Ready for the next step: The USL’s best young players of 2022

Quick Hits
  • The USL Championship is full of talented young players who are contributing to their teams in big ways
  • Who has the inside track in the race to be this year’s Young Player of the Year in the USL Championship? Let’s dive into the top candidates
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The USL Championship’s Young Player of the Year award is often a sign of big things to come for the winner. Efrain Alvarez, Cristian Parano, and Jonathan Gomez all earned moves to MLS or Europe after taking home the silverware at some point in the last five years, and a talented class of candidates in 2022 could follow a similar path. 

So, who’s at the top of the pile as we near the end of the season?

Any player born after January 1, 2000 is eligible for the Young Player of the Year award.

Michee Ngalina, Colorado Swings Switchbacks

Age: 22

Few, if any, players in the USL can match Michee Ngalina in a footrace, but his game is so much more than raw speed. Ngalina, a winger, got his professional start under Brendan Burke with the Bethlehem Steel (now the Philadelphia Union II) and moved with the coach to Colorado Springs last year. This season, he’s played every single minute for the club, tearing up and down the wings to the tune of nine goals and eight assists. His contributions are vital to the Switchbacks’ high-pressing system, as are his end-to-end runs in transition. Playing with the reigning MVP in Hadji Barry opens up space for him in the attack, but the Congolese winger’s line-stretching pace is the key to the Switchbacks’ offense.

Jake LaCava, Tampa Bay Rowdies

Age: 21

With 11 goals and four assists, Jake LaCava has become a crucial cog in Tampa Bay’s attack. Typically used on the left wing, LaCava is a strong left-footed passer, but he can also punish defenses with finishes from either boot. 

In the past, the forward showed potential in the New York Red Bulls’ system but lacked the service to truly shine. Now alongside stars like Leo Fernandes, LaCava’s excellent instincts as a runner and his vision as a passer have finally bloomed, making him a leading candidate for the award as part of the USL’s highest-scoring unit.

Cameron Dunbar, LA Galaxy II

Age: 19

LA Galaxy II are just one point out of a playoff spot, not least because Cameron Dunbar has dragged them to that place in the West with five goals and an assist in their last ten matches. Blazing down the left side as a wingback or wide forward, Dunbar is a fantastic crosser of the ball. His penchant for late-arriving runs into the box also allows him to regularly score from cutbacks and crosses. Though he’s a slight 5’4”, Dunbar’s ability to read the game mixed with his technical quality makes him a top-end talent.

Honorable Mentions

I’d be remiss not to touch on a handful of other players outside the top three.

Louisville City’s Joshua Wynder deserves a mention. The 17-year-old center back is a confident passer and has the athleticism to function as part of a high defensive line. Still, his teammate Ray Serrano might have an even stronger case for this award. Signed from the Tacoma Defiance this offseason, Serrano, a 20-year-old right midfielder, has an incredibly strong engine and has three goals and three assists for Louisville. He’s come on strong late in the regular season.

A few MLS affiliate players deserve a mention as well. Owen Lambe of LA Galaxy II shuttles between right back and defensive midfield in a wonky 3-5-2 shape and his calming presence is crucial to the team’s playoff hopes. Jackson Conway of Atlanta United 2 has 10 goals in a team that struggles to do much of anything in attack. He’s also been an excellent hold-up forward in 2022. Finally, O’Vonte Mullings has played almost every minute for a dreadful New York Red Bulls II team – he’s a source of composure and skill at right back.