After a nine-month gap between games due to COVID-19, the United States men’s national team finally returned to the pitch this past week with a pair of friendlies in Europe against Wales and Panama. The games, a 0-0 draw with Wales and a 6-2 win over Panama, showcased the growing talent standard and potential with the USMNT talent pool, and built on an eventful and momentous summer for American players abroad.
A quick refresher of what’s happened since the last time the USMNT convened: Christian Pulisic played as well as any attacker in the Premier League post-restart; midfielder Weston McKennie joined Juventus, where he rubs shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo; Sergino Dest made the move to Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona; Giovanni Reyna established himself as a first-team player at Borussia Dortmund; and Chris Richards has worked his way into the senior squad at Bayern Munich.
After the massive disappointment of failing to qualify for the World Cup three years ago, it is an exciting time to be a U.S. Soccer fan.
In that vein, we have compiled a list of 25 young players, age 23 and under, who U.S. fans should be excited about as the Stars and Stripes begin the long and grueling road toward Qatar 2022. We divided this list into three tiers — Established Stars, Those Breaking Through and Those who are Next — which factor in each player’s club status, national team role and long-term potential.
The “Stars” tier needs no explanation, but the others involve a little more nuance. For example, Chris Richards has massive potential, but has yet to earn consistent minutes with Bayern and saw only 10 minutes of action off the bench in the Panama match — he slots into our “Those Breaking Through” tier. Likewise, someone like Alex Mendez, who still plays mostly reserve/Under-21 football, or an MLS player with little or no senior national team experience (say Gianluca Busio) reside in our “Those Who are Next” category.
Tier 1: The established stars
Christian Pulisic, FW/MF, Chelsea (22) — The present and future of the USMNT, Pulisic rebounded from a slow start in England to post an extremely impressive 11-goal, six-assist stat line in his first season with Chelsea. The Blues’ best player after the restart (five goals, two assists), Pulisic has established himself as one of the top wingers in the Premier League and best young players. If he can avoid the injuries that have plagued him at times early in his career, he could go down as the best USMNT player of all time.
Jurgen Klinsmann cannot heap enough praise on Sergino Dest as he’s set to join Barcelona from Ajax.
Sergino Dest, DF, Barcelona (20) — Born in the Netherlands, the right-back was a major coup for the USMNT when he committed to the homeland of his father in Oct. 2019. One year later and after a breakout campaign at Ajax, the teenager joined Messi at Barcelona despite heavy interest from Bayern Munich. Dest has adapted quickly to the Barca set-up, solidifying himself as a regular starter and producing a man-of-the-match worthy performance in his first Clasico.
A modern full-back, Dest’s ability to get forward down the right without leaving himself exposed should prove a real asset for the United States. One of the brightest performers for the U.S. in the pair of recent friendlies, Dest looks full of confidence at the moment and continues to get better and better.
Kasey Keller explains why he feels Gio Reyna will be better than his former U.S. teammate Claudio.
Giovanni Reyna, MF, Borussia Dortmund (18) — The biggest riser over the past year, Reyna has gone from good young prospect to starting alongside Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland at Borussia Dortmund. The son of legendary USMNTer Claudio Reyna, Gio became the youngest goalscorer in the history of the German Cup last year and already has a goal and three assists in the Bundesliga this season.
A quick thinker who possesses terrific vision and composure on the ball, Reyna, who debuted and scored his first international goal for the U.S. this past week, might have the; highest ceiling of any player in the pool besides Pulisic.
Tyler Adams, MF, RB Leipzig (21) — After coming off the bench to score the goal which sent RB Leipzig into the Champions League semifinals in August, Adams’ role at the Bundesliga club has only grown.
The New York Red Bulls academy product played every minute of Leipzig’s first three games this season before picking up a minor injury and looks to have established himself in defensive midfield under Julian Nagelsmann. There is still some debate over what Adams’ position with the national team should be (right-back or central midfield), but wherever he plays, Adams should be an anchor for the U.S. for the next decade.
Weston McKennie, MF, Juventus (22) — We’ve known Weston McKennie was good for a few years, but did anyone honestly think he was Juventus-good? The Texan started brightly after joining the Old Lady, initially on loan, nearly scoring on his debut against Sampdoria, before later testing positive for COVID-19. McKennie was a bit of a left-field signing but manager Andrea Pirlo and Juventus obviously see something in the tenacious central midfielder, despite a mixed beginning.
