- MLS Next Pro, Major League Soccer’s reserve third-division league, recently finished its first regular season
- Today, we’re analyzing 10 exciting young players in MLS Next Pro who have the talent to make an impact at a higher level
The first regular season for MLS Next Pro, MLS’s reserve third-division league, is in the books. Despite questionable design choices, extreme variation in team strength, and some brutal broadcast camera angles, it’s been a success.
MLS Next Pro has a stated goal: it wants to provide opportunities for players and coaches to learn and develop. With that in mind, several players and coaches already made the jump up to MLS. Today, we’re going to highlight 10 of the most exciting young players in the league using data from American Soccer Analysis. These 10 MLS Next Pro players aren’t necessarily the best or most polished, but they’re all capable of making MLS rosters and becoming widely known names.
Let’s get to it.
Special thanks to Eliot McKinley for the Goals Added (g+) wheels used in this piece.
AZIEL JACKSON, MINNESOTA UNITED 2
Aziel Jackson was outrageously successful this season, leading MLS Next Pro in key passes, expected assists (xA), and expected goals (xG) plus expected assists. He scored 10 goals on 11.31 xG and was second in the league for xG+xA per 96 minutes among players with at least 500 minutes. Jackson is an undersized, but formidable attacking player. He’s often used as a utility attacker, playing on the wing, in an attacking midfield position, or as a striker.
He plays with a great deal of energy but will need to show an ability to change games against higher level defenders. If he can put the pieces of his game together, he could make an impact in MLS as soon as next season.
OMARI GLASGOW, CHICAGO FIRE II
If you haven’t heard of Omari Glasgow already, then you probably aren’t from Guyana.
Glasgow, 18, is the closest thing to the Guyuanese Erling Haaland. He made his national team debut in World Cup qualification in March, 2021, bagging a goal against the Bahamas. By Caribbean standards, he is absolutely a soccer prodigy.
Glasgow made the jump from the Guyanese domestic league to MLS Next Pro in March, signing for the Fire II.
His goals added above average for the first half of the season was +0.22 per 90 minutes, the best in the league, but for the rest of the way he managed a lower +0.12. An average shot quality of 0.11 xG indicates that his shot selection could improve and his decision making isn’t flawless. That said, the teenager clearly has potential. Guyana’s top all-time international scorer has 18 goals and in a single year, Glasgow already has a third of that number.
If Chicago can bring this talent along, they might have found an unlikely game changer from one of the furthest corners of the soccer world.
BERNARD KAMUNGO, FC DALLAS
If you’re not familiar with Bernard Kamungo’s background, read this excellent article on his journey from refugee to professional soccer player. It’s incredible that he simply fell into FC Dallas’ lap in an open tryout for their reserve team.
Kamungo is lightning in a bottle. He showed plenty of promise during his first season with North Texas SC in USL League One, but Kamungo’s game has only evolved with the move to MLS Next Pro. He’s become a major scoring threat with 16 goals on 13.38 xG in 2022, which is good for second in the MLS Next Pro Golden Boot race.
Like most lower division players, stepping up to the top flight will be difficult. That said, he’s already made his debut for Dallas, playing 21 minutes off the bench in a game in September. If he can perform in MLS like he has in the lower leagues, the sky’s the limit for a kid from Tanzania.
FAVIAN LOYOLA, ORLANDO CITY SC
One of the younger players on this list, Favian Loyola won MVP of the MLS Next All-Star Game earlier this year and staked his claim as one of the very best young prospects in the MLS academy system.
The 17-year-old is a tricky attacker who can play any of the forward positions. Loyola is an above-average dribbler and passer, based on g+, and can find the back of the net, too. It’s clear when you watch Loyola that he plays with an edge and is willing to try tricks and stepovers to create attacking advantages. Here’s a clip where Loyola (wearing No. 7) makes a heads up play, beats a man, and then picks out the perfect cutback to a trailing midfielder against Croatia’s U19s.
