On the Radar: Major League Soccer’s Top Young Players
With the 2020-21 European league season coming to a close, the international transfer window will once again open, and many clubs will be looking to invest in young talent from other leagues. In our transfer target series, we identify players who could well be on the radar of top European clubs in the coming months. Ben Baer selects five young players who’ve impressed in Major League Soccer in the last 12 months.
There’s little doubt about who the top teenager in MLS is right now. Cade Cowell earned the starting striker role in San Jose to start the season and took the league by storm in the first three weeks, recording two goals and three assists as the Earthquakes got off to a hot start.
The 17-year-old burst onto the scene last season, playing in his customary left wing position. While it was clear that he had something special, his good play didn’t end with much in the way of box score stats. Cowell has elite speed that he uses to easily get past defenders and into the final third. While he has yet to acquire the cleverness to beat defenders 1v1 with skill, it’s clear that if he gets into open space the defense is toast.
Since the start of last season, only Bradley Wright-Phillips has seen more of his carries end up in a shot or chance created than Cowell, but also notice that BWP has fewer than half the carries of Cowell despite playing more minutes.
Cowell is a bit raw as a player, but once he figures out how to use his speed while on the ball, it’s going to be a nightmare for defenders. He’s also shown that once he does have some space in the final third, he can fire off quality shots. Just look at the goal he scored against the LA Galaxy last year. He’s in the top 20 in terms of shots per 90 since the start of last season and should continue to get looks at goal in Matias Almeyda’s frenetic system.
Clark’s destiny has been set ever since he signed with New York Red Bulls II prior to the start of the 2020 season. Despite not even being on the first team, it’s widely reported that part of the midfielder’s deal included an agreement that he would depart for RB Leipzig following the 2021 season.
He started the 2020 season with NYRBII and impressed in 12 appearances, scoring three goals. He was moved up to the first team in October and quickly showed a penchant for scoring bangers, as evidenced by his first two goals in MLS.
Since the start of 2020, he’s scored six goals in MLS competition including playoffs, this despite just 770 minutes on the pitch. The only player to score more often while in his teenage years since then is Cole Bassett of Colorado Rapids (seven in 1,413 mins).
Clark is an attacking midfielder that is best when making late runs into the box and finishing off attacks. He’s not the most creative player, but he works diligently pressing opponents on the defensive end. So far this season he has mostly played on the side of the Red Bulls’ 4-4-2 diamond formation, but it’s clear that he’s most effective when placed at the top of the diamond.
Busio has long been one of the most-hyped American prospects. A member of the 2019 U-17 World Cup team, the now 18-year-old was once thought to be on a similar path to that of Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna as they both had risen up through MLS academies as attacking players. But there’s been a shift in the past year.
Peter Vermes has opted to use Busio as one of the three midfielders in Sporting Kansas City’s 4-3-3 system. This has included spells at the No. 6 and as one of the two more advanced central midfielders.
This has allowed him to utilize his passing skill and vision, rather than having him beat defenders 1v1 – which has not been something he’s had the ability to do effectively.
Since his debut in July 2018, Busio has played an astonishing tally of matches for someone who’s still only 18 years old (54), more than any other player while in their teenage years since the start of MLS 2018.
So far in 2021, Busio has been the lone consistent presence in SKC’s midfield, which has allowed him to lead the team in recoveries and passes completed amongst midfielders. He might not have a single assist this season, but the teenager is an integral part of the Sporting KC side, with high sequence involvement over the pitch, ranking in the top three for build up involvement leading to shots, and the highest total of passes leading to a chance created (six).
It likely won’t be long until we see him in Europe as MLSsoccer.com reported last month that Sporting rejected offers from two Serie A clubs in the offseason. The North Carolina native holds an Italian passport, which makes him an ideal target for clubs in Italy.
Amidst the disaster that was the 2020 season for Atlanta United, there was one bright spot: George Bello. The left back was supposed to be the full-time starter in 2019 but got injured early on and was never able to get in form. That changed in 2020 when he started 19 of Atlanta’s 23 matches.
Bello has long been known for his ability on the ball and going forward, which has naturally made him more of an ideal option when the Five Stripes are in a five-man backline. That has been on and off under all three of the coaches that have manned the sidelines since the start of the 2020 season. You can see a little bit of what he is capable of on Atlanta’s game-winning goal over the weekend.
With just 0.03 expected assists per 90 in MLS since the start of last season (16th highest at Atlanta) we’ll want to see a little bit more of that from the 19-year-old, as he has not been able to create chances in what has been an anaemic attack for Atlanta over the past 15 months. What he has done so successfully is become a hub of possession.
Bello leads all regular left backs in passing accuracy (90.2% from 224 passes) and has upped both his passes and touches per 90 from 2020 to 2021. A lot of these touches have come in the defensive half in 2021, so now the challenge is for him to become more of an attacking threat from full back and show a little more creativity. If he does that, Bello should be in Europe in no time.
Let’s be honest, there’s not much to go on in terms of Pepi’s professional career. The 18-year-old has played just 662 minutes for FC Dallas since signing with the first team back in June 2019. But what is undeniable is that when he’s been given a chance, the striker has performed.
He has three goals during the regular season, but his most important contribution came during last year’s playoffs. He reacted quickly to a hopeful ball over the top of the Portland defense, glided past defenders and got a shot on target. It was saved by Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark, but the ball clanged off the post and Pepi was able to smack in the rebound to tie the game up in stoppage time. FC Dallas went on to win the game.
That play is a perfect example of Pepi’s attributes. He reads the game well and constantly finds himself in the right spots. When he gets there, he rarely misses an opportunity. Once he fills out a bit, it will be tough to knock him off the ball as his balance is strong for a long, lanky player.
Over the last two seasons, only four players have a higher non-penalty xG per 90 average than Pepi (0.73) with a minimum of 600 minutes. Luchi Gonzalez has been reluctant to give him more of a shot as there’s a highly paid veteran in front of him, but Pepi has outplayed Franco Jara when given the chance. FCD have scored 1.4 goals per 90 with him on the field over the last two seasons, while they’re at just 1.0 goals per 90 with him off.
Pepi has a big future and there’s little doubt that he can be next in line behind Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds to make the move from Texas to Europe.
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