Apr 13, 2019; Frisco, TX, USA; FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal (19) in action during the game between the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
This has been a landmark year in young domestic players getting meaningful minutes in Major League Soccer. FC Dallas is playing like it’s one of the best teams in the West and is likely to start three American teenagers.
Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union have set the stage in showing how academy talent can be cornerstone pieces on very good teams. Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies showed the pathway for academy products to get to Europe, and how clubs can profit.
This has led to almost all MLS clubs taking their academies seriously. It’s a possible source of talent and assets, and in a league where a salary cap looms, it is a possible competitive advantage. This also means evaluating and projecting homegrown prospects is becoming more and more important.
Investing too long on a prospect who’s never going to make it means wasting time, resources and a roster spot. Let a prospect go, and you’ve potentially lost out on a few years of All-Star production at pennies on the dollar and a hefty transfer fee. This is the dilemma that weighs on each MLS general manager.
A year ago I traded emails with Adam Belz from the Scuffed podcast — a top source for fans looking for coverage on young American starlets — about the top 10 MLS prospects in 2018 (full article here). I went back to the expert to figure out what changed and what the new list looks like for 2019.
(Note: The following email back and forth was edited for readability).
Tutul Rahman: Thanks again for jumping into Year 2 grading the MLS trade rankings for Homegrown prospects. Your list last year got a lot of plaudits, and the 2019 season has arguably the best-ever MLS Homegrown players, starting with the Luchi [Gonzalez] revolution at FC Dallas.
This leads me to my first question. What are your reflections on the top-10 prospects list from last year? Were there any obvious misses or things that have changed in the valuations over the past year?
For memories sake, here’s where we netted out last year. Also, as a reminder, in order to make this list, the player had to sign with an MLS club or its USL side and have less than 400 MLS minutes as of April of that year.
Top MLS Homegrown Prospects of 2018
Tier 1 (Would trade an MLS MVP candidate to get this player) — None
Tier 2 (Would trade an MLS All-Star to get this player) — None
Tier 3 (Would trade very good, young player not quite All-Star level yet, i.e. Jordan Morris)
1. Efrain Alvarez
2. Andrew Carleton
Tier 4 (Would trade a good starting-caliber player, i.e. Michael Barrios)
3. George Bello
4. Jaylin Lindsey
Tier 5 (Would trade MLS journeyman and allocation money to get this player)
5. Wan Kuzain
6. Chris Goslin
7. Ben Mines
8. Matt Real
9. Paxton Pomykal
10. Gianluca Busio
Adam Belz: My oh my, how quickly things change. Here’s my first blush adjustment. I’ve added a few names here and added another tier.
Tier 1 — No Homegrown is at this level yet
Tier 2 (would trade an All-Star)
1. Paxton Pomykal – It’s still early, but he’s already the key player for a winning FC Dallas side and already a valuable transfer target. If he continues to progress and has a good showing at the U-20 World Cup, I don’t think a $5 million transfer is out of the question. He’s certainly as valuable to his team as [Darlington] Nagbe is to his.
Tier 3 (would trade a good, young player with potential)
2. Efrain Alvarez — Easily the most talented teenager in MLS. If he can get match fit and regularly get on the field for the LA Galaxy, he could be something special. Only 16, so he has plenty of time.
Tier 4 (would trade a good starter)
3. James Sands — A solid starting CDM for NYCFC through four matches. An asset defensively and not a liability in possession at the age of 18. Seems to have the right mentality.
4. Brenden Aaronson — A competent teenage midfielder for a solid Philadelphia side. Not flashy, but already shown he’s elegant and reliable in possession.
5. George Bello — The potential is there for the young Atlanta left back. Hasn’t been able to stay consistently healthy.
6. Gianluca Busio — He’s a steady bench performer for SKC, one of the league’s best teams, at the age of 16.
7. Daniel Leyva — He hasn’t had his MLS debut yet, but he’s the cream of the academy crop in Seattle, he can run the midfield and he’s only 15. Certainly one of the top-5 prospects in America who hasn’t played first-team minutes yet. Trajectory and potential are good enough to get an MLS starter in exchange
8. Ricardo Pepi — He’s on a USL contract for North Texas, the FC Dallas reserve squad, scored a hat trick in his USL League One debut and has all the tools of a top-end No. 9. Great passer, strong on the ball, nose for goal, great workrate. Trajectory and potential are good enough to get an MLS starter in exchange.
