Five Talented U21 Prospects Available for Free

Austria Thierno Ballo

The summer transfer window is open, meaning that teams across the world are making moves for players. Some of the biggest moves so far have been for talented prospects: the likes of Erling Haaland, Karim Adeyemi, and Ryan Gravenberch have all swapped teams this summer. Many teams (like Galatasaray) are starting to sign younger players with hopes that they’ll develop and can be sold for a profit.

Teams with lesser money and resources often use this model to stay competitive. However, with the increasingly global approach to recruitment, it’s harder to find prospects available for cheap. In turn, more teams are starting to use free agency to find their next star. It’s working, at least for some: Paul Pogba initially joined Juventus at the age of 19 on a free transfer. But who might be the next big star in free agency?

Sonny Perkins, 18, Striker

West Ham fans, close your eyes.

Sonny Perkins has long been seen as one of the Hammers’ top prospects, having joined the club at the age of 14. Last season, he was particularly impressive for West Ham’s U23s, scoring 12 goals and making his debut in Europa League last season. He later made his first start and his first Premier League appearance, but that proved to be the end of Perkins’ West Ham career.

He reportedly snubbed the club’s contract offer to become a free agent, leaving West Ham more than a little annoyed. Several Premier League sides are rumored to be interested.

Perkins has the potential to be a brilliant striker. He’s fast and is able to use both his feet, and he’s got a strong leg. However, he’s somewhat short for a striker at 5’10, so he’s probably better deployed as a center-attacking midfielder. It’s probably a bit early for him to be a consistent Premier League player, but he clearly has his eyes set on a higher level. Still, I’d recommend signing with a Premier League side and being loaned to the Championship.

Warren Bondo, 18, Midfielder

It’s hard to believe that one of France’s top midfield prospects is a free agent, but Warren Bondo is currently without a club.

Bondo joined second-tier French side AS Nancy in 2018 when he was 15, and didn’t wait long to make an impact. He made his debut at the age of 17, getting sent off after fourteen minutes. Last season was when his career really took off: Bondo made 25 appearances and was chosen for France’s U19 Euro side that reached the semifinals.

Bondo is an elusive player with excellent footwork, able to win the ball back and find open players. He’s versatile, which enables him to play multiple positions in midfield. His finishing isn’t as good as it could be, but that’s something he is improving.

He’s already proven himself in the second tier, so it’s time for Bondo to test himself in the top tier. Realistically, he should be looking at a mid-table Ligue 1 side, whether on loan from a bigger side or just signing for one permanently.

Thierno Ballo, 20, Midfielder/Winger

A dual national, Ballo is eligible for both Austria and the Ivory Coast. He currently plays for Austria at youth level.

Ballo moved to Austria at a young age, having been born in the Ivory Coast. He joined one of Austria’s top academies, LASK Linz, in 2012 but left for Leverkusen a year later. From Leverkusen, he joined Viktoria Köln, where Chelsea later purchased him. Last season, he spent part of the year on loan with Rapid Vienna, where he played in the Europa League (one of his matches saw him face Sonny Perkins and West Ham). His contract expired this summer, with Ballo having never appeared for Chelsea at pro level.

Ballo can play in the center or on the wing, making him an asset for clubs with less depth. He’s quick, has great control, and is a tidy finisher, all good things for quick-paced teams. He’d be a good fit for lower-table Bundesliga teams or Swiss/Austrian sides.

Amadou Traoré, 20, Winger

A year ago, Traoré was being labeled the future of Bordeaux with top clubs rumored to be circling. A train wreck of a season for Bordeaux has lowered his stock substantially, but he’s still a huge talent.

Traoré, a Parisien of Guinean descent, played for Paris FC at youth level until he joined Bordeaux. By 18, he had made his Bordeaux debut, playing 20 times in 2020. Traoré elected to stay at the club with the hopes of becoming an important player. Unfortunately, he struggled to feature often for unclear reasons, with only three appearances as Bordeaux was relegated. They were then sent to the third tier for financial reasons, which sealed the deal as Traoré did not renew his contract.

Traoré is similar to Ballo in more ways than one: he can play centrally or on the wing. His strengths, too, are his speed and control, as he is able to run through tackles and cause problems for opposition defenders. However, his finishing and passing could use some improvement. He’s Ligue 1 level, and should probably return to France’s top tier.

Sava-Arangel Cestic, 21, Center-Back

Already a Serbian international, Cestic has had an unusual career path but remains a top prospect.

Cestic played for various German youth teams but remained largely anonymous until his move to Schalke in 2016. That move led to him becoming a Serbian youth international and earned him a move to Köln in 2019. He soon made his professional debut at the age of 19: a victory over Erling Haaland’s Dortmund.

Cestic made eleven appearances last season and became a full Serbian international but played for Köln’s reserves before terminating his contract in January. He made a surprise move to Croatia but struggled to make an impact before terminating his contract, again.

He’s strong in the air at 6’3 and consistently intercepts the ball. Cestic is also good at clearing the ball, something that doesn’t sound impressive but is vital for smaller teams. However, he doesn’t consistently win tackles, and the fact that he’s switched teams so many times may put some off. A move to lower-ranked teams in the first tier of Spain, Italy, or Germany would make sense.


Free agents often are gambles, but they are gambles worth taking. Signing a player for free instead of paying transfer fees to sign a prospect could be make-or-break for financially struggling clubs. These aren’t the only players to watch out for, however: there are many gems out there.

Think I missed someone or want a part two? Let me know in the comments!

Image Courtesy of Werner100359, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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