MLS Season Preview
McGlynn, Tolkin, & Wiley top list of 20 Young Americans to watch in 2023 MLS season
February 17, 2023
THE 2023 MLS is quickly approaching and it should once again be another step forward for many young American players. The past seven years have been a productive time for the league in terms of homegrown development and many of the top American players in Europe have come from the league’s teams and academies. Now with two youth World Cups in 2023 and the Olympics next year, more will be on the line for players.
It has been a productive era for the league’s academies and, while some teams are better than others, there is far more of a range of teams contributing to the development of top domestic players. It is not simply FC Dallas, the Red Bulls, or the Philadelphia Union taking on the lion’s share. Other clubs such as Chicago, San Jose, New England, and Miami are all also now making impressive strides.
There is always line you must draw when defining young. MLS used to have “24 under 24” and that was way too far on the older side because while 24 isn’t old, it isn’t young either. It is prime age. On the flip side, you don’t want to limit it to teenagers because we want the list to include players likely to see a lot of first-team minutes.
So for this list, we will make it easy and have the cutoff be 2001-born and younger. That will allow it to include anyone eligible for the 2024 U-23 Olympic team - the oldest youth national team. Except for a few early birthdays in 2001, the list will be for players 21 years old and younger.
Here are the 20 young American players to watch this year in 2023:
1) Jack McGlynn
Philadelphia Union: Midfielder
McGlynn, 19, is part of a very talented homegrown class of players for the Philadelphia Union and while minutes aren’t that easy to come by on one of the league’s best teams, McGlynn still managed to make 26 appearances for the Union in 2022. In 2023, he won’t always start but he should continue to play regularly given his high-level skill. With his smooth left foot, he can make things happen but the one question he will have to answer is his athleticism. Does he have the necessary athleticism to be among the league’s better midfielders and attract top European scouts?
This summer McGlynn will be a very important part of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team and that will give him a spotlight. When he returns, he could take on a bigger role with the Union. He has shown impressive glimpses in 2021 and 2022 but in 2023 he will need to show another gear. With the U.S. U-20 team and while playing under Jim Curtin, one of the league’s best managers, he will have a big opportunity - and one we are confident he will take.
2) John Tolkin
New York Red Bulls: Left back
John Tolkin’s 2023 started with him earning his first USMNT cap against Colombia. It was deserved after a 2022 season where he played 2838 minutes for the Red Bulls (on the heels of a 2021 where he played 2019 minutes). The Chatham, NJ native is playing a lot and will now be on an improved Red Bull team in 2023 with even higher expectations. While he has taken big strides in his game, he will need to find yet another gear in the year ahead. If he does that, we will likely see transfer rumors become serious for Tolkin next winter.
Tolkin, 20, is being eyed for the U.S. Olympic team. He was even allowed to participate in the offseason with the U.S. U-20 team despite being too old for the World Cup. U.S. Soccer sees him as being one for Paris in 2024. These are indeed exciting times for Tolkin and he should play a lot in 2023 for club and country. It wouldn’t be surprising if he is on one of the full national team rosters this summer.
3) Caleb Wiley
Atlanta United: Left back
Wiley, who turned 18 in late December, made 26 appearances last season for Atlanta United including 18 starts. Most of the time he played his preferred left back position but sometimes he moved further up the field to play in front of United’s veteran left back Andrew Guttman. Atlanta has lofty ambitions to return to the post season and be one of the league’s most dominating teams. With the money they have spent, it is possible.
Wiley is one of the organization’s most talented products from its academy but getting him on the field when Guttman is healthy is tricky. But Wiley will still make plenty of appearances across all competitions and from there, it will be up to him to make his case. He has more than enough ability to make a big impression this season.
Wiley should also be part of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team where he is in an open competition with Jonathan Gomez for the starting left back spot. If Wiley can play a lot for Atlanta early in the season, he could be the starter at the U-20 World Cup.
4) Obed Vargas
Seattle Sounders: Midfielder
The defensive midfielder from the Seattle Sounders had a torrid start to 2022 at just 16 years old. He was starting big games for the Seattle Sounders and then came on as a first-half sub in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League and played a role in the historic victory. The following month, he was going to join the U.S. U-20 World Cup and Olympic qualifying team but had to withdraw due to a back injury which surprisingly ended his season.
