up to the United States national team. Things certainly are trending in his favor the past year and that has set the stage for an even bigger year ahead.
#2: Josh Atencio
Seattle Sounders: Defensive midfielder
The young Washington native made performed very well for the Seattle Sounders in 2021 over 25 appearances and 18 starts. Seattle is generally one of the best teams in the league on a consistent basis and Atencio is surrounded by quality veterans to learn from. He’s already made a solid impression but this season will be about raising his game and transitioning from being a prospect and into a key player in one of the best environments the league has to offer.
#3: Cade Cowell
San Jose Earthquakes: Winger
Cade Cowell has shown to be a very exciting young player for San Jose where he combines his physical strength with a nice degree of skill. Last season he made 33 appearances for San Jose (14 were starts) over 1662 minutes and produced five goals and five assists. That’s a strong output ratio for a team that failed to make the playoffs.
Cowell, 18, will also be featuring for the U.S. U-20 team this year – so a lot will be on his plate. At San Jose, his goal will be to lock down a starting spot and help turn the team into one that can make the playoffs. For the U-20’s, he should be counted on as a starter who can produce goals.
#4: Paxten Aaronson
Philadelphia Union: Attacking Midfielder
Slightly overshadowed by his older brother, Paxten Aaronson should have plenty of opportunity to make his own name this year. He is at the age where Brenden Aaronson first began to break onto the scene with Philadelphia and eventually earn a spot on the national team.
The younger Aaronson has the fortune of also being at Philadelphia – which is still a great place for young players. Under Jim Curtin, he will have a manager who knows him and will give him a fair shot. While Brenden was cut from the 2019 U.S. U-20 team, Paxten looks as if he will play a big part of that team.
This Union team in 2022 is deeper than before and it should, once again, be a fun team that competes well. Aaronson, as a playmaking midfielder, should have an increased role and be set to take a step beyond where he was in 2021.
#5: John Tolkin
New York Red Bulls: Left Back
Early last season, John Tolkin made is first team debut with the New York Red Bulls. He ended up playing 2019 minutes including 22 starts in 2021. Normally he played his preferred left back position but sometimes he had to play in the midfield as Andrew Gutman’s returned from injury. But with Gutman now back with Atlanta (to replace George Bello), Tolkin should have the left back spot all to himself. That should only aid in his development.
The Chatham, NJ native still has to improve, but he has shown impressive potential at left back and his service into the box is generally very good. If he improves, it is easy to see European “buzz” circulate around Tolkin who plays a position of need for many teams and plays for a team that is willing to sell.
#6: Jack McGlynn
Philadelphia Union: Midfielder
The Philadelphia Union central midfielder wasn’t quite a regular last season but he managed to make 22 appearances over eight starts. His most memorable moment came in the playoffs when he subbed into a win over Nashville, played well, and then confidently buried his penalty in a shootout as Philadelphia advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.
This year, McGlynn should play more for Philadelphia while also having a spot on the U.S. U-20 team. There will be plenty of opportunity for McGlynn in 2022 to take the next step.
#7: Caden Clark
New York Red Bulls: Midfielder
After much speculation as to what was going to happen to him in the offseason (when he was sold to Leipzig and loaned back to New York), it was formally announced that Clark was going to remain in New York for another season with an option for another year.
Clark started off the 2021 season well but he was slow to return to form after an appendectomy in late June. Following the season, he performed well at a U-20 camp and he should be part of that team this cycle. When he is healthy and in-form, Clark is an exciting player to watch – scoring high quality goals and helping to create opportunities for others. Now it’s just getting back to that level he was at to start last season and growing from there.
#8: Quinn Sullivan
Philadelphia Union: Midfielder/Winger
Sullivan, 17, he third player from the Philadelphia Union to make this list – and for good reason. He can score impressive goals and he has a flair for the dramatic. His first goal last season came off a bicycle against Chicago. Just last week he scored a volley for the U.S. U-20 team in a win over Dallas.
Sullivan is a versatile player who can play numerous positions. That is useful but it also makes it harder to develop. It will be interesting to see how Jim Curtin uses him – will he settle into one position or continue to float around? He certainly is talented and a fun player to watch. He's one of the best 2004-born American players at the moment.
