Until recently, Major League Soccer, or the MLS, had been regarded as a “retirement league” by many. Many teams focused on bringing in aging European stars – Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, David Villa, and probably some other guys who haven’t played for New York City FC – whilst not exactly developing young talent. Just a few years ago, Jozy Altidore’s sale from the New York Red Bulls to Villarreal (where he played 22 games in three years) was still the record departure in the MLS.
However, a lot has changed since those days. The MLS has become a league that instead develops top talent, with several notable players now across the globe. Atlanta United have used the South American market, selling Paraguay’s Miguel Almirón and Argentina’s Gonzalo Martinez for profits. However, many teams like FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union have used their own academies. Brenden Aaronson and Ricardo Pepi have netted huge profits after being sold.
With all this talent coming in, many people are wondering who the next big thing could be. With the MLS season just now beginning, here’s the most valuable starting eleven in the MLS under the age of 23.
Note: This is not my personal opinion on who the best players are, it is based off the highest valued players on Transfermarkt.us. For those of you not familiar with the website, it assigns values to players, which are estimates of what they could be sold for.
GK David Ochoa, Real Salt Lake City, $880k: No, he’s not related to Guillermo: David Ochoa broke through at Real Salt Lake’s reserve team at the age of 18, becoming the second youngest goalkeeper ever in the USL. This did not go unnoticed: Ochoa went on trial at Manchester United, before surprisingly deciding to stay. It paid off: he became Real Salt Lake’s starting goalkeeper by 2021, and has become one of the league’s top goalkeepers. Somewhat of a controversial figure, Ochoa, now 21, has become famous for his antics and trash talk—he’s essentially the Emiliano Martinez of the MLS—and has generated more controversy after switching from the US national team to rivals Mexico.
LB Diego Palacios, LAFC, $3.85 million: At the age of 22, Palacios has already had a very accomplished career—he’s played on three different continents, in the Copa America with Ecuador, and played in the CONCACAF Champions League with LAFC, and won the Supporters’ Shield whilst in LA. Palacios also is a perfect sign of the MLS’s intent: in 2019, he turned down Barcelona (yes, the Spanish one) to sign with Los Angeles. Hey, at least he played in the Champions League.
CB Christian Makoun, Charlotte FC, $1.65 million: Makoun is another 22-year old who’s already an MLS veteran: he moved to expansion side Inter Miami CF from Zamora FC in Venezuela off the back of a loan spell at Juventus B, the reserve side of the Italian giants. Makoun ended up as one of the better defenders on a quite frankly tragic Inter Miami team, and finds himself on another expansion team this season: Charlotte FC. The Venezuelan awaits a first senior international cap, but reached the final of the U20 World Cup.
CB Aboubacar Keita, Colorado Rapids, $1.1 million: Unfortunately for Keita, his debut season with Colorado will be a short one: he underwent surgery on his right knee due to a torn ACL which has ruled him out for the season. The 21-year old made his debut for Columbus in 2019, winning the MLS Cup and Campeones Cup before joining Colorado this season. Keita appeared at the U20 World Cup with the US in 2019, but has yet to make a senior appearance and as eligible to appear for Guinea.
RB Julián Araujo, LA Galaxy, $4.95 million: Araujo joined the growing list of Americans switching nationalities, choosing Mexico (similar to David Ochoa) despite having made 23 youth appearances and one senior appearance for the US—the senior appearance was a friendly against El Salvador. Araujo is an example of the growing investment in American soccer: he featured for Barcelona’s American Academy before joining LA. The 20-year old defender has received interest from overseas, and should become the Galaxy’s first major export.
CM Thiago Almada, Atlanta United, $22 million: Long hyped for big things, 20-year old Almada became the MLS’s record signing when Atlanta purchased him this February for $16 million. The midfielder made the Guardian’s list of the top 60 talents at the age of 17, alongside Rodrygo, Billy Gilmour, and Takefusa Kubo among others. Linked with Manchester United and Marseille and christened “the New Messi,” Almada has impressed at youth level for Argentina and has even played at South America’s premier competition, the Copa Libertadores.
CM Santiago Sosa, Atlanta United, $6.6 million: Joining his Argentina and Atlanta United teammate Almada is Santiago Sosa, a 22-year old midfielder purchased from River Plate, one of Argentina and South America’s most successful sides. Sosa’s played in various positions for Atlanta, but has featured mainly as a defensive midfielder and has been one of the MLS’s top passing midfielders.
CM Efraín Álvarez, LA Galaxy, $6.6 million: The third player in this eleven who switched from USA to Mexico, 19-year old Álvarez is a direct graduate from the LA Galaxy academy and has long been hyped as the team’s future star. He made his debut for LA Galaxy II in the USL at the age of 15, making him the league’s youngest ever player, a record now held by Rea Monarch’s Axel Kei. If that doesn’t say enough, Zlatan Ibrahimovic called him the biggest talent in the MLS. The same Zlatan who threatened to break Ajax Golden Boy Rafael van der Vaart’s legs. Zlatan doesn’t exactly hand out compliments.
LW Alan Velasco, FC Dallas, $13.2 million: A side often criticized for not reinvesting, FC Dallas finally spent some money this offseason after purchasing 19-year old Argentine Alan Velasco from Independiente: the same team where Diego Forlán, Sergio Agüero, and Nicolás Tagliafico played. Velasco played a whopping 69 games whilst at Independiente, getting 18 goal contributions. Velasco received interest from France and England, but ultimately ended up in Dallas in a move the club hope will make them challengers in the MLS.
ST Brenner, FC Cincinnati, $7.7 million: Spare a thought for 22-year old Brenner, formerly one of Brazil’s top prospects at striker. Now he plays for FC Cincinnati—the worst team in the MLS, three years running. They’ve only existed for three years. In his debut season last year, Brenner bagged eight goals in 33 games—not bad for a team that only scored 37 times.
RW Brian Rodríguez, LAFC, $5.5 million: The second LAFC player on this list is 21-year old club record signing Brian Rodríguez, back from a loan at Spanish side UD Almería. Rodríguez was signed from Uruguayan giants Peñarol for $11.5 million back in 2019 and quickly became an important player at the club, before demanding a transfer overseas. He got one, being loaned out to Almería, where he failed to score and was dropped from the squad during promotion playoffs. His value has been halved since that move, but he has impressed since rejoining LAFC.
Since market values are ever-changing, in a few weeks this list will likely look very different. Chicago’s goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina will likely have his value raised significantly and takeover David Ochoa’s spot, having become a first-team player at the age of 17 and keeping three shutouts in the team’s opening three games, whilst solid seasons could see the likes of San Jose’s Cade Cowell and Philadelphia’s Paxten Aaronson join him in this lineup. For now, however, this is how these prospects look in the opening weeks of the MLS season.
Which MLS player do you think will increase significantly in value this year? Let me know in the comments!
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