11 American U23 Players Who Could Be the Stars of the Future

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For fans of the United States Men’s National Team, 2015 has been an important year. There have been impressive friendly victories, decidedly less impressive Gold Cup performances, and the upcoming CONCACAF playoff against Mexico.

Viewed through another lens, 2015 could also be considered the “Year of Youth” for the U.S. Soccer Federation. This summer saw a quarter-final run in the U20 World Cup (with defeat coming at the hands of eventual champions Serbia) and a third place finish in the Toulon Tournament, with a squad composed primarily of U23 players. CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying kicks off today as the USA takes on Canada in Kansas City, and the dedicated fans of the Stars and Stripes will be expecting big things in October’s U17 World Cup.

With so many talented youngsters on display, it can be difficult to keep track of “who’s who” in the US soccer set-up. So, here are 11 of the most promising young Americans under the age of 23, with the disclaimer that they can only have made one senior career USMNT appearance or fewer. Thus, proven names such as Julian Green (5 CAPs), Jordan Morris (6), Rubio Rubin (3), John Brooks (18), DeAndre Yedlin (25), Luis Gil (2), and Bobby Wood (10) won’t be found here.

Honorable Mentions: In examining the US rosters at the U17, U18, and U23 levels, it quickly becomes clear that American youngsters have upped their game considerably. This list could easily feature twice as many players, and still wouldn’t hurt for quality. With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning a few other developing talents:

Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls/CB/20)
Bradford Jamieson IV (LA Galaxy/FWD/Winger/18)
Gboly Ariyibi (Chesterfield/Winger/20)
Junior Flores (Borussia Dortmund/CM/19)
Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart/FWD/22)
Shane O’Neill (Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz/DEF/22)
Joel Soñora (Boca Juniors/CM/Boca Juniors)
Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes/FWD/20)

With all that said, here are 11 players to keep an eye on with a view towards 2018, 2022 and beyond. Players are listed in the strict order of my remembering them.

1. Cameron Carter-Vickers

Position: Defender
Age: 17
Club: Tottenham Hotspur (England)

Despite his young age, Carter-Vickers, or “CCV” as he’s been dubbed by American fans, serves as the captain and central figure of the Tottenham U21 side. By his own admission, he’s probably the youngest player on that team, making his selection as captain all the more impressive. He’s a smart, physical defender in the mold of Spurs legend Ledley King, and US fans should be thanking their lucky stars that he’s on their side. The son of an American basketball player and an English mother, CCV was born in Westcliff on Sea and was also eligible for England. The 6’1” centerback opted to follow his American roots, anchored the US defense in the U20 World Cup, and will likely do so again throughout Olympic qualifying.

2. Daniel “Danny” Barbir

Position: Defender
Age: 17
Club: West Bromwich Albion (England)

Barbir has already proven himself capable of making the big decisions. The imposing centerback (he stands over 6’4”) was already firmly installed in the Manchester City academy when he elected to jump ship and sign for West Bromwich. City might have offered a bigger name and more money, but West Brom offered a direct line to the first team soccer. A young player choosing playing time over reputation is a rate sight in the modern game, and one that should give Americans all the more hope for the future. The Atlanta native (who calls Pennsylvania home), splits his time between the U18 and U21 academy teams, and credits his older teammates with helping him become a more complete defender.

3. Mukwelle Akale

Position: Forward
Age: 18
Club: Villarreal (Spain)

The last time a promising, young American signed for Villarreal, it didn’t quite work out: Jozy Altidore’s total of nine senior appearances in three years, single-digit goal tallies, and three unsuccessful loan stints stand as evidence of that fact. Things are looking considerably brighter for Minneapolis-native Mukwelle Akale, if his increasingly long highlight reel for Villarreal’s Juvenile A team is to be believed. The son of a Minnesota-born mother and a Cameroon-born father, the diminutive attacker drew attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but instead elected to sign for the Canaries in large part because of their dedication to youth development. In an interview with Northern Pitch, Akale noted, “Villarreal is known for their development of world-class players from a very young age. They have a history of a lot of players who have started out as 12-year-olds and gone on to be first-team players and sold off to bigger clubs. That’s what my goal is. That’s my reason for being here.”

4. Gedion Zelalem

Position: Midfield
Age: 18
Club: Rangers (on loan from Arsenal) – Scotland

Perhaps the least surprising/most well known name on this list belongs to the player that American fans have been salivating over for months: Gedion Zelalem. The midfield playmaker has been tearing it up in the Scottish Championship this season, and seems capable of producing at least one golden highlight every match. Be it a Cruyff turn, a brilliantly placed through ball, or a well-taken goal, it’s all possible when Zelalem is on the pitch. His exceptional vision, supreme poise, and demonstrated technical ability combine to make him one of the most promising players not just in the US talent pool, but in all of Europe as well. More notably (in terms of this list), Zelalem was approved to play for the USA on May 13, 2015 after a lengthy process that stretched back to 2012. He was immediately added to the USA’s U20 World Cup roster, featured in all five of the team’s matches, and will no doubt figure prominently in Olympic qualifying this fall. Meanwhile, American fans of Arsenal will be hoping Zelalem does the same for Arsene Wenger next season.

