The MLS season starts this weekend. Ever since the U.S. Men failed to qualify for the World Cup, everything surrounding the game in the United States has been called into question. We still don’t have Pro/Rel, but there is plenty of talent emerging from development academies around the country. Below, we select our starting eleven from the growing pool of bright young talent entering the 2018/19 season on (mostly) fresh Homegrown Player contracts.
American fans love to see American players do well. The best thing to see in MLS is young Americans getting quality minutes and doing well. MLS understands this, and has given clubs an incentive to produce homegrown players at the highest level. The homegrown player rule paves the way for teams to sign local players who have played in their youth academy system. This is an attractive prospect for players, clubs, and fans. Fans want to see their local boys stay local, and homegrown contracts do not count against the MLS salary cap; clubs save money by staying with their homegrown talent, players are given a direct pathway to the first team, and fans have an investment in the player pool.
The Homegrown Player mechanism began in 2008. Prior to the creation of the rule, all players had to be drafted through the MLS SuperDraft. Homegrown players can be any nationality as long as they have played in the academy system and have lived in the local area of their respective club for at least one year. Currently, there are 106 players with homegrown contracts in the league, mostly signed within the past 3 seasons.
The list compiled below includes some of the best and brightest the league has to offer at a young age; none of these players can legally purchase alcohol in the U.S. (except for Justen Glad, Happy 21st Justen!). It can be hard for young players to find meaningful playing time at the professional level, but with more young players getting experience at the international level – with youth national teams and the full team – managers should consider the benefits of working with young local talent. It would be nice to hear more “He’s one of our own” chants in MLS stadiums.
Ayo Akinola | Toronto FC | 18 years old | Forward/Wing | Hometown: Brampton, Ontario
“Ayo is the third product of the full player pathway designed at Toronto FC, playing within our academy to playing for TFC II and now the first team...Ayo is a versatile player that can play as a number nine or out wide. For a player at such a young age, he has a lot of physical attributes that include pace and strength as well as technical ability."
- Toronto FC Sr. Vice President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko
Ayo Akinola signed for TFC in December 2017, coming off a big U17 World Cup with the US, where he scored one goal and played very well on the wing. Before signing with Toronto, Akinola had a trial at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in November. Ayo has the ability to play out on the wings or play centrally as a striker. US fans should be excited to see Ayo get signed, but it is unlikely that he will see much, if any, playing time with the TFC first team. It is more likely that he will be a starter at TFCII this season, which will bring a wealth of experience and game time for him to develop this coming season. With all TFCII games being streamed on YouTube, fans should tune in to watch Akinola develop into a professional this coming season.
Alphonso Davies | Vancouver Whitecaps | 17 years old | Winger | Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta | Birthplace: Buduburam, Ghana
The Whitecaps have one of the best young players in the league, if not the best. Davies could be the best product to ever come out of Canada, already having scored 3 goals in 6 caps for the full men’s national team. Davies became the first player born in the 2000’s to play a match in MLS in July 2016, and the third youngest MLS player ever. Davies is fast, very fast; there are videos of him out running whole teams and running the length of the field to score. Davies has played in MLS, the Canadian Championships, the CONCACAF Champions League, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He has scored in 4 of those 5 competitions. Davies is the kind of player that has attracted lots of attention from European clubs, including Manchester United. For now, Alphonso Davies is playing in MLS, and this season could be his breakout year, already having 34 MLS appearances, he will look to show the league why Vancouver is a force. Surprisingly, Davies does not yet have a league goal, but it does not appear that he will have that hanging over his head much longer.