Tier 5 (would trade a journeyman or allocation money)
9. Jaylin Lindsey — He’s a versatile, solid defender. Not likely to be a starting-caliber player soon.
10. Andrew Carleton — He’s had problems off the field and he’s been underwhelming on the field for long enough that his trade value has to be considered on the wane. Could turn it around, but he needs a positive year for Atlanta and I can’t see many GMs taking a flyer on him for anything more than an MLS journeyman.
- Wan Kuzain — At age 20, he’s been confined to USL.
- Ben Mines — Mostly confined to the bench in USL to start this season.
- Matt Real — Solid USL performer, but at “Play Your Kids” Philly he still isn’t breaking into the first team and he’s almost 20.
- Chris Goslin — Seemed to regress in 2018 and has been injured to start 2019.
TR: Nice! You beat me to the punch to the next question and re-ranking them. It seems to me, prospects at this age can be volatile in their evaluation and hence trade value. For the ones who haven’t cracked real MLS minutes and haven’t dominated USL, all we really have to go by is youth national team play.
Pomykal finished last year sort of where Carleton is now, and it took a coach to play him and put him in a position to succeed where he’s gone from a “maybe-bust” to “All-Star” in five games.
It really nods to: If you’re a GM, you have to get as many good potential homegrowns as possible, because evaluations can fluctuate so much at this point.
With those assumptions, are there any additions you want to add in to make a top-10 of those remaining? Off the top of my head, I’m curious if your evaluations on Joe Scally, Julian Araujo, Gilbert Fuentes, Jack de Vries, Justin Rennicks, Ayo Akinola, Brandon Servania, Ethan Zubak or Anthony Fontana warrant being in the new top 10.
AB: I think Araujo is a top-level prospect. Servania and Scally may be, but I’m not sure, and Fuentes has potential but a long way to go. I’m not bullish on the others (though I have to admit I haven’t seen Jack de Vries play). I don’t think any of these players rises above Tier 5 at this point, except maybe Araujo and Akinola.
Here’s how I’d do the rankings today. Basically, my mind changes a little bit every week, so I’ve moved Araujo up (give him three more starts in MLS and he’s probably joining Pomykal in Tier 2. He’s been a revelation the last two weeks) and Busio down (just don’t see it with Gianluca yet):
Final 2019 MLS Top 10 Prospects
(less than 400 MLS minutes as of Apr 1, 2019)
No Homegrown is at this level yet.
1) Paxton Pomykal
2) Julian Araujo
3) Efra Alvarez
4) James Sands
5) Brenden Aaronson
6) George Bello
7) Daniel Leyva
8) Ricardo Pepi
9) Gianluca Busio
10) Jaylin Lindsey
TR: Nice! You can already see many of these players have been integral parts of their squads and will be ineligible for next year’s list, such as Pomykal, Araujo, Aaronson and Busio.
Last question for you: There’s been quite a few big-name academy prospects who have skipped signing with MLS clubs and go straight to U-19 sides in Europe. This includes Alex Mendez, Uly Llanez, Sebastian Soto, Richie Ledezma, Chris Gloster and Taylor Booth.
That’s quite the list of talent MLS helped develop but didn’t really get to reap the benefits for. I’m curious, which of those prospects would’ve made this list if they signed with MLS instead and at which tier? It would give a good sense of the level of assets those teams lost for free.
AB: I’d put Richie Ledezma in Tier 2. I realize the reader will have to take that on faith since he’s not played a single first-team minute, but I do think he’s polished and explosive enough to have an immediate impact in an MLS midfield.
I’d have Alex Mendez in Tier 3, with Soto and Gloster in Tier 4. Booth, I’m a little less familiar with, but he’d probably go in Tier 4 too.
TR: It’s easy to have 20/20 vision when watching or covering sports. FC Dallas losing Weston McKennie for free easily looks like a large miss now. But it’s much more difficult to get into a GMs shoes and try to project out.
FC Dallas’s patience and faith in Pomykal played out to the point where he’s probably the top prospect in MLS today. He’s a Tier 2 prospect, which makes him worth around $750,000 to $1 million in allocation money on the MLS trade market. This is a true competitive advantage in a salary-capped league like MLS.
With all of the upside, there are plenty of risk. Andrew Carleton went from a top-2 prospect to not even being in the top-10 in a year. Will Atlanta be able to get the potential value out of Carleton? Or will it never fully materialize?
All we know now is that valuations of prospects change almost weekly, and tracking the progress of homegrown talent is one of the most exciting parts of the league.