Best Young Americans in MLS midseason: McGuire, Buck, Gutierrez top list
July 26, 2023
AT THE START OF every MLS season, I rank the top young American players in the league to watch in the coming year. It’s hard to predict the trajectory of young players and every year, I get some right and I get some wrong. So here is an updated list of the top 20 young players based not on future projections, but rather on how they’ve done this season and who has shown the most potential.
It’s also worthwhile when updating lists to examine yourself. Where did I get it right/wrong, and while. Projecting young players is hard. Everyone gets things wrong but if you look at where things went right/wrong, you improve as an evaluator.
Back in February, I published my 20 young American players to watch in the 2023 season. In terms of defining “young,” it is always a touchy subject. MLS used to get backlash for its “24 under 24” because 24 wasn’t young in the modern game. For the sake of youth national teams, I drew the line at 2001-born. While being 22 isn’t really that young, I wanted to keep it relevant to youth national teams and 2001 is the cutoff year for the 2024 U.S. U-23 Olympic team.
Looking at the list from February. I am happy to say that some things I got right. Caleb Wiley is very promising, and Chris Brady is not far off Gaga Slonina’s level when he was at the Fire. I wasn’t far off with players like John Tolkin or Benjamin Cremaschi.
But there were also places I was way off. I completely missed Duncan McGuire because I am not as comfortable with the college game – which can still produce some very good players but also some complete busts.
Also, a big area where I was very wrong was not realizing how good St. Louis City has been for players who were previously highly rated, but who have gone there to get back on track. Indiana Vassilev and Aziel Jackson (along with Niko Gioacchini, who is too old for this list) were both once highly rated, had rocky stints with other MLS teams, and are now flourishing with a St. Louis team that is in first place. They’re proving to be good players who simply needed a change of scenery.
Other players were simply much better than I forecasted. I had Noel Buck on my preseason list, but he’s far surpassed my expectations for him. I had Diego Luna on my honorable mention, but there is no denying that he returned from the U-20 World Cup with terrific confidence that is helping Real Salt Lake surge into the later parts of the season.
With all that said, here is the new list of the top 20 young Americans in MLS based on their performances through July.
1) Duncan McGuire
Orlando City: Center Forward
The year began with Duncan McGuire winning the MAC Hermann Trophy for his 23 goal/24 game season with Creighton, but Hermann Trophy winners don’t always fare well in the pros. But McGuire is on a path that resembles Daryl Dike. He was drafted by Orlando after a bigtime college season and is scoring in droves in his first pro season. To date, he has nine goals in 879 minutes across all competitions. He is outplaying Orlando’s designated player Ercan Kara.
He's on the older side at 22, but he’s made a huge impact this season and is certainly one to watch moving forward on many fronts. He’s likely going to be on the Olympic team and he’s going to factor into Orlando’s postseason. Finally, it won’t be long before transfer bids come in.
2) Noel Buck
New England Revolution: Central Midfielder
The young 2005-born center midfielder has surpassed all expectations so far this season. He’s been dealing with some injuries, but when he’s healthy he had dependably put in quality outings for the New England Revolution. While he’s eligible for the next U-20 team, he could have helped this year’s team at the World Cup. While he’s an effective passer, he is also a good two-way player who can win duels and force turnovers.
He's an exciting player and, as a dual national (eligible for the USA, England, and Wales) England’s youth national teams are sniffing around as well.
3) Brian Gutierrez
Chicago Fire: Attacking Midfielder/Winger
Gutierrez, 20, was denied a release by Chicago to play at the U-20 World Cup in May and it was a big loss. Gutierrez has made big strides in his game this year and he is smooth in the attack – whether playing in the middle or out wide. He’s a regular starter and has played a role in Chicago’s improvement. He’s been better than I originally projected before the season.
There is still room for Gutierrez to improve but he’s trending in the right direction, and he’ll likely start adding more goals and assists soon. But even now, he’s dangerous enough. He’s another player U.S. Soccer should really hope will be released for the Olympics. Perhaps Chicago will take a different approach next year compared to what they did this year for the U-20 World Cup.