Vargas, now 17, has the talent but needs to shake off the rust and make up for lost time. The start to the preseason has been rocky as he’s been dealing with a quadricep injury since January. The question will be how long it takes him to get back on track. Yes, he can make the U-20 World Cup team this summer (he is also eligible for the 2025 U-20 World Cup) but his focus needs to be getting back to the level he was at last spring with the Sounders.
5) Benjamin Cremaschi
Inter Miami: Midfielder
Last season, Benjamin Cremaschi impressed in MLS Next with Inter Miami and then also with the U.S. U-19 national team. That set the stage for a wild offseason where he was called up to the U.S. U-20 team, signed a homegrown deal with Inter Miami, and then was called up by Argentina’s U-20 team (playing up a cycle since he is eligible for the U-20 level through 2025) shortly after that country’s senior team won the World Cup. Cremaschi was in Buenos Aires for the celebration.
In the end, Cremaschi came up just short in making Argentina’s U-20 team for the Conmebol Championships (which serves as U-20 World Cup qualifying) but he was the last 2005-born player in consideration. That Argentina U-20 team, however, was stunned and failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup. That begs the obvious question whether Argentina's U-20 failure opens the door for the U.S. U-20 team?
Regardless of whether Cremaschi plays for U.S. U-20 team this year, he remains one of the more high-profile winter homegrown signings in the league. The central midfielder showed a lot in the youth levels in 2022 and should get chances with Inter Miami's first team early in 2023.
6) Cade Cowell
San Jose Earthquakes: Winger
The San Jose winger has been a prospect in MLS for a long time – ever since he scored his first goal for the Earthquakes in 2020 against the Galaxy as a 16-year-old. Last year he had three goals and in 2021 he had five. But the Quakes have been a tough place for young players given the lack of coaching stability and the struggles to build a deep roster.
But now the team will be run by Luchi Gonzalez, who had success working with young players at FC Dallas. San Jose has a lot of promising young players but Cowell has the most experience of this class and it will be interesting if Gonzalez can help Cowell, 19, get to the next level. Cowell obviously has the size and strength to still be an intriguing prospect and he also has skill too. But it’s about putting it all together.
Cowell is another player likely to be with the U.S. U-20 World Cup team in May and he did well for the full U.S. team in January. He’s not a lock starter for the U.S. U-20 team right now, but he should have a point to prove at the World Cup.
7) Leon Flach
Philadelphia Union: Midfielder
Compared with other players on this list, Flach has the most experience by far. After making his 2.Bundesliga debut in 2020/21, he came to the Philadelphia Union to play – which he has done. In 2021 he played 2880 minutes and in 2022, he played 3057 minutes while helping the Union continue its rise into being one of the league’s best teams. Flach will be entering into his third season as the Union are the preseason favorites for the Supporters Shield.
Flach is an interesting player. While improving with the ball, he hasn’t been a player who contributes much in the attack. But he’s an excellent defender and he does well to break up plays and be disruptive. It’s why Jim Curtin has seen such high value in him. But in 2023, it will be important for him to show improvement on the ball. If he continues to add offensive elements to his game, he could be a top player in the league for his position.
Internationally, he’s eligible for the U.S. U-23 team although there is competition from domestic-based players (like Aidan Morris and Daniel Edelman) and foreign-based players (like Tanner Tessmann and Johnny Cardoso). He should get call-ups to U-23 camps but it will be a challenge to make the team for Paris next year. But playing ever game and contributing to a good Philadelphia Union team is a big advantage.
8) Niko Tsakiris
San Jose Earthquakes: Midfielder
The Quakes midfielder showed a lot of promise towards the end of last season when he made three starts. He’s backed that up with some positive performances this preseason as well under new manager Luchi Gonzalez, who was brought in largely because of the strong group of young players emerging from San Jose’s academy – with Tsakiris being among the top prospects.
On the international front, Tsakiris was the youngest American player to participate last year with the U.S. U-20 team at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships and he scored three goals in five games. While he is also eligible for the 2025 U-20 World Cup, he had a good chance of making the World Cup team and playing meaningful minutes in that tournament.