Another who will make up the backbone of the U.S. side for at least the next two World Cup cycles, McKennie is one of Berhalter’s young leaders.
Josh Sargent, FW, Werder Bremen (20) — It is no secret that the U.S. desperately needs a striker to emerge to replace the inconsistent Jozy Altidore and young Sargent remains the best bet. He scored four goals last season for Werder Bremen, helping the club narrowly avoid a second-ever relegation. While Sargent’s numbers don’t pop out at you, it is hard to be too critical of him given Bremen’s overall attacking limitations. The 20-year-old possesses raw tools — size, finishing ability, movement, strong hold-up play — that suggest the goals will come.
With Sargent barred from joining up with the U.S. this month by Werder Bremen due to local COVID-19 regulations, two-goal outings by fellow center-forward challengers Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto against Panama will have surely turned the heat up just a little on the St. Louis native.
Timothy Weah, FW, Lille (20) — It might seem strange to refer to Weah as a forgotten man, but after a lost season at Lille due to hamstring injuries, Weah, who has not played for the U.S. since Nov. 2018, has faded out of sight and mind for many American fans. He remains one of the top talents in the U.S. player pool. As the son of a former Ballon d’Or winner, and as a player who was groomed in PSG’s talent factory of an academy, Weah’s pedigree and skill set provides hope that the winger can blossom into a star at the international level.
It was nice to see Weah back in the fold with the U.S. — playing 10 minutes in Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Wales and just under half an hour on Monday vs. Panama — after two “lost years” but at present, he has work to do to earn back a starting spot with both Lille and the USMNT.
Tier 2: Those breaking through
Chris Richards, DF, Bayern Munich (20) — The young defender made waves when he joined Bayern on loan from FC Dallas in 2018. Fast forward two years and he has cracked the first-team squad of the European champions.
A gifted athlete, Richards has good size (6-foot-2) and is strong both on the ground in the tackle and in the air attacking and defending crosses. One of the stars of the U.S. Under-20s run to the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup in 2019, the young center-back has begun earning minutes with Bayern and made his international debut as an 80th-minute substitute against Panama on Monday.
Gio Reyna is hopeful Yunus Musah will commit to the USMNT after the two teamed up in camp for the first time.
Yunus Musah, MF, Valencia (17) — A late addition to this list after his surprise call-up by Berhalter for the November friendlies against Wales and Panama, Musah could prove a major get for the USMNT if chooses to represent the Americans. An England Under-18 international who was born in the U.S., but is also eligible to represent Ghana and Italy, Musah has burst onto the scene at Valencia — emerging as a regular starter for Los Che and scoring earlier this month against Getafe. While Musah’s two appearances don’t cap-tie the midfielder, his call-up was a signal of intent.
Despite primarily playing on the wing at Valencia, the former Arsenal academy grad was brought up as a central midfielder and impressed in that role for the U.S. against Wales and Panama. Berhalter already has weighed in regarding Musah’s best position, indicating that the U.S. plan is to try the youngster in a box-to-box midfield role.
Konrad de la Fuente, FW, Barcelona (19) — The other young American at Barcelona, De la Fuente grew up in Spain and joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at the age of 12. After impressing last season with Barca B, and in pre-season with the senior side, De la Fuente initially earned a spot in the Blaugrana’s first-team squad.
Blessed with brilliant pace, De la Fuente thrives in open space thanks to his dribbling ability and confidence. The young winger hasn’t necessarily translated that into a ton of goals and assists just yet, but his trickiness makes him an exciting proposition, who Berhalter will be keen to see more of following a mixed international debut against Wales.
Antonee Robinson, DF, Fulham (23) — The England-born left-back recently made the leap from the Championship to the Premier League, and thus far has been one of the few bright spots for Fulham. An attack-minded full-back who loves to roam forward, Robinson’s pace is his No. 1 attribute. While his defensive play remains a work in progress, his speed allows him to recover and cancel out danger.
His appearances with the national team have been very “Jekyll and Hyde” to date, but after a standout season at Wigan and a promising start in the Premier League, Robinson looks ready to take a step forward.
Brenden Aaronson, MF, Philadelphia Union (20) — One of the hottest names in the U.S. player pool following a breakout MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Aaronson will head to Austria at the conclusion of the MLS season to join Jesse Marsch and FC Salzburg.