4) Aidan Morris
Columbus Crew: Central Midfielder
The Columbus Crew midfielder has had a very nice year and has fully moved beyond the ACL tear of 2021. He is a big presence in the middle of the field who can defend, help in possession, and create chances. I didn’t know how to rate him before the season as he was rusty in 2022 coming back from his ACL surgery. Fortunately, he looks more like the player who showed a ton of promise winning MLS Cup in 2020.
Morris, 21, unfortunately had to leave the U.S. Gold Cup team early due to personal reasons and that would have been a nice stage for him. But he is an obvious Olympic pick.
5) Caleb Wiley
Atlanta United: Left Back/Left Wing
It was bold to have him at No. 2 before the season, perhaps a bit too bold because he’s done very well this season as someone who is only days away from being eligible for the 2025 U-20 team. He is effective at both left back and left wing with four goals on the season. He also impressed at the U-20 World Cup in the U.S. team’s quarterfinal run in Argentina.
His size, strength, and athleticism should attract scouts and give him an edge as he moves to the higher levels of the game.
6) Diego Luna
Real Salt Lake: Attacking Midfielder/Winger
Diego Luna, 19, had a good cycle with the U.S. U-20 team and was an effective player at the U-20 World Cup. But the big story for Luna is what happened when he returned to Real Salt Lake. Since that tournament, Luna has played with confidence and with a purpose. Along with Cristian Arango, Luna is a big reason RSL is surging this summer. But Luna is doing it all offensively – creating, scoring, putting defenders on their heels. Now it is just a matter of him keeping it up.
7) John Tolkin
New York Red Bulls: Left Back
It’s been a bad year the New York Red Bulls, but left back John Tolkin continues to be one of the team’s better players on a consistent basis. The left back generally puts in good performances where he tackles, wins balls, and gets the ball forward. The most positive thing about Tolkin is that he now has a large enough sample size to give us a good idea where he is as a player.
He fell behind the athletic DeJuan Jones in the national team’s pecking order at the Gold Cup, but he should be in line for minutes on the Olympic team, with his main competition being Caleb Wiley.
8) Jack McGlynn
Philadelphia Union: Central Midfielder
McGlynn has been one of the top players to emerge via the homegrown route with the Philadelphia Union and he has gotten a lot of good experience this year – MLS regular season, a CONCACAF Champions League semifinal run, the U-20 World Cup, and now the Leagues Cup.
While having at No. 1 in February was a reach, he’s still done well. His left foot can make magic – as we saw in him playing a big role eliminating Atlas in the Champions League and then again against Queretaro in the Leagues Cup. Another player likely to be on the Olympic team in 2024.
9) Benjamin Cremaschi
Inter Miami: Attacking Midfielder
Benjamin Cremaschi, 18, is one of just three 2005-born players on this list which reflects very well of him. But perhaps he’s in the greatest spot out of everyone on this list. Yes, Messi could eat into his minutes, but he’s also going to be playing with Messi at the same time. He’s also going to be playing under Tata Martino who has also stated he wants to break in young players from the academy.
The early returns on Cremaschi are very positive. He still has a lot to learn, but he also steps up and makes big plays. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s much higher on this list next year, maybe even at the top.
10) Aziel Jackson
St. Louis CITY: Attacking Midfielder
New York City native Aziel Jackson, 21, has been a huge surprise this season. He never really latched on with Minnesota United but has thrived in St. Louis and has been taking an expanding role with the first-place team as the season progresses. In just 432 minutes, he has scored one goal and added four assists.
That is still an exceedingly small sample size, but he has been a difference maker and the signs are promising.
11) Chris Brady
Chicago Fire: Goalkeeper
For two seasons, Chris Brady sat behind Gaga Slonina in Chicago and when Slonina was sold to Chelsea, Brady became the number one in the Windy City. The most revealing statement is that there really hasn’t been much of a drop-off. Brady is a good shot stopper and he’s making big saves as the Fire look likely to return to the postseason after a lengthy absence.
12) Indiana Vassilev
St. Louis City: Midfielder
Even after making his professional debut in the Premier League with Aston Villa, Vassilev struggled on his loans to Inter Miami. But he has thrived in St. Louis this season where he has been a core member of their first-place run. He had already started 20 games and has played over 1630 minutes, the most of his career. It’s been a big year for Vassliev who should get an opportunity in camps with the U.S. U-23 team this year. He last was involved with the U.S. team at the 2017 U-17 World Cup.