5. Zack Steffen

Position: Goalkeeper
Age: 20
Club: SC Freiburg (Germany)

Friedel. Keller. Howard. Guzan. Steffen? If the hype is to be believed, the young shot stopper is the latest in the long, proud history of American goalkeepers in Europe. The former University of Maryland player spurned interest from MLS to pursue his European dream, and eventually signed for SC Freiburg (then playing in the Bundesliga) in December 2014. Although he only featured for the German club’s reserve team, it’s worth noting that many clubs prefer to develop young goalkeepers slowly rather than simply throw them into the deep end. The same can’t be said of the USSF, as Steffen saw considerable action this summer when he started every game at the U20 World Cup (and reportedly attracted interest from both Inter Milan and Roma). With an injury to incumbent U23 goalkeeper Cody Cropper, Steffen will start between the sticks as he and his teammates look to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

6. William Alexander “Wil” Trapp

Position: Midfield
Age: 22
Club: Columbus Crew (USA)

Trapp has the honor of being the only player to have personally impressed Thierry Henry, which alone merits inclusion. He’s also one of only two players on this list with a senior national team appearance (made just days after his 22nd birthday). In the three years since Trapp turned pro, he has developed into one of his club’s most important players, serves as a midfield anchor/tackling enthusiast, and has proven capable of spraying beautiful passes time and time again. He’s also probably the closest thing Americans have to a like-for-like replacement for Michael Bradley, particularly in regards to Trapp’s in-game intelligence. The Columbus-native can marshal a defense, facilitate possession, and lead like a veteran (he captained the US team at the 2013 U20 World Cup).

7. Joshua Perez

Position: Forward
Age: 17
Club: Fiorentina (Italy)

Though he may be the nephew of former US international Hugo Perez (73 caps and 16 goals), young Joshua certainly isn’t inclined to stay in the shadow of his famous family member. The young attacker wisely jumped the rapidly-sinking Chivas USA ship (he was in the club’s development program), and opted instead for the Fiorentina academy. He clocked time with the club’s U19 team when he was 16, and is expected to get minutes with the Primavera (U21) side this season. In choosing his club, Perez opted for Fiorentina in part because he valued the Italian dedication to tactics and gamesmanship, and also because he wanted to emulate his American hero: Michael Bradley (who spent a few successful seasons in Serie A). While wearing the US uniform, Perez managed 4 goals in 10 matches during qualifying for the U17 World Cup, and will be feeling the pressure when the USA heads to Chile for the tournament later this month. If you still aren’t convinced, here’s what Paste had to say about him back in March.

8. Emerson Hyndman

Position: Midfield
Age: 19
Club: Fulham (England)

Along with Wil Trapp, Hyndman is the only other player on this list to have made an appearance for the senior national team. The Dallas native joined the Fulham academy in 2011 when he was only 15 (he holds Portuguese citizenship), but had to wait until four months after his 18th birthday to earn his first senior appearance. It was expected that the teenage talent would work his way into the Fulham first team, and become the primary engine/orchestrator for the club. Instead, Hyndman has turned down contract renewals on at least two occasions. Having reportedly drawn interest from clubs in England, Holland, Spain and Germany, the composed playmaker will now likely depart the club on a free transfer next summer. As a result, he hasn’t seen much playing time this season, and likely won’t for the remainder of the campaign. Despite the recent turmoil in his club career (facilitated in no small part by the insanity that was the Felix Magath Era), Hyndman captained the US at the U20 World Cup, and will now play a major role in the Olympic qualifying campaign.

9. Christian Pulisic

Position: 17
Age: Midfield
Club: Borussia Dortmund 

When I was 16, I was doing my best not to fail Algebra II. When Christian Pulisic was 16, he was training with the Dortmund first team. Indeed, remarking on the youngster’s first session with the senior squad, then-manager Jurgen Klopp noted, “In a very intense training session with narrow spaces, [Pulisic] did not stand out in a negative way.” More importantly, the renowned coach added, “That is a real sign of quality.” That’s pretty much the universal sentiment when it comes to the attacking midfielder, who has been playing regularly for the Dortmund U17 academy team. As such, he will likely be the primary creator for the USA at the U17 World Cup, and likely for the senior national team in the very near future.

10. Lynden Gooch

Position: Midfield
Age: 19
Club: Sunderland (England)

These are dark days for Sunderland fans. The club is rooted to the bottom of the Premiership table, has by far the worst goal difference of any team in the league, and doesn’t look likely to improve any time soon. However, for American fans of the club, there’s at least one bright spot: goal-scoring midfielder Lynden Gooch. The teenager has been steadily rising through the club’s ranks since he first joined the academy as a 16 year old, and was named Barclays U21 Player of the Month in August. In addition, he made his senior debut in a League Cup victory over Exeter City, and has since suited up for a Premier League fixture. If Sunderland continues to struggle (which is roughly the same as saying if water continues to be wet), Gooch might get his Premier League debut sooner rather than later, and a senior appearance for the USA might not be too far behind.

11. Maki Tall

Position: Forward
Age: 19
Club: FC Sion (Switzerland)

Only the most expert of experts knew much about Maki Tall earlier this year. Now, that’s very much not the case. Tall looked bright in his sole appearance at the U20 World Cup, scoring a goal in the opening group stage game. A broken toe suffered in the same match forced him to miss the remainder of the tournament. Nevertheless, Swiss Super League side FC Sion was still very much captivated by Tall and signed the youngster to a multi-year contract while he was still recovering from injury. Tall has not yet returned to first team training, but his move to Switzerland seems an astute one. FC Sion will offer a chance to get first team soccer, develop his game, and potentially make waves in Europe (the team is participating in the Europa League this season). The stout striker uses his physicality and pace expertly, and has proven himself capable of scoring from seemingly innocuous positions. Despite his current injury, Tall has been included in the USA’s Olympic qualifying roster, and could be facing a hectic 10 months (should the US qualify for the tournament).

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