The MLS may have a reputation for being a “retirement league” in the eyes of some soccer purists, but its teams have a growing prevalence of younger players on their squads, and those young guns have been contributing in a bigger way than you’d think. Yes, the league does feature Robbie Keane, Kaka and David Villa – and later Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and potentially Rafael van der Vaart – as their marquee European talents, but the U.S. national team setup can look no further than many of the younger players in the league to build their future around. With that, we’ll be counting down the top 10 best players in the MLS at the age of 21 and under.
Although some players like Ben Swanson and Erik Palmer-Brown could have also been included in this list, they’ve yet to really play many competitive games for their clubs, and therefore this list has been restricted mainly to players who’ve already started quite a number of games for their teams. Many of the players on this list are homegrown players, and some of them aren’t necessarily American either: Alvas Powell comes to the MLS from Jamaica, and both Diego Fagundez and Shane O’Neill could represent Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland respectively once the time comes to choose which country to represent on a senior level. The young talent in this league is not to be denied, and these players are among the best the MLS has to offer.
Whether or not these players actually fulfill their potential is unknown, but one thing is clear: they’ve got tons of it, and the impact they could have on their clubs this season could be big. Without further ado, here are the 10 best players in the MLS aged 21 and under, ranked in alphabetical order by last name.
10 Kellyn Acosta - FC Dallas
At just 19 years of age, midfielder/defender Kellyn Acosta has plenty of potential to be an impact player for FC Dallas. The native of Plano, TX came up through the team’s youth academy before he joined the team as a homegrown player, and has been capped on 10 occasions for the U.S. under-20 team, including when he was named the youngest player in the under-20 team’s squad at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey. He would’ve played as FC Dallas’ right back for most of last season, but an avulsion fracture caused him to miss much of the season. Expect him to make up for it as this season goes on.
9 Marco Delgado - Toronto FC
The folding of his old club Chivas USA caused Toronto FC to gain a young player with tons of upside and a possibility of breaking into a team known for going after big foreign names. The Glendora, CA native comes north of the border with that challenge in front of him, and although he hasn’t played for the team yet this season, he’s coming off a season with two goals and an assist in 20 games for his old club. Internationally, he’s made two appearances for the U.S. under-20 national team; however, his 21st birthday comes in May, so he might not have another opportunity with them.
8 Diego Fagundez - New England Revolution
He might be a slightly controversial player with regards to so far having chosen to represent his birth nation of Uruguay instead of his adopted United States, but New England’s Diego Fagundez remains a player to watch. He’s arguably one of the best young talents in the league, and is a player that could potentially be good enough to move to a club overseas – hence why he might have chosen Uruguay. The Revs midfielder known as the “Justin Bieber of MLS” is coming off a season with five goals and four assists in 31 games, and although he’s yet to find the back of the net this year, expect his impact to grow as the season progresses.
7 Luis Gil - Real Salt Lake
He’s still only 21, but has been capped twice so far for the U.S. senior team. In other words, Luis Gil is a player that could be described as nothing short of explosive for a player as young as he is. He’s already got 10 goals and eight assists in 113 career MLS games, which in itself is fairly impressive for the midfielder who’s only barely old enough to drink a beer in his home country. Called one of the next big things in American soccer, Gil had to turn away interest from European clubs – including Arsenal – to make his way to the MLS, and it’s been paying off big time so far.
6 Kekuta Manneh - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Originally from Gambia, Kekuta Manneh is an exciting player for a fairly talented Vancouver Whitecaps squad. The 20-year-old is a winger known for his pace on the pitch, and has already found the back of the net once in the early stages of the season, and has been linked with several big European clubs. Manneh has also started all four of the games he’s played in for Vancouver so far, which is in contrast to the previous year where he didn’t even start half of them. Internationally, Manneh was called up to Gambia’s u-20 team but was forced to decline it because of an injury. The way things are going, he’ll get called up to their senior team soon enough.
5 Matt Miazga - New York Red Bulls
After first playing for Poland’s under-18 team, Matt Miazga decided to change allegiances to his native U.S., and the native of Clifton, NJ is seeing the decision pay off – at least while on international duty. The New York Red Bulls defender has yet to play games regularly for his club, but has started two of them so far, and was also a major factor in the U.S. qualifying for the under-20 World Cup. Towering at 6’3”, Miazga is only 19 years of age, and has gotten international attention as well: he trained with the Red Bulls’ sister club RB Leipzig in January, although that was cut short through injury.
4 Shane O'Neill - Colorado Rapids
Born in Ireland, Colorado Rapids defender Shane O’Neill is looking like a promising young player for both club and the U.S. national setup (he was raised in Boulder, CO). A homegrown player for the Rapids and the son of a former Irish footballer, the 21-year-old O’Neill had been playing regularly for his team until an injury caused him to miss a fairly big chunk of last season. This year, O’Neill is bound to regain his place in the Rapids’ starting XI, and he was also invited to the U.S. national team for training purposes in January. However, he could still be eligible to represent his birth country.
3 Alvas Powell - Portland Timbers
What was supposed to be a loan from his original club in Jamaica, Portmore United, turned out to be a sign of bigger things to come for Alvas Powell with the Portland Timbers. The Jamaican defender has 13 caps internationally for the Reggae Boyz, and his presence at his club is really just starting to be felt, having started all five of the Timbers’ first five league games. Last season, the 20-year-old also got on the scoresheet despite only 15 appearances, with two goals and two assists to his name during the season. He’s more or less established himself as a regular in Portland, and it’s only up from here.
2 Dillon Serna - Colorado Rapids
At 21 years of age, Dillon Serna is already making waves for both club and country: internationally, he received nine caps for the U.S. u-20 team before graduating to the u-23s, and the midfielder also got on the scoresheet a number of times for the Colorado Rapids: three goals and four assists in 27 games. He hasn’t played much yet this season, but Serna’s potential is huge, and was invited to train with the U.S. national setup back in January. If he becomes a regular starter this season, Serna’s first U.S. cap might not be that far off.
1 Jose Villarreal - Los Angeles Galaxy
A loan move to Cruz Azul in Mexico wasn’t much of a success for Jose Villarreal last year, but his reputation as one of the best young attacking players in the MLS is undeniable. A homegrown player for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Villarreal is already playing regular minutes for his club, starting all four games he’s played in so far. Not only that, but he’s making his appearances count: in those four games, he’s already gotten a goal and two assists. If he keeps up his pace, the 21-year-old will be a true force to be reckoned with in this league.