13) Obed Vargas
Seattle Sounders: Defensive Midfielder
Vargas, along with Buck and Cremaschi, is one of the three 2005-born players on this list. If those three are on the 2025 U-20 World Cup team, it would be enormous. But Vargas was ranked the highest of the three in the preseason list. He continued to miss time earlier this season after missing the second half of last season with a hairline fracture in his back. When he finally returned to the field, he was rusty. He is improving now that he’s back on the field, but he is still making up for lost time.
Vargas had a good U-20 World Cup, and it was clear the talent is still there. He has a lot of youth soccer in front of him. After this past U-20 World Cup, he is eligible for the 2025 U-20 World Cup and both the 2024 and 2028 U-23 Olympics.
14) Bryce Duke
CF Montreal: Attacking Midfielder
It’s rare to find a good-level prospect who is with his third MLS team by the age of 22. But that is where Duke is as a player. LAFC is a tough place for a young player given their desire to spend big bucks in the attacking midfield position. He moved to Inter Miami, and until recently, it was not a functional place. Plus, with Messi arriving, it’s best that he left.
Bryce Duke is having a game tonight for Montréal. This goal opened the scoring but Montréal is now up 2-0 pic.twitter.com/SntJFukxzK— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 23, 2023
In Montreal, Duke has been thriving since heading to Canada on April 12. He’s helping to fill the void left by the departure of Djordje Mihailovic. This past week he had a very nice goal in Montreal’s win over Pumas.
15) Jalen Neal
LA Galaxy: Central Defender
Jalen Neal has begun starting for the LA Galaxy this year and it has been a hard place for him to standout given the team’s struggles in 2023. With the club performing poorly, it was unfortunate they refused to release Neal to the 2023 U-20 World Cup, but at least the Galaxy played him. While watching him, you can see the talent, but you can also see him getting pulled into the team’s overall rut. Neal was then given a huge opportunity with the U.S. team at the Gold Cup and had a solid second half against Jamaica which showed his talent.
16) Cade Cowell
San Jose Earthquakes: Winger
Cade Cowell has had a busy year with the USMNT January camp, the U-20 World Cup, the Gold Cup, and the MLS regular season with the improved San Jose Earthquakes. But, because of all those commitments, he’s played just 13 games for the Quakes this season (three assists, no goals). At times, Cowell can be very dangerous but he is still searching for consistency on a weekly basis with his club.
17) Patrick Schulte
Columbus Crew: Goalkeeper
The second goalkeeper on this list, Patrick Schulte is also a high value draft pick going as the 12th overall pick in the 2022 draft out of St. Louis University. Schulte, 22, has started all 22 games this season for Columbus as the team looks likely to return to the playoffs. Schulte is also an Olympic option along with Slonina and Brady. With teams required to take three goalkeepers, Schulte has a very good chance of making the team for Paris.
18) Leon Flach
Philadelphia Union: Defensive Midfielder
As a regular starter in his third season with the Philadelphia Union, Leon Flach has played a lot under Jim Curtin. It’s been a good fit for him in Philly because Curtin knows how to use Flach well. Flach is very good defensively (especially in transition) but typically doesn’t get on the ball a lot. Occasionally he’ll do something in the attack, but that is few and far between.
Flach isn’t going to be a fit for every team. But he’s a great fit for one of the best teams in the league, which puts him in a good place. It’s going to be tough for him to make the U.S. U-23 team, but he might get a look in camps.
19) Daniel Edelman
New York Red Bulls: Defensive Midfielder
The recent U.S. U-20 captain is still a regular with the New York Red Bulls and while that team is having a bad year, the team is strong defensively – including up the spine where Edelman plays. He’s on a good path in New Jersey although making the Olympic team could be a tough task given the central midfield options. But if he continues to trend upward, he’ll continue to have a nice career.
20) Owen Wolff
Austin FC: Midfielder
The young midfielder has become a regular in Austin FC where he has made 16 appearances (13 starts) this season, so far. Austin have been uneven this year, but most of their problems are in central defense and Driussi coming back to earth a bit. Wolff doesn’t always jump out at you with his style, but he’s competent and is improving with his consistency. Still just 18, he’s doing well and is in a good place.