Andrew Carleton | Atlanta United | 17 years old | Winger | Hometown: Powder Springs, Georgia
Most American soccer fans at this point know who Andrew Carleton is, and if you have not heard of him yet, his YouTube highlight reel is worth a watch. Carleton is a young American winger who has been dubbed the “MLS Pulisic” by many sources. He has the ability to run at defenses with pace and vision, and can put the ball into the net well too. This past season, much like many other players on this list, Andrew was with the U17 national team and did not get many opportunities with Atlanta United. He made his first appearance in May of 2017, getting 4 minutes against Houston. If this article had been written a few weeks prior, it might be saying that Carleton will be spending his whole season at Atlanta United II, where he would be getting more playing time and experience. However, Carleton had a preseason with Atlanta that many people said was one of the best they have seen. It is currently unclear what Tata Martino will choose to do with Carleton, but if he can earn those highly valued minutes in MLS this season it would go a long way for his long-term trajectory. The first few weeks of the season will be crucial to see where Carleton will spend his season.
Isaac Angking | New England Revolution | 18 years old | Midfielder | Hometown: Providence, RI
“If he really applies himself, there’s no telling how good he could become.”
- New England Revolution Head Coach, Brad Friedel
Angking signed with New England just after the new year, and joined the first team right away. The midfielder from Providence, RI is the second youngest homegrown player in New England, after Diego Fagundez. Angking has spent a lot of time with US youth national teams, including the U17 residency program in Florida, where he played with Josh Sargent and Ayo Akinola. Angking will be fighting for first team minutes this season, and will try and impress new head coach Brad Fridel, who will look to improve over the dismal season they had last year. Isaac will bring youth and excitement to a team that should be better than they are. This will be a year where fans can see Isaac fight for minutes, pushing himself to be a better player and helping New England get out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Eryk Williamson | Portland Timbers | 20 years old | Midfielder | Birthplace: Alexandria, VA
Williamson is an interesting player, in that he has never played for the Timbers academy, but is still a homegrown player. Eryk played for the DC United academy before joining the University of Maryland, College Park to play college soccer for 3 seasons. In 58 games in 3 seasons, he scored 14 goals and assisted 13 more, leading the Terps to great regular season performances, which unfortunately never translated to good play in the NCAA tournament. Williamson played on the US U20 National Team at the U20 CONCACAF qualification and U20 world cup this past season, where he had a goal and 2 assists in 12 appearances. It is unclear what Eryk’s best position on the field is, having played on the wing, up front at striker, and as a center midfielder in various positions in the past year alone. Portland traded for Williamson’s rights from DC United at the end of January, and he will be able to start fresh on a new team, with a new coach to impress. Fans are hopeful that Williamson will find a position and stick to it, because once he does, it is believed he can flourish at it.
Chris Durkin | DC United | 18 years old | Midfielder/Defender | Hometown: Glenn Allen, Virginia
"I think guys like Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic have set a standard, and I think it's a standard I can achieve."
- Chris Durkin
Chris Durkin is a player who many have said is one of, if not the best, player to come out of the US U17 National Team from the 2017 World Cup. That is high praise, considering players like Carleton, Josh Sargent and Tim Weah were on that team as well. Durkin brings strength and a high soccer IQ to defensive midfield, and that is something that takes a lot of time to develop. Durkin has been around the first team for DC United in the past, but this season will be the first time he will be with the team for the full year. United made many central midfield signings over the break, and some think that will be a large disadvantage to Durkin. With only 2 holding midfielders currently on the roster though, Durkin has an opportunity to show why he belongs on the field. Durkin made his professional debut against West Bromwich Albion in 2015 and played against Swansea City this past year as well during both teams’ American tour games against the Richmond Kickers of USL. Fans can look forward to Durkin getting minutes this season, which will include his MLS debut as well.
Reggie Cannon | FC Dallas | 19 years old | Defender/Right Back | Hometown: Grapevine, TX
One of the many homegrown players from FC Dallas, Reggie Cannon will be standing out from the rest this coming season. Cannon signed for FCD in December of 2016, and made his professional debut in the US Open Cup in June of 2017. Much like Carleton, it was not clear if he would be seeing many minutes for the club this season, but after preseason it has become clear that this year fans will be seeing more Reggie Cannon at the right back position than expected. Cannon started in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 first leg against Tauro FC, where he played well, overlapping down the right flank and making trouble for the opposing defense. This will be Cannon’s first full season with the first team and he is sure to get minutes for a strong Dallas team looking to avenge last season’s dismal record. American fans will have a lot to be excited about watching Cannon play this coming season.