9) Brian Gutierrez
Chicago Fire: Forward
Brian Gutierrez, 19, was part of a young contingent on the Chicago Fire last year that impressed. But with Gaga Slonina and Jhon Duran getting sold for north of $30 million combined to Premier League teams in the offseason, Gutierrez will remain in Chicago from that group. While most of the attention was on Duran last year (for good reason), Gutierrez impressed and improved throughout the season and he finished with two goals and six assists – mostly coming in the second half of the season.
Gutierrez was called-up but was not released by Chicago to play for the U.S. U-20 team at the CONCACAF Championships last summer. Chicago will probably be more willing to let him go to the U-20 World Cup and it seems like head coach Mikey Varas will call him up.
10) Jalen Neal
LA Galaxy: Central Defender
The LA Galaxy homegrown recently had the odd distinction of being one of the rare American players to make his U.S. national team debut before making his first team club debut. But his Galaxy debut should be very soon as Neal is looking sharp in preseason. The central defender has been a promising at the youth levels and his potential rise comes at a time when there has been a dry spell of young American central defenders in the league.
Neal, 19, should also be a starter on the U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup this spring which could put him in the mix for the Olympic team if he performs well.
11) Chris Brady
Chicago Fire: Goalkeeper
After Gaga Slonina was sold to Chelsea and made the move to London after the 2022 season, Chris Brady has a great opportunity to become the top goalkeeper in Chicago. The Fire homegrown is a promising shot stopper and he has the potential to get valuable minutes as a teenager – which is not easy for a goalkeeper.
He should make the U.S. U-20 World Cup team but the competition to start will be tough if Slonina also makes the team.
12) Quinn Sullivan
Philadelphia Union: Attacker
The versatile attacker for the Philadelphia Union has found it difficult to play minutes as Jim Curtin has built one of the league’s best teams. But he has played well in limited minutes. With the U.S. U-20 team, he has the most goal involvements (goals plus assists) all cycle by a large margin. While the Union will contend in 2023, Curtin will have to make it a priority to keep his talented homegrowns happy with minutes and a big test will be getting Sullivan on the field.
13) Aidan Morris
Columbus Crew: Defensive Midfielder
The defensive midfielder returned to the field in 2022 after missing almost all of 2021 with a torn ACL. While it took several months to shake off the rust, towards the end of the season he was back to the level where he was at the end of 2020 when he started MLS Cup and helped the Crew to a championship win. Now under new head coach Wilfried Nancy, Morris will look to find another level.
After earning his first U.S. national team cap in January, Morris will likely be part of the upcoming U.S. U-23 team as it prepares for Paris. At this point, he seems likely to be on the inside of the bubble for the Olympics.
14) Daniel Edelman
New York Red Bulls: Midfielder
The U.S. U-20 captain had a strong second half of 2022 where he started for the New York Red Bulls on a regular basis and helped the team to qualify for the playoffs. But more will be expected of Edelman this year as he looks to be a starter on an improved Red Bull team that has spent money.
But Edelman, 19, is a mature player for his age and it is one of the reasons why he is seen as a leader on the U.S. U-20 team. As the team's likely captain, the U-20 World Cup will be a big stage for Warren, NJ native.
15) Esmir Bajraktarevic
New England Revolution: Midfielder
The versatile player from Wisconsin has a smooth left foot and has been one of the top 2005-born players on U.S. youth national teams over the past year (both the U-19 and U-20 teams). With his ability to play several positions, he has a lot of skill and is fun to watch. He made his first team debut last year for the Revs but Bruce Arena will likely want to play him more in 2023, even if he is not seen as a starter at the beginning of the season.
Congrats to Esmir Bajraktarevi? and the #U19MYNT ???????? on winning the Slovenia Nations Cup ???? pic.twitter.com/RaevSxOweW— New England Revolution (@NERevolution) September 27, 2022
16) Darren Yapi
Colorado Rapids: Forward
There haven’t been many top teenage American forwards in MLS in recent years aside from Ricardo Pepi. But Darren Yapi, 18, remains one to watch after showing growth last season with the Colorado Rapids 2 in MLS NEXT and, more importantly, with the Rapids first team this current preseason. It is still early for the 2004-born Denver native but he is trending in the right direction in what has typically been a tough position for young domestic players.
He has yet to play with the U.S. U-20 team but he might get a late invite to the March camp if he can start the season in strong form. It’s an uphill climb as head coach Mikey Varas seems to have moved on from using a formation with a forward.
