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The Backheeled 10: The top young players in the U.S. in 2022

Welcome to the very first edition of The Backheeled 10, our list of the top 10 young talents in American professional soccer.

8 min read

Quick Hits

  • Welcome to the very first edition of The Backheeled 10, our list of the top 10 young talents in American professional soccer
  • The Backheeled 10 is our way of recognizing the most outstanding young players in the country across the United States’ professional leagues

There is a lot of talent popping up in the United States these days. As professional leagues continue to establish themselves, there is a more diverse talent pool in the U.S. than ever before. Here at Backheeled, we wanted to recognize the most outstanding young players in the country across the United States’ various leagues.

So, The Backheeled 10 was born.

This is our list of the top 10 young talents in American professional soccer. Not just in MLS. Not just in the NWSL. No, we’re looking at the top 10 teenagers who played professional soccer in the United States in 2022. Period.

Now, there are a couple of criteria for our list.

  • Eligible players must have played the majority of their professional minutes in 2022 in a U.S. domestic league (MLS, NWSL, USL, etc)
  • Eligible players must be 19 or younger on 12/31/22

For players that fit those criteria, we also considered factors like their overall talent, importance to their teams, statistical impact, and potential. With that out of the way, let’s dive into the first-ever edition of The Backheeled 10.

OLIVIA MOULTRIE, 17

Position: Attacking midfielder

Team: Portland Thorns (NWSL)

Olivia Moultrie has some memorable “firsts” to her name. She became the youngest NWSL player in the league’s history at age 15. She also became the league’s youngest-ever goalscorer earlier this year at 16.

Moultrie wasn’t a regular starter for the Portland Thorns on their way to the NWSL Championship, but she still collected three goals in just over 700 minutes. With a strong right foot, clean passing ability, and mobility on and off the ball, Moultrie has all the tools to develop into an elite player. According to FBref, she ranked in the 85th percentile or higher among midfielders in elite women’s competitions in goals, non-penalty expected goals, and expected assisted goals.

At 17, the sky’s the limit for Moultrie.

PAXTEN AARONSON, 19

Position: Attacker

Team: Joining Eintracht Frankfurt (Bundesliga) in January from the Philadelphia Union

The “Aaronson” last name is well-known throughout American soccer circles at this point. But Paxten Aaronson is different from his brother Brenden, who currently plays for Leeds United in the Premier League and the United States men’s national team.

Paxten shined for the U.S. U-20s at the Concacaf Championship over the summer. Here’s Backheeled’s Paul Harvey, on Aaronson:

At the U-20 Championship, Aaronson staked his claim as the best player on the team. Opposing defenses couldn’t cope with his movement or his skill on the ball. When the games became more difficult, the attacker raised his game to match the level: of his seven goals in the tournament, five of them came in the quarterfinals or later. He finished as the leading scorer and won the Golden Ball.

Aaronson didn’t play a ton of minutes in the MLS regular season, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a high-value prospect. As Paul put it, Aaronson’s “skill on the ball and relentless defensive work could make him a valuable player in a modern soccer landscape that prioritizes both of those attributes over almost anything else”.

Now he’s headed to the Bundesliga.

JOSHUA WYNDER, 17

Position: Center back

Team: Louisville City (USL Championship)

Here At Backheeled, we’ve discussed the USL’s developing role in the global transfer market multiple times this year – and you’d better believe that Joshua Wynder is being scouted by teams in MLS and on the other side of the Atlantic.

At just 17, Wynder was a key player for one of the best teams in the USL Championship this season. I’ll turn it over to Backheeled’s John Morrissey for his analysis:

Every part of Wynder’s game is defined by his composure. He already shows high-level passing instincts and can play out from the back using his right foot. He’s athletic, too: Wynder moves a bit like a gazelle and his six-foot frame and jumping ability help him win aerial battles.

John isn’t the only person out there to give the young center back some public praise.

“I genuinely believe we have the next Virgil van Dijk playing in our league,” USL Sporting Director Mark Cartwright said earlier this year “He’s 17, playing week in, week out, and he is absolutely unbelievable – Josh Wynder, who plays for Louisville."

Wynder might not turn out to be the next van Dijk, but he is a big-time talent.

DIEGO LUNA, 19

Position: Attacking midfielder

Team: Real Salt Lake (MLS)

Like Wynder, Diego Luna has ties to the USL Championship. He moved from the El Paso Locomotive in the USL to Real Salt Lake in MLS back in June of this year for a record fee for a USL-to-MLS transfer.

Before moving to RSL, Luna led the entire USL Championship in goals added, a metric created by American Soccer Analysis to measure the impact of a player’s on-field contributions. He also starred for the U.S. U-20s over the summer and added some quality to Real Salt Lake when he stepped on the field in MLS.

Luna doesn’t have a traditional athletic build, but his mixture of technical ability, creativity, and spatial awareness is unique in American soccer. He’s highly regarded both inside and outside the United States.