Marco Farfan | Portland Timbers | 19 years old | Left Back/Defender | Hometown: Gresham, OR
The first homegrown player to play for Portland, and the youngest player to ever start a game for the Timbers, Marco Farfan is an exciting player with a lot of talent. Farfan has played left back for both the first team and Timbers 2, where he was named one of the top 20 players under 20 in the USL in his one season with the team. Marco moved up to the first team in 2017, playing in 6 games and getting 403 minutes total. For an 18-year-old in a Portland team that has high expectations in the West, it was a good start to the season. He was later loaned back to Timbers 2 where he played in 9 more games that season. Farfan will likely not be the starting left back for Portland this season, but fans can expect good minutes for him this season, especially if the Timbers need depth in defense. This experience will go a long way in Marco’s development as a fullback, a position that the US seems to not develop players well in.
James Sands | New York City FC | 17 years old | Defender | Birthplace: Rye, New York
James Sands is a defender who could develop into a Matt Besler-type player in time. Sands signed his homegrown deal with NYCFC in June of 2017, becoming their first homegrown signing ever. He played one game last season, subbing in for Pirlo in September of that season. Sands spent much of his time away from NYCFC as he was training with the US U17 National Team in preparation for the U17 World Cup. Sands was the only out and out center back included on the World Cup roster, and he played every game for the U17s, anchoring a back line that only allowed 3 goals in the group stages, and had 3 clean sheets in 5 games. Sands has been included in preseason squads with New York City and has been getting playing time in the games as well. It would appear that he will be with Patrick Vieira’s team this season, but it is unlikely that he will start many games. Minutes may be sparse, but James Sands will be well worth watching this season as he gains experience to become a top defender.
Justen Glad | Real Salt Lake | 21 years old | Defender | Hometown: Tucson, AZ
"Justen has such an amazing head on his shoulders...He is wise beyond his years and I really mean that. On the field with the ball at his feet and playing, he is to me at his age the best center back in this country."
- RSL Head Coach, Mike Petke
RSL have some of the best young Americans in the league getting consistent minutes right now. Justen Glad is no exception, having racked up 53 appearances for RSL in 3 years at center back. Glad started 18 games last season, missing some time because of the U20 World Cup that took place in May. Glad earned a call-up to the USMNT January Camp in 2018, but still hasn’t earned his first cap yet. As a 19-year-old, Justen started 27 games for RSL, scoring 2 goals and assisting one as well. Glad plays solid at the back, and although he is one of the oldest players on this list, he is a young player who is gaining large amounts of experience playing in MLS. If you get the chance to see Glad play, he is well worth the time.
JT Marcinkowski | San Jose Earthquakes | 20 years old | Goalkeeper | Hometown: Alamo, CA
Marcinkowski is a brand new homegrown player, having signed for San Jose in December. JT leaves Georgetown University, where he played in 56 games over 3 years, holding a 0.84 goals against average in the process. Marcinkowski is the 3rd homegrown signing for San Jose, and will be competing for minutes this coming season. It is unclear currently if he will be staying with San Jose or moving on loan to their USL affiliate in Reno. He played a preseason game with Reno against Seattle, and held a shutout against the MLS side. While in college, Marcinkowski played for the US U20 team that played in the U20 World Cup. He did not see the field, however, and was the backup to Jonathan Klinsmann, who is currently playing for Hertha Berlin in Germany. If loaned to Reno in USL, it is likely that Marcinkowski will be the number 1 keeper, and will be worth watching. Getting quality minutes early in his career will go a long way towards Marcinkowski reaching his full potential.
These 11 players are just a small sample of the 100+ homegrown players in MLS this season, and more could still be signed. While it is a long season, and it is unlikely that all these players will be starting every single game, it will be exciting to watch these young men fight for minutes and develop as professional players with their respective teams.
Author: Sam Nelson