A pass-first No.10, Aaronson thrives on the counter in attack and wreaks havoc with his pressing when the Union don’t have the ball. He’s also an excellent dribbler in tight spaces and seems to always have his head up looking for the killer pass, even when positioned deeper on the field. Aaronson’s pending move to Europe will challenge him but going up a level is the next logical step in his development.
Linked with moves abroad, particularly to the Bundesliga, the attacking midfielder is strong technically, covers a ton of ground, and is very direct when it comes to kick-starting attacks from the middle of the park. A 2019 MLS All-Star, the once-capped Texan is recovering from hip surgery in September, which will keep him out of action for about six months.
One of the fastest players in the U.S. pool, Cannon is more of a balanced right-back than the more attack-minded, “modern” full-back that so many teams covet. With 13 caps, Cannon is steady at both ends of the pitch, but with Dest ahead of him, projects to be a squad player rather than a regular starter. One of the players who took his chances in the November friendlies, Cannon was impressive whipping in crosses from the right and picked up an assist on Sebastian Lletget’s goal against Panama.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter explains how his young stars’ different qualities complement each other.
Richard Ledezma, MF, PSV Eindhoven (20) — Another gifted youngster who could emerge as the USMNT’s future No. 10, Ledezma is thriving in the Netherlands with PSV’s reserves. The former RSL youth product has been a regular starter over the past year-plus with Jong PSV and recently made his first-team debut — nabbing an assist in the process — for the Dutch giants. A player with flair, who moves well without the ball, can drive the attack on the counter and pick out a pass, Ledezma is the type of attacking talent the U.S. has lacked.
Having already earned rave reviews from big-name coaches like Tab Ramos (with US U20s) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (PSVs U19s), Ledezma looks poised for a breakout year in 2020-21. Ledezma made quite a first impression with the senior team on Monday, providing two assists (both for Sebastian Soto) in 20 minutes after coming on as a substitute against Panama.
Sebastian Soto, FW, Norwich (on loan with Telstar) (20) — The biggest question mark on this list, Soto is in the middle of a tug-of-war between Chile and the U.S. for his international services. One of these countries will be getting a pure goalscorer as Soto has racked up goals wherever he’s played. He fired 17 goals in 24 games while with Hannover 96’s U19s, added four for the U.S. at the 2019 U20 World Cup, and has five goals in his first seven games for loan club Telstar in the Dutch league.
The California native (6-foot) is quick, strong, and may be the best poacher among the United States’ young forwards. Soto accepted Berhalter’s November call-up and made a major splash, displaying his instincts with a headed brace in just 13 minutes vs. Panama. Another whose future remains undecided, Soto would add some real competition to the U.S. center-forward pool.
Nicholas Gioacchini delights in his two-goal night for the U.S. vs. Panama, but laments his missed penalty.
Nicholas Gioacchini, FW, Caen (20) — Another newcomer to the U.S. pool, Gioacchini was born in the U.S. but spent most of his childhood split between living in Italy and France. The six-foot striker put himself on the U.S. radar with three goals in eight games this season for Ligue 2 club Caen, earning a surprise call-up for the November friendlies.
On Monday, in his first start for the USMNT, Gioacchini made an immediate impact, scoring a first-half brace against Panama to throw his hat in the ring for the starting U.S. center-forward job. While both goals were relatively simple finishes, and he also missed a penalty which would have given him a hat trick, Gioacchini was impressive, and like Soto, showed a knack for being in the right place when chances presented themselves. Gioacchini told Caen’s website last month “this is the country where I was born, I feel American,” and after an impressive debut start, he looks like a player who could have a role to play in the present World Cup qualifying cycle.
Tier 3: Those who are next
James Sands, MF, NYCFC (20) — James Sands isn’t ‘exciting’ but that is the very reason U.S. fans should be excited about him. The defensive midfielder, who has also deputized effectively at center-back, is not flashy but boy is he effective. A terrific reader of the game, Sands’ anticipation and ability to react separates him from his peers and is a major reason he was able to earn a starting job with a club the size of NYCFC at 18.