17) Noel Buck
New England Revolution: Midfielder
The midfielder from Arlington, Massachusetts became the second youngest player to ever score for the New England Revolution last season shortly after his 17th birthday. Bruce Arena and the Revs like Buck and are bringing him along slowly after he impressed with the Revolution II. Buck won’t be a starter early in the 2023 season, but he should see more minutes than last season. Towards the end of the season, he could be a meaningful contributor.
Buck hasn’t been a part of U.S. youth national teams but he should play for the U.S. U-20 team when the next cycle kicks off – probably in the fall.
18) Owen Wolff
Austin FC: Midfielder
The younger Wolff brother made 25 first team appearances last season for Austin FC during the club’s vastly improved second season. Then in the offseason, he trained with PSV Eindhoven. While still raw, he has a solid upside and performed well in 2022 with the U.S. U-19 team. He should be in line for more minutes in 2023.
Internationally, he is probably going to come up short to make the 2023 U-20 World Cup team and he has a terrible birthdate of December 30, 2004. If he was born less than 48 hours later, he would have been eligible for the next cycle.
19) Serge Ngoma
New York Red Bulls: Winger
Serge Ngoma, 17, was very impressive for the Red Bulls in 2022 where he scored two goals in seven games and he showed a ton of skill with the way he could move the ball into the attack. He should be much higher on this list but the problem for him is injuries. Over the past year, he has dealt with multiple muscle injuries in his legs. It ended his 2022 season early and he is missing the 2023 preseason due to a separate injury. If he can get healthy and stay healthy, look out. He has a very high ceiling.
20) Cole Bassett
Colorado Rapids: Midfielder
The Rapids playmaker returns to Colorado after a tough pair of loans within the Eredivisie – first to Feyenoord (who still own an option to buy him through March) and then to Fortuna Sittard. When Bassett, 21, left the Rapids after the 2021 season, he was a promising attacking midfielder but the fits with his clubs in Holland were never quite right. He will be returning to Colorado looking for a reboot, but it will be interesting to see how he responds after a tough 2022. Will he be pushing for another move or will he settle back down in Colorado for a bit? Or will he push for the Olympic team and perhaps look for a move after Paris 2024. He seems like a potential candidate for that team.
This upcoming 2023 season should be a good one for young American players to make meaningful contributions to their clubs. Compared with years past, it was tough to cut the list to just 20 players because it easily could have been so much more because there are others who will have the opportunity to make a breakout.
For Charlotte, Ben Bender, 21, narrowly missed out on the list and he had a good rookie season in 2022 although he cooled later in the year. As with any player entering his second year, it will be about avoiding a sophomore slump and consistently playing well with no late-season drop-off.
For the Seattle Sounders, Daniel Leyva has done well at times but competition at that club in the deeper midfield positions is tough with the return of Joao Paulo and Obed Vargas who is listed above. The same could be said for Josh Atencio who would be eligible for this list. Reed Baker-Whiting, meanwhile, has long been considered one of the better 2005-born American players and has been with the U.S. U-19 team. But will this be the year he sees long awaited minutes? His versatility to play in the midfield or at right back gives Brian Schmetzer options.
Orlando City have two very good U.S. U-20 eligible right backs in Michael Halliday and Alex Freeman but it’s too early to see if Oscar Pareja will use them much. But the right back position hasn’t really been claimed on the U.S. U-20 team (Club Brugge reserve Mauricio Cuevas has held the job this cycle) and Halliday or Freeman have a chance for a last look.
Staying with Orlando, the club signed Favian Loyola to a homegrown in December and he was among the better midfielders on the U.S. U-19 team in 2022. He is certainly one to watch but Orlando City’s midfield has been upgraded and minutes will be tough to come by for a 17 year old.
The proper way to spell Favian Loyola is H-I-M. ????— MLS NEXT (@MLSNEXT) August 10, 2022
The Orlando City SC playmaker was named MVP in the inaugural MLS NEXT All-Star Game.@Allstate | #MLSNEXTAllStar pic.twitter.com/nzddUaZExT
Maximo Carrizo is certainly a favorite among fans and he has played first team minutes with NYCFC this preseason as a 14 year old while also getting interest from youth teams for both the United States and Argentina. He is very talented but at his age, everyone needs to take a deep breath. The same should be said of the club’s left back Christian McFarlane, 16, who has also drawn attention from English youth teams. Meanwhile, Tayvon Gray, 20, should play regularly at right back for NYCFC and he has built up a nice resume at his age.
