The summer transfer window was another remarkable period of change for Major League Soccer.
MLS has long searched for more relevance on the global stage and now, it’s arguably closer to achieving that aim than ever before.
This summer alone, we saw young American midfielders Tanner Tessmann and Gianluca Busio join Italian Serie A side Venezia alongside Philadelphia Union youngster Jack de Vries on loan. USMNT left-back Sam Vines also moved to Antwerp, and we mustn’t forget Caden Clark’s pre-agreed move to German giants RB Leipzig.
There’s no doubting this developing pipeline of American talent will have a profound effect on the national team in years to come. With that in mind, who are the most likely candidates to follow in the footsteps of Busio, Tessmann and Co over the next 12 months? Let’s take a look at eight of them.
Though this list is presented in no particular order, it makes sense to start with the player who came closest to sealing a move to Europe without actually doing so.
90min confirmed in August that Benfica were the Portuguese club tracking Colorado Rapids midfielder Cole Bassett and sources have revealed that the 20-year-old would have joined on a loan-to-buy deal, starting out in Benfica’s ‘B’ team.
But instead, Bassett rejected the chance to move to Lisbon, with first-team opportunities the ‘deciding factor’.
“[Benfica] produces players,” Bassett said . “And to be fair, most of them went through Benfica B and then into the first team. And I think it was put out there that’s probably where I would have started games (on the B-team) and then train with the first team. But that was kind of a deciding factor for me. If it was first team, I think it would have probably been a no-brainer for me.”
Bassett is an immensely talented midfielder who is nowhere near hitting his ceiling just yet, so don’t expect the interest around him to die down any time soon.
At 24 years old, Miles Robinson isn’t exactly a spring chicken, but he’s absolutely a late bloomer. And if we’re being honest, he’s the best defensive centre-back in MLS right now.
Robinson’s pace and intelligence make him the perfect failsafe at the back, shutting down counter-attacks practically on his own as his teammates rampage forward. He’s strong in the air, which is obviously useful at both ends of the pitch, and incredibly consistent regardless of whether his side is struggling or excelling.
And to those who say he can’t play, check his pass to set up Marcelino Moreno against Nashville earlier this season (below). This is not a fluke.
Though he’s a little older than others who’ve left MLS, Robinson has all the ingredients to be a top-class centre-back in a number of European leagues.
When Ricardo Pepi became FC Dallas’ youngest-ever playoff goalscorer against the Portland Timbers last season, we should have known we were witnessing something special.
This season, still at the age of just 18, the young striker has exploded, netting 11 goals across the first half of the campaign. In fact, he’s already fourth on the all-time list of teenage goalscorers in MLS history, while only Diego Fagundez has netted more goals in a single MLS season before the age of 20, hitting 13 for the Revs back in 2013. Pepi will likely be the holder of that record within the next couple of months.
Those around Pepi have liked him to Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland, and when you see the nature of his goals, it’s easy to see why: intelligent movement, pace and machine-like ruthlessness.
“I’ve talked to people, I’ve talked to Luchi [Gonzalez], and they always say that I play a similar style to Lewandowski or even Erling Haaland, and I feel like those are two of the players that I look at as my game being similar to,” Pepi said of the comparison.
“I’m always trying to be close to them and always learning things from them, watching film and just trying to play like them.”
Good strikers are a dime a dozen and given the relatively cheap asking prices of MLS clubs, Pepi – who recently pledged himself to the USMNT – will be in high demand soon enough.
Though he was NYCFC’s first-ever homegrown player, James Sands is yet to get his big move, with a couple of niggling injuries doing their bit to slow his development.
But the 21-year-old was excellent at the heart of the US defence as Gregg Berhalter’s young side won the Gold Cup this summer, beating a strong Mexico team in the final, no less. That Sands looked so comfortable at centre-back is even more impressive when remembering he’s nominally a midfielder.
Sands can pass, he can tackle and he’s positionally aware. A strong end to the season with this talented NYCFC group could open some doors for him.
With almost 50 games under his belt at senior club level and three USMNT caps – including one in the Gold Cup final – it’s easy to forget George Bello is still only 19.
At times, he does frustrate in a way only young players can, driving the ball into some great positions before ultimately making the wrong decision.
But Bello’s technique is sound and the work he’s put into improving the defensive side of his game has started paying dividends this season. Creases in the final third will be ironed out with experience and practice.
As recently as July, clubs from England, Turkey and Belgium were reportedly tracking Bello. It’s hard to see him remaining in MLS beyond the end of the current season.
Even more so than Robinson, 27-year-old Matt Turner is a very late bloomer. In fact, he wasn’t even picked in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft and only joined the New England Revolution in March 2016 after a trial aged 21.
But he’s certainly been making up for lost time. This season alone, he ranks third in MLS for saves per 90 minutes (3.56) while only Andre Blake and JT Marcinkowski rank above him in American Soccer Analysis‘ ‘Goals Added’ metric, which calculates how much a player’s individual actions changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding goals.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying Turner is an extremely capable, ready-made goalkeeper. He’s got international tournament experience as well as trophy-winning know-how, and he looks set to lead the Revs to this season’s Supporters’ Shield if not more.
Having played eight games on loan at Bayern Munich II in the German third-tier earlier this year, it’s safe to say Justin Che’s talent has already been recognised.
According to reports, Bayern are ready to come back to the table with a permanent bid, while four other European clubs are keeping tabs on the youngster.
At just 17, Che is understandably raw. But he already possesses all the ball-playing abilities that hallmark the modern centre-back role, while he’s good at defending his own box and has a great physical profile.
With two goals and three assists in his first three games, Cade Cowell began the 2021 season like a house on fire. He’s since cooled down, managing just two goals and an assist, but patchy form is to be expected at 17 years old.
Of course, Cowell doesn’t look 17 with a physical profile way beyond his years. He also demands standards of himself not often seen in such a young player.
“I would say I’m doing well but I’m not satisfied,” the United States youth international said in August. “I feel I could do a lot more; have more goals, have more assists, have better stats. But I’m not doing bad also. I’m at a medium level. I’m hoping to finish the season a lot better.”
Cowell was linked to Barcelona in May and although he’s not ready for such a big leap in quality, it’s easy to see why clubs like that are watching, given his fiendishly good ability on the ball.
Cowell will be 18 before the 2022 MLS season starts, and we’ve seen them leave younger than that in recent windows.
Honourable mentions: Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Griffin Yow (DC United), DeJuane Jones (New England Revolution), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Cameron Dunbar (LA Galaxy), Moses Nyeman (DC United), Frankie Amaya (New York Red Bulls), Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United), Kevin Paredes (DC United)