Ranking the 8 Best Players Under 20 in MLS

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistOctober 13, 2020

Ranking the 8 Best Players Under 20 in MLS

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Under-20 players have gained more of the spotlight across Major League Soccer due to their status on the international level and the growing level of attention from overseas.

    The commitments by clubs to play their academy prospects as early as possible has aided the growing list of standout performers in that age range. 

    FC Dallas has been the gold standard for handing out minutes to U20 players, and that strategy saw them give 19-year-old Bryan Reynolds the spot vacated by former defender Reggie Cannon. Before signing with Boavista in Portugal, the 22-year-old appeared in 67 regular-season matches since making his debut in 2017.

    Other clubs have started to use the transfer market to bring in young players who can then be sold for profits. LAFC signed Bryan Rodriguez at 19 years old from Penarol in Uruguay in 2019, and shortly afterward he became a regular in his national team's senior squad.

    The newest model used by MLS clubs is to pluck players from academy systems in Europe. Montreal tried this with former Tottenham center back Luis Binks, and it already sold him to sister club Bologna while retaining him on loan.

    No matter which strategy teams employ with under-20 players, it appears more players in that age range will receive minutes in the coming seasons.

Bryan Reynolds, D, FC Dallas

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    FC Dallas has so much trust in its prospects that it slid Reynolds directly into the lineup at right back to replace Cannon after his transfer to Portugal was finalized. Reynolds, 19, has started seven of the last eight games for the Western Conference side.

    FC Dallas has so much faith in Reynolds’ ability that it signed the right back to a contract extension in September.

    Reynolds has already been a member of the FC Dallas first team for four years and has played at youth international levels for the United States. If he receives consistent playing time with Cannon out of the league, he could be one of the next players FC Dallas can profit off.

    Cannon and Chris Richards, who moved to Bayern Munich permanently in 2019, are the most notable products to move overseas from Dallas so far.

Jesus Ferreira, F, FC Dallas

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The introductions of Reynolds and Jesus Ferreira to the FC Dallas starting lineup have reinforced FC Dallas' strength in numbers in the U20 age range. 

    Reynolds and Ferreira are two of the 30 Homegrown Player signings the Western Conference club has made. 

    Jesus Ferreira came to FC Dallas with more hype than others because his father, David, starred from 2009 to 2013 for the club and won MLS Most Valuable Player in 2010. Since debuting in 2017, the younger Ferreira has 10 career goals for FC Dallas in 47 games.

    His performances were enough to earn him his U.S. men's national team debut back in February, starting in a 1-0 friendly win over Costa Rica. If Ferreira turns into a lethal presence in front of goal, he could move up the USMNT forward depth chart in the coming years.

Ayo Akinola, F, Toronto FC

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Ayo Akinola broke out at the MLS is Back Tournament by scoring five goals in three games with USMNT forward Jozy Altidore largely absent for Toronto FC.

    The 20-year-old striker has just three goals in 10 appearances since, but he found the net against Philadelphia and New England, respectively, in each of his last two starts. In 12 regular-season appearances in 2020, Akinola has scored on eight occasions.

    Akinola is in one of the most favorable environments for a young forward to develop; he has Altidore around him every day and is playing for one of the most successful sides in MLS.

Gianluca Busio, M, Sporting Kansas City

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Gianluca Busio could be the best player to come out of the Sporting Kansas City system.

    The 18-year-old U.S. youth international is up to 22 starts and 44 regular-season appearances for Peter Vermes' squad, with the bulk of those minutes coming in the last two seasons.

    The homegrown player has displayed more versatility since the club returned from MLS is Back, as he has dropped a bit deeper in midfield on occasion.

    Busio has already appeared for the U.S. under-17 national team and is expected to play a role in the international setup in 2021 with World Cup qualifying, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Summer Olympics scheduled to take place.

    Busio may be one of the key members of the U23 Olympic squad, which could serve as a showcase for himself and other young stars across MLS.

Luis Binks, D, Montreal Impact

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Binks took a path less traveled to MLS, signing with Montreal before the 2020 season out of the Tottenham Hotspur academy.

    In the months since his move to Canada, the 19-year-old center back has inked a deal with Serie A club Bologna, which shares the same ownership as the Impact.

    Binks has impressed in his 1,394 minutes in MLS and has developed in a squad that has some other young prospects around him, such as Ballou Tabla.

    The success achieved by Binks could pave the path for other players from Premier League youth systems to come over to North America in search of playing time. Toronto FC recently made a similar move by loaning Tony Gallacher from Liverpool's youth system.

James Sands, D, New York City FC

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    James Sands gets lost a bit in the discussion of top young players in MLS because of his position.

    The central defender for New York City FC has made 34 starts over the last two seasons and become one of the most reliable defenders in the squad. Sands carries a bit of international pedigree, too, having been named to the Team of the Tournament at the CONCACAF U17 championships in 2017.

    If he continues to receive consistent minutes and grabs the attention of the USMNT staff for either the first team or U23 Olympics squad next year, Sands could be added to the list of young American talent earning attention from overseas. 

    NYCFC produced two European transfers from its academy: Gio Reyna to Borussia Dortmund and Joe Scally to Borussia Monchengladbach.

Brenden Aaronson, M, Philadelphia Union

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    In two years, Brenden Aaronson has transformed from a budding prospect out of the Philadelphia Union academy into a coveted European transfer target.

    According to MLSSoccer.com's Tom Bogert, Philadelphia and RB Salzburg have come to a verbal agreement over a transfer for the 19-year-old midfielder.

    The New Jersey native has improved on his three goals and two assists in his rookie campaign last year with four strikes and five helpers in regular-season play in 2020.

    Aaronson has played the majority of the 2020 season in the No. 10 role, but he recently played four different positions of the Union's 4-2-3-1 formation because of absences in the club's roster. Aaronson played in all three attacking midfield positions and dropped into the No. 8 role in a recent match against FC Cincinnati.

    The United States international still needs to work on his physicality to deal with what he will face in Europe, but no one expects him to be the finished product at 19.

Brian Rodriguez, F, Los Angeles FC

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    LAFC's moves in the South American transfer market should reap rewards in the near future. Although Diego Rossi has the Golden Boot lead, Rodriguez could be the most valuable prospect for LAFC.

    The 20-year-old has produced two goals and seven assists in 15 matches in 2020, and he is currently away on international duty with Uruguay's first team for CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. Rodriguez scored six times in 19 appearances for Uruguay's U20 squad. Two of those goals were scored at the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup. 

    Rodriguez parlayed the success at the youth international level to Uruguay's first team. He has three goals in seven matches as a senior international. 

    Because of his age and growing profile on the international stage, Rodriguez may not be in MLS for much longer, and that could produce a decent-sized transfer fee for Bob Bradley's side.


    Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

    Statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.