Cruz Medina, 16, is also more of a player for next year but the U-17 playmaker has a good chance of making his debut later this year with San Jose as Luchi Gonzalez will look to quickly build with the top players of his academy in his first year.
Real Salt Lake’s attacking midfielder Diego Luna and Philadelphia Union central defender Brandan Craig will likely be on the U.S. U-20 World Cup team but at the club level, the minutes might not be there. In particular, Craig checks a lot of boxes but plays behind the league’s best central defense duo of Jack Elliot and 2022 Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes. Also with Philadelphia, Nathan Harriel showed well at times at right back over his 20 starts but eventually lost his starting job to Olivier Mbaizo. Harriel is one of the better American U-23 right backs in the league but Mbaizo is tough competition.
While the U.S. U-20 left back competition is tight between Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gomez, Noah Allen is still in the mix and has done well for Inter Miami but still sits behind Franco Negri for the starting job. Also in Miami, Bryce Duke, 21, will look to back up his 2022 season where he made 25 appearances and trained with Atletico Madrid in the offseason.
St. Louis City acquired Indiana Vassilev from Inter Miami after he was loaned there from Aston Villa (where he made Premier League appearances). He will have a lot of opportunity with St. Louis and could be an Olympic option in the midfield as well.
There were some very good homegrown signings this winter in the league. Cremaschi at Inter Miami and Loyola at Orlando were just two. But Peter Stroud for the New York Red Bulls is right up there. In college, he was back-to-back ACC Midfielder of the Year and looked clearly ready for a higher level. Now he will have the opportunity and he should play first team minutes this year.
In 2022, Damian Rivera, 20, made 14 appearances for the New England Revolution after singing a homegrown deal in 2019 and impressing with the club’s second team. But New England had a poor season and the team has upgraded. The question is how much will Rivera be part of Arena’s plans in 2023?
1 - @NERevolution's Damian Rivera is the first player to score in the first minute of his first career @MLS start since Matias Mantilla for Real Salt Lake in August 2007. Opening. pic.twitter.com/bnMGY6pWFi— OptaJack?? (@OptaJack) April 30, 2022
Jackson Hopkins, 19, made 21 appearances for DC United in 2022 but it was a season to forget for that organization. But Hopkins is part of the club’s youth contingent Wayne Rooney will look to help change the club’s fortune. Hopkins was also an injury replacement for Obed Vargas on the U.S. U-20 team at the CONCACAF Championships. He’s in the mix for the U-20 World Cup team but probably has an uphill climb.
But DC United also has a number of homegrowns who should see minutes under Rooney in 2023 and they are all worth keeping an eye on. Central defender Matai Akinmboni made a pair of first team appearances last season just short of his 16th birthday. 2005-born attacker Kristian Fletcher signed a homegrown deal last year after flirting with Borussia Dortmund. He is another player who could impress in 2023 and then move to a big role with the U-20 team to start next season. On the older side, Ted Ku-DiPietro, 21, made 10 appearances last season but will push for a bigger role in 2023.
17-year-old American #KristianFletcher scored his first goal in his first start for #DCUnited ?????— MLSITALY (@mlsitaly) October 10, 2022
One to watch for the future ????#VamosUnited #MLS #MLSCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/VR45iyQojM
In Montreal, Matko Miljevic, 21, will likely play a bigger role now that Djordje Mihailovic has moved to the Netherlands but he will miss the next few months recovering from surgery. Montreal made the move for George Campbell, 21, from Atlanta in the offseason and he is one of the most professionally ready central defenders in the Olympic pool.
At Sporting Kansas City, Kayden Pierre, 20, is a player who could emerge as a late candidate for the right back position on the U.S. U-20 team but he will need to impress early in the season. He had 19 appearances and nine starts in 2022 for SKC. Cameron Duke, 22, has Olympic ambitions but he will have to play a role for an improved SKC team to make that happen. Last season he made a respectable 26 appearances including 13 starts but will need to contribute more goals and assists in 2023.