Ranked in the top 20 in MLS in clearances, interceptions, and shots blocked, Sands is outstanding defensively and projects to make a move overseas before too long. The NYCFC man still needs to work on being more progressive with his passing, as he has a tendency to take the safe option, but if he continues to develop he could slot into the Michael Bradley/Jackson Yueill role with the national team in the coming years. Sanders fractured his foot last month and will miss the conclusion of the MLS season.
Miles Robinson, DF, Atlanta United FC (23) — One of the more intriguing prospects in the U.S. set-up, Robinson possesses the tools to be a dominant center-back and potentially a starter for the U.S. at the 2022 World Cup — if they make it. Tall (6-foot-2), fast and strong, Robinson thrives in 1-on-1 situations and is just plain hard to get around. An MLS Best XI member in his second full season with Atlanta, Robinson has massive potential and should generate plenty of interest from Europe in the coming years.
Sergino Dest is optimistic about the USMNT’s potential with so many players breaking into big clubs.
Mark McKenzie, DF, Philadelphia Union (21) — One of the best center-backs in MLS, McKenzie has both the old-school physicality needed to play the position and the quality and passing range of the “new-age” center-back. Good in the air and on the ground,he is a solid defender but it is his calmness and ability to play out of the back that separates him from his peers.
Equally comfortable with both feet, McKenzie has the vision and ability to not only try but complete defense-splitting passes from central defense After a frustrating U20 World Cup, he has bounced back, making his U.S. debut in February and reportedly attracting interest from European clubs such as Celtic, Anderlecht and Union Berlin.
Ulysses Llanez Jr., FW, VfL Wolfsburg (on loan at Heerenveen) (19) — Another American making his first-team debut in Europe this season, Llanez completed a loan move to Dutch side Heerenveen, a club that has nurtured the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Martin Odegaard and Michael Bradley. Llanez arrives in the Netherlands after a prolific spell with Wolfsburg’s U19s, in which he racked up 11 goals and six assists in 16 games.
A mainstay with various U.S. youth national teams over the past few years, he scored seven goals to help the U.S. U20s to the 2018 CONCACAF Championship and later was a key player in the side’s run to the quarters at the 2019 U20 World Cup. The winger, who scored on his senior debut against Costa Rica in February, is capable of playing on either the right or left and can both swing in a cross and strike a shot from distance.
Gianluca Busio, MF, Sporting Kansas City (18) — One of the youngest players on this list, Busio, outside of Caden Clark (see further below), might be the furthest away from making an impact with the senior national team. (He is also eligible to represent Italy should he choose.) That said, the Sporting Kansas City man, who at the age of just 16 became the third-youngest player to play in MLS, is oozing with potential.
The attacking midfielder’s best attributes are his passing and control, as Busio is very good with the ball in tight areas and generally keeps the play moving. He’s attracting interest from clubs in Europe with Man United, Juventus, Inter, and Fiorentina among them.
Jeremy Ebobisse, FW, Portland Timbers, (23) — It took a little bit of time but midway through last season, it finally “clicked” for Jeremy Ebobisse. A strong finish to the 2019 campaign and a great start to 2020 — he made the MLS is Back Tournament Best XI — has Ebobisse firmly in the U.S. striker picture.
Not a player that jumps off the screen in the traditional sense, Ebobisse does a lot of the small things well: work rate, movement, passing. He’s scoring more goals of late — 20 in his last 56 games — and while he isn’t necessarily flashy, he’s well-rounded and should have a role to play with the national team.
Alex Mendez, MF, Jong Ajax (20) — The ultimate flair player, Mendez has vision, a sweet left-foot, is full of tricks and can be extremely effective from set pieces. While Mendez is always capable of producing the spectacular, so far he has found the European game a difficult adjustment. The player of the tournament at the 2018 CONCACAF U20 Championship with eight goals and six assists, Mendez’s long-term ceiling will likely come down to how willing and committed he is to taking the necessary next steps.
Caden Clark, MF, New York Red Bulls (17) — A virtual unknown even a month ago, Clark has made a blistering start to his MLS career with the New York Red Bulls. With goals in his first two appearances, including this golazo against Toronto FC, Clark is the latest youngster tipped for a big move to Europe. While Clark’s rise has seemed meteoric, he has been a top talent for some time now, drawing interest from Barcelona at 13, moving to their U.S. academy in Arizona at 14, and touring and trialing with Wolfsburg and RB Leipzig last summer.