CALEB WILEY, 17

Position: Left back

Team: Atlanta United (MLS)

At just 17, Caleb Wiley showed some real flashes with Atlanta United in 2022. He’s clearly still developing, but he already demonstrates an impressive ability to beat defenders with his dribbling, speed, and acceleration on the left wing. Wiley has the audacity to do things like *this* that not only look fantastic, but also create opportunities for his teammates.

According to Second Spectrum, Wiley finished in the 80th percentile among MLS players with at least 1,000 minutes this year in successful dribbles per 90 minutes. And according to FBref, he finished the regular season in the 80th percentile among fullbacks in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes.

Wiley isn’t a household name just yet, but he clearly has a bright future.

CADE COWELL, 19

Position: Forward

Team: San Jose Earthquakes (MLS)

Cade Cowell isn’t short on potential.

He was the fastest player to set foot in MLS this season, according to Second Spectrum’s top sustained speed metric. He’s a willing off-ball runner and can beat defenders with his dynamic movement in possession or in transition.

He hasn’t put all the pieces together, yet, though. After scoring five goals and contributing six assists in 2021, Cowell dropped to three goals and five assists in a roughly similar number of minutes in 2022. Some of his advanced numbers dropped as well. Still, Cowell’s potential and raw ability is enough to get him on this list.

With former FC Dallas head coach and current USMNT assistant coach Luchi Gonzalez taking over the Earthquakes, 2023 could turn out to be a career year – or at least a bounce back year – for Cowell.

JACK MCGLYNN, 19

Position: Central midfielder

Team: Philadelphia Union (MLS)

Jack McGlynn has the sauce.

With his skilled left foot, McGlynn brings a ton of value with his close control, combination play, and his distribution. Among players with at least 1000 minutes in the MLS regular season, the Philadelphia Union center midfielder ranked fifth in goals added’s passing category in 2022.

The only players ahead of him? Carlos Vela, Victor Vazquez, Darwin Quintero, and Sebastian Blanco. Oh, and a couple of the players behind him? Carles Gil and Maxi Moralez. McGlynn is in game-changing company.

Here’s Backheeled’s Sanjay Sukanthakumar with more on McGlynn:

McGlynn isn’t a classic, big-bodied American athlete. He doesn’t have elite strength, speed, or acceleration, but his quality as a midfielder is unique in the United States. The U.S. has never truly had the midfield genius that countries who win the World Cup tend to have… Someone whose passing range and ball retention create possibilities in possession and force their opponents to respect them. At just 19, McGlynn is flashing some of those qualities.

JAEDYN SHAW, 18

Position: Forward

Team: San Diego Wave (NWSL)

On a San Diego Wave team filled with great stories during their expansion season in the NWSL, Jaedyn Shaw was one of the team’s absolute best stories in 2022. Shaw signed with the Wave midseason and helped her team to a third-place regular season finish, which marked the first playoff appearance for a first-year expansion team in league history.

With an incredibly strong right foot, Shaw provides dangerous service from the wing. She can hit a great ball into the box, makes smart off-ball runs, and provides good defensive effort. She scored three goals in limited minutes in 2022. Shaw’s passing can improve and her speed of play and decision-making need some work, too. But that’s not surprising, given that her career is just starting.

Expect to see Shaw take her game to new heights in 2023.

JHON DURAN, 19

Position: Striker

Team: Chicago Fire (MLS)

When you watch Jhon Duran, it becomes clear why the Chicago Fire made him the youngest international signing in MLS history.

He’s tall, has elite speed, and is developing his aerial ability. The Colombian had some impressive moments for the Fire in 2022, scoring eight goals in less than 1,500 minutes. At just 18, Duran stands out with sequences like this one when you watch the Fire: he sees space in the box, stays patient, attacks the ball in the air, and finds the back of the net.

Duran also has a strong set of underlying numbers to go with his eight goals this year. According to FBref, he ranked in the 87th percentile among forwards in MLS in non-penalty expected goals, the 79th percentile in aerial duel efficiency, and the 97th percentile in fouls drawn.

Strikers like him don’t pop up very often.

GAGA SLONINA, 18

Position: Goalkeeper

Team: Chelsea (Premier League)

Gaga Slonina made the Chicago Fire some money this season. The Fire transferred Slonina to Chelsea in the Premier League earlier this season for a fee that could rise to $15 million, making Slonina the most expensive goalkeeper to ever leave MLS.

Starting 32 of the Chicago Fire’s 34 regular season games, Slonina was an above average shot-stopper in 2022. Per FBref, he finished in the 72nd percentile among MLS goalkeepers in post-shot expected goals minutes goals allowed. At just 18, Slonina made some absurd saves, like this one down and to his left against the New England Revolution.

With plenty of athletic ability and developing technique, Slonina isn’t just one of the best young American goalkeepers. He’s one of the best young goalkeepers in the entire world.

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