In 2019, a talented 18-year old named Brenden Aaronson scored on his debut for MLS side Philadelphia Union. The Union’s recent star signing, Marco Fabián, had been sent off the match before, leaving the homegrown – a term MLS clubs use for academy players – as the club’s best option. Over the next few years, one of those players would leave as a forgotten man, whereas the other would leave a legend and later play on the world’s biggest stage. Guess which is which.
Aaronson scored on his debut, and continued to cement his status as one of the best prospects in the United States. In 2020, I highlighted him as a player to look out for in upcoming years. A few months after that post, Aaronson signed with Salzburg, where he has continued to shine. His recent move to Leeds comes as a surprise to few that have watched the talented American.
As I’ve stated many times on this site before, the MLS has arrived on the global stage. The Aaronson sale might not have come directly from an MLS team, but it’s important to remember that he was an MLS player until 2021. A large percentage of his sale is also going to the Philadelphia Union, key for a league – and a team – that continues to invest.
Aaronson may have been one of the first MLS talents to succeed in Europe, but he definitely won’t be the last. Here are five MLS stars that I think have Premier League potential.
GK Gabriel Slonina, 18, Chicago Fire
A player who has received a lot of attention lately, Slonina might not have to wait long at all. The Polish-American goalkeeper is allegedly a target of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea, as well as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
It’s not hard to see why: Slonina made his debut last season at age 17, and was thrown right into the deep (dish) end. Chicago were up against New York City FC, who would later win the MLS Cup. The young goalkeeper kept a clean sheet and has continued to rise since then. This season, he has five clean sheets – more than all but four MLS goalkeepers. He has hit a rough patch of form, but Chicago have struggled this season so it’s not entirely on him.
Slonina is obviously still developing and needs game time, but a move to Europe is imminent. Unfortunately for Chicago, they might need to cash in on Slonina sooner rather than later, with the club joint-bottom of the MLS. They’d do well to put a sell-on clause in the eventual sale.
RB Nathan Harriel, 21, Philadelphia Union
Brenden Aaronson’s old team Philadelphia is enjoying a fine season, currently first in the MLS. A huge part of this is their brilliant backline: I could talk all day about Andre Blake, Kai Wagner (possibly on his way to England soon, but a bit old to be considered a prospect ), Jakob Glesnes, and Jack Elliott. None of them have been as important as Nathan Harriel, though.
The Union aren’t exactly weak at right back: the club’s starter is Cameroon international Olivier Mbaizo. Well, the club’s starter was Mbaizo. Harriel overtook Mbaizo in the second week of the season and has not looked back, becoming one of the MLS’s top defenders this year.
Harriel’s statistics really stand out: he’s top ten in the league in blocks, tackles, pressures in the defensive third, and interceptions per fbref.com. He might not be as glamorous as big-name attackers, but it’s rare to get such consistent defending.
CAM Thiago Almada, 21, Atlanta United
Of course, big-name attackers are talented too. Eyebrows were raised when Argentinian youth international Thiago Almada, long subject to interest from Premier League and La Liga clubs, moved to the US for an MLS record fee. The move was also intriguing from Atlanta’s side, as they had whiffed on high-profile Argentines before.
However, few doubts remain now. Almada has hit the ground running, already with five goal contributions since joining in February. That’s slightly over 25% of Atlanta’s total haul this season. He’s gotten recognition for his progressive play style and talent: he’s made the MLS Team of the Week two weeks in a row.
If he continues with this form, it’s only a matter of time before he moves overseas. Both Manchester sides reportedly showed interest in the past, as have Liverpool. However, Almada’s price tag could delay a potential move.
LW Talles Magno, 19, New York City FC
Perhaps no team has followed the MLS’s swing in identity more than New York City FC. Not long ago, they employed 30+ year olds David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo. Last season, they won their first trophy with significantly younger players. The club’s second most expensive signing Talles Magno might not have played a huge role last year, but this year he certainly has.
The versatile Brazilian forward has seven goal contributions in the MLS this season, with a further three in the CONCACAF Champions League. Only three players finished the CONCACAF Champions League with more goals than Magno, while only six have more assists in the MLS. Magno also has the league’s third-most goal-creating actions per 90 minutes.
Magno was linked with Liverpool not too long ago, but a Manchester City move would not be completely out of the question if his form continues to improve. New York City and Manchester City share the same owners, which explains NY’s prior loan signings of Angeliño and Yangel Herrera. The only players to go the other way are Jack Harrison and, er, Mix Diskerud. Magno would certainly be a step up.
CAM Paxten Aaronson, 18, Philadelphia Union
Thought Brenden Aaronson was the only Aaronson in the MLS? You would be wrong. Paxten was younger than Brenden when he made his debut, and is the club’s third-youngest goalscorer of all time. And it wasn’t exactly a tap-in, either.
Statistics don’t accurately represent Paxten’s talent simply because he doesn’t play much. He’s only 18, after all, and mainly is a late-game substitute. When he comes on, though, he’s a great player to watch, with impressive dribbling and loads of energy. It’s not too far out of the question to suggest that he has more potential than Brenden.
There isn’t an MLS team with better youth development than Philadelphia – sorry, FC Dallas. I could put at least three other Union players on this list – Quinn Sullivan, Leon Flach, and Jack McGlynn at least. What makes Philadelphia different from the other talent-exporting MLS teams is that the Union are able to stay competitive while developing players. That’s the kind of thing that is making the MLS – and US – more competitive in the long run.
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