#9: Moses Nyeman
DC United: Midfielder
Moses Nyeman has always been held in high regard in terms of prospects and perhaps this will be the season when he breaks out. The smooth-passing midfielder might not seem to be an ideal fit for Argentine manager Hernan Losada who is known for his frantic, intense-pressing style (similar to that of Red Bull teams). It will be a test for DC United and Nyeman to make it work but Nyeman will now have a full preseason under Losada to adjust (the club recently denied his release to the U.S. U-20 team because they wanted him to spend time preparing for the season). After an injury kept him out towards the end of the 2021 season, Nyeman is now healthy and poised to take a bigger role in 2022.
#10: Reed Baker-Whiting
Seattle Sounders: Midfielder
Most people agree Reed Baker-Whiting, 16 (turning 17 in March), is one of the top 2005-born American players at this very early stage. Yes, prospects at this age rise and fall quickly but the Sounders are encouraged by Baker-Whiting’s potential and head coach Brian Schmetzer gave him four appearances (including two starts) in the regular season.
He is certainly one to watch but the question is whether this is his breakout year, or is it 2023 or 2024? If he played last season, it only makes sense he will play more this year – then it will be up to him. Also, don’t discount him perhaps getting a look at some point this cycle with the U.S. U-20 team. Yes, that team has a number of players in his position, but Baker-Whiting could be good enough to push that group soon.
#11: Dan Edelman
New York Red Bulls: Defensive midfielder
Daniel Edelman, 18, was one of the more intriguing homegrown players signed by an MLS team this offseason. A likely starter on the U.S. U-20 team, Edelman should be ready to play minutes this season for the Red Bulls. He might not start right away, but there will be opportunities for him. The departure of captain Sean Davis (who played every minute in 2021) opens a huge door that will have to be filled by many players – including Edelman.
Red Bull-owned teams across the globe like to go young, so that will also work into Edelman’s favor. The New York Red Bulls have also had much success with homegrown players over the years, so it will be interesting to see of Gerhard Struber is able to continue with that. Edelman is a good test case.
#12 Tayvon Gray
New York City FC: Right back
Tayvon Gray, 19, was one of the unsung heroes for New York City FC last season during its successful campaign to win MLS Cup. When Anton Tinnerholm suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in August, Gray moved into the right back position and filled in admirably. The Bronx native has shown that he is capable of helping a team win at the highest levels the league has to offer. But when Tinnerholm returns, what will happen to Gray? Gray will remain a key prospect within the organization and NYCFC will be keen on giving him minutes.
At some point Gray will force himself into the lineup but anytime a teenage American starts throughout the playoffs of an MLS Cup winning campaign, he deserves to be on a list like this.
# 13: Brian Gutiérrez
Chicago Fire: Attacking midfielder
The Chicago Fire are in the midst of another rebuild. New coach Ezra Hendrickson is in his first head coaching gig but knows the league well. The team also looks like it is going to employ a hybrid style approach of mixing youth with veteran players – such as the newly acquired designated player Xherdan Shaqiri.
U.S. U-20 attacking midfielder Brian Gutierrez should firmly in the mix as he brings more experience than most of the team’s other young players - having made 17 appearances in 2021. Chicago has been a tough place to succeed in recent years but Gutierrez is among the team’s better young players and he will be surrounded by more talent, which will only help him.
#14: Kayden Pierre
Sporting Kansas City: Right back
Pierre, 18, has a lot of things working in his favor this year. For one, Sporting Kansas City should be a solid playoff team – yet again. Second, the team’s starting right back Graham Zusi is now 35 years old. Third, Sporting KC recently shipped off Jaylin Lyndsey to Charlotte which only will move Pierre up the pecking order. Finally, Sporting KC has become more inclined to play young players in recent years having found success with Gianluca Busio.
Pierre is a talented right back and could be the frontrunner to also be the starter for the U.S. U-20 team. He is yet to make his MLS debut with SKC but that should come soon.
#15: Ted Ku-DiPietro
DC United: Midfielder
After standing out for Loudoun United in recent seasons, DC United finally inked midfielder Ted Ku-DiPietro to a homegrown deal over the offseason. With his ability to cover ground and break lines with his passing, he appears to be a good fit for head coach Hernan Losada who is now entering into his second season with the club.
DC United made a lot of changes in the offseason so Losada will be able to begin building the team as he wants it. DePietro seems poised to be part of his plans.