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On American Soccer: The best youngsters in MLS

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Player Spotlight: Diego Fagundez far from joining U.S. national team
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Player Spotlight: Diego Fagundez far from joining U.S. national team

Leave it to the folks at Major League Soccer’s official website to come up with a creative way to stir up some buzz for its players. The league site’s editorial arm came up with a list of the top MLS players younger than 24, and as you might expect, the list was met with plenty of backlash for the omissions, and inclusions. Ultimately though, the project did its job in stirring up conversation, driving MLS fans to the league site, and sparking debate over who exactly are the best young players in MLS.

While there were certainly issues you could take with the list itself, there were two things that stood out from the whole thing. First, what isn’t being discussed is just how much more young talent there is in MLS. A combination of rapid expansion and improved player development has created more opportunities for younger players to play key roles than ever before in league history.

That shouldn’t really come as a surprise. It is the natural evolution of the league because the reality is the player pool wasn’t developing enough young talent in the early years. There were no team academies, the youth development system in the USA wasn’t nearly as strong or effective as it has become, and as a result, the college game didn’t have the depth of talent to produce MLS-ready players in abundance.

Times have changed on those fronts. U.S. Soccer’s efforts to bolster youth player development have led to the establishment of the Development Academy, which has given the country a more organized system to help develop the country’s top youth talent. MLS teams have in recent years begun to really make strong pushes into player development with the creation and cultivation of academies. These improvements have meant not only more young talent entering MLS, but better talent making its way to the college game, which has led to a more competitive landscape and better environment to develop pros.

The result? A younger influx of talent, and more young players seeing major minutes than ever before. A look at a list of the league’s top young talents reveals this.

One big problem with the 24 under 24 premise is the suggestion that somehow players at 23 are young by pro soccer standards. Sure, 23 is young in terms of people in general, but in world club soccer you expect players at ages 22 and 23 to be established pros. Certainly the very best are. Players such as Neymar, Mario Balotelli, Mario Goetze, David DeGea, Eden Hazard, Isco, Marco Verratti, Oscar, Christian Benteke and Stephan El Shaarawy are among the world’s best players and all have boatloads of pro experience under their belts already.

A better measure of the level of good young talent in MLS is looking at the pool of players in the 21 and under age range. A closer look at the best players in that age range shows us a good pool of young players with the potential to develop into a strong wave of top stars.

Here is Goal’s look at the Top 22 best players in MLS younger than 22, meaning born in 1992 or later (each player’s current age is in parentheses). Keep in mind the rankings are not based strictly on 2013 form, but a combination of current level of play and potential:

22- KELLYN ACOSTA, FC Dallas (18)

The youngest member of the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team, Acosta has earned a run of starts for FC Dallas that has shown why he is so highly regarded. He is also the youngest player on this list.

21- WIL TRAPP, Columbus Crew (20)

Didn’t have the best Under-20 World Cup, but has seen some playing time as a rookie with the Crew and has shown signs of being a rock-solid central midfielder.

20- CARLOS SALCEDO, Real Salt Lake (19)

If you can earn regular starts for a team like Real Salt Lake as a teenager, you have skills, and this Mexican-born center back has the tools to develop into an all-star.

19- JONATHAN OSORIO, Toronto FC (21)

An unknown just a year ago, Osorio has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the lone bright spots on this year’s TFC side. Canadian fans are excited about this dynamic young midfielder.

18- SOONY SAAD, Sporting Kansas City (21)

A deadly finisher in his lone year in college at Michigan, Saad had to bide his time since turning pro, but this year he has impressed when given minutes.

17- WALKER ZIMMERMAN, FC Dallas (20)

Big center back could start for some teams in MLS, but is stuck behind a pair of quality starters at FC Dallas. His time will come though, and when it does he has the tools to be an all-star.

16- KEKUTAH MANNEH, Vancouver Whitecaps (18)

Has played the least of anybody on this list in 2013, but what he has done in those minutes is show us the electric set of tools that make him a mouth-watering attacking prospect.

15- RUSSELL TEIBERT, Vancouver Whitecaps (20)

Manneh’s teammate has enjoyed a breakout season for the Whitecaps, and his speed and ability to set up scoring chances

14- ANDREW FARRELL, New England Revolution (21)

Some others get more hype, but few rookies have had a steadier and more impressive 2013 campaign than Farrell, who has locked down the right back spot for the Revs. The scary thing is that may not even be his best position.

13- SHANE O’NEILL, Colorado Rapids(20)

Promising youngsters rarely go under the radar in American soccer circles, but O’Neill seems to fit that bill despite being stellar at the Under-20 World Cup. Technical and poised for a youngster, he’s a national team center back of the future.

12- ORIOL ROSELL, Sporting Kansas CIty (21)

The Spanish midfielder has looked very good in his first full season as a pro starter, and his Barcelona pedigree comes through. He should only get better in 2014, and a return to Europe is a good bet sooner than later.

11- OLMES GARCIA, Real Salt Lake (20)

Combining poise, personality and a nose for goal, this Colombian striker has been a real gem, and looks ready for a bigger role in 2014.

10- FABIAN CASTILLO, FC Dallas (21)

The speedy Colombian has been inconsistent since arriving in MLS, but this year we have seen him show more and more of the quality that made FC Dallas make him a young Designated Player.

9- ANDREW JEAN-BAPTISTE, Portland Timbers (21)

The highest-rated center back on the list, Jean-Baptiste has really improved the technical side of his game. That, combined with him being a physically-imposing force, makes him a legitimate long-term national team prospect.

8- PERRY KITCHEN, D.C. United (21)

Already in his third full season as a starter, the tough defensive midfielder has gone overlooked due to D.C. United’s awful season. He remains a bright spot for the struggling club, and he will be one of the keys to any potential turnaround.

7- ERICK TORRES, Chivas USA (20)

It didn’t take the former Mexican Under-20 National Team player to make his mark with Chivas USA, scoring seven goals in his first nine matches. The big question is just how long will he stick around before Chivas Guadalajara decides he is too good not to bring back to Mexico?

6- JACK MCINERNEY, Philadelphia Union (21)

His current goal-less drought doesn’t take away his status as one of the most promising young players in MLS. His movement, ability to find gaps in defenses, and quickness make him an exciting forward prospect, for both club and country.

5- JUAN AGUDELO, New England Revolution (20)

If not for injuries constantly sidelining him, Agudelo would probably be at the top of this list (if not already in Europe). He is heading to Stoke City this winter, but still has a chance to help lead the Revs to a playoff berth, and boost his chances of a national team look.

4- DEANDRE YEDLIN, Seattle Sounders (20)

If you look past things like the hair, and the hype that comes with being a young standout playing for fan-crazed Seattle, you find a young player who can flat-out play and has yet to come close to his full potential.

3- JOSE VILLARREAL, Los Angeles Galaxy (19)

Hasn’t seen as many minutes as many below him on this list, but there is simply no denying the dynamic attacking qualities he possesses. With a larger role on the Galaxy looming in 2014, Villarreal could start seeing European club interest a year from now.

2- LUIS GIL, Real Salt Lake (20)

A skillful central midfielder who has yet to be given the chance to lead an attack on his own, Gil has nonetheless benefited greatly from becoming a regular starter for RSL. Looked good with the U.S. Under-20 team, and it won’t be long before the U.S. national team calls him up.

1- DIEGO FAGUNDEZ, New England Revolution (18)

Having already set the MLS record for goals in a season by a teenager, Fagundez has enjoyed a breakout 2013 that has shown the league what Revs players had been raving about for years. The two big questions remaining at this point are just when will European clubs start knocking on the door, and will the Uruguayan-born standout ever be a possible option for the U.S. national team.

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