In the U.S. youth ranks, Loyola is viewed as a prospect ahead of his years. Most recently, he played with the U-19s at the Slovenia Nations Cup, where looked like one of the best players on the team. With only 741 minutes in MLS Next Pro, Loyola needs more seasoning. But he’s had an excellent introduction to professional soccer and is a high level attacking prospect for both club and country.
AXEL KEI, REAL SALT LAKE
Back in 2006, EA Sports released a brand new game mode for the Madden series called “NFL Superstar”. In that mode, you were presented with a screen that told you the background of your player’s parents. This had an inordinate impact on your player’s attributes, and you could repeatedly roll for better parents in order to have a better player.
Like I said, 2006.
At 14, Axel Kei feels like a player you’d create in that gamemode. He already stands at an imposing 6’1” despite barely being out of middle school. Kei broke Freddy Adu’s long-standing record as the youngest professional athlete in the country (that record has since been broken again) and he played 11 games and scored three times for the Real Monarchs this season.
Impressively, Kei has produced at the professional level despite being so young. He plays beyond his years and thrives in situations where other young players tend to disappear. In front of the goal, Kei shows a great deal of promise. He scored 3 goals in 11 games, but with 5.32 xG and 0.16 xG/per shot, which shows that he moves into good positions for before shooting.
While he’s still extremely young, Kei didn’t look out of place in MLS Next Pro this season and it’s not outrageous to think he might debut in MLS before the end of 2023. Real Salt Lake have an absolute gem on their hands.
JACEN RUSSELL-ROWE, COLUMBUS CREW
Jacen Russell-Rowe is one of the earliest success stories from MLS Next Pro, converting a blistering scoring pace for the Crew II into a senior contract. That contract was warranted given his goalscoring record: Russell-Rowe scored 21 goals and won MLS Next Pro’s inaugural Golden Boot award.
What makes the Canadian so dangerous in the attack? It’s his shot quality.
Although he led the league in goals and xG, he was just sixth in terms of total shots taken. That’s where the shot quality idea comes in. At 0.23 xG per shot, Russell-Rowe was one of the best players in the league at finding good shooting positions and his receiving score pretty much breaks the g+ wheel.
Russell-Rowe has the talent to be one of the best young forwards in the country. If he can continue to find great spots in the attack at the next level, he just might be a difference-maker in MLS.
GIBRAN RAYO, ROCHESTER NEW YORK FC
As the only MLS Next Pro team without plans to enter MLS or without ties to a current MLS team, Rochester New York FC is in a position to offer themselves as an alternate pathway for players.
Gibran Rayo was one of their first big domestic talents, joining from the FC Dallas system. With Rochester, he has absolutely exploded. Playing in a central role, he’s taking risks as a passer and finding shots on a regular basis. His xG+xA was fourth in the league and American Soccer Analysis predicts that his shots added 5.8 points to the team’s season total. That’s a lot of points!
Unlike many of his peers, there is no obvious next step for Rayo with Rochester because of their lack of ties to the first division. Will he move to Europe? Or to the USL Championship? Or to an MLS team looking for young talent? Regardless of where he ends up, Rayo has enough quality to play at a higher level.
PIERO ELIAS, NEW YORK CITY FC
Piero Elias is one of the top young midfielders in MLS Next Pro, impressing with his progressive play as an all-action midfielder. The 20-year-old power lifts in his free time and still has plenty of quality on the ball.
Elias comfortably outperformed his expected passing numbers while maintaining one of the more aggressive vertical approaches among defensive midfielders in the league. Elias also brings a good mix of skills in the final third: his 0.29 xG+xA per 96 minutes was in the top five among defensive midfielders with more than 500 minutes.
While Elias is physically much different from NYCFC star Keaton Parks, they have similar approaches on the ball. If Elias continues to progress play and impact games in the future, he may be a candidate for a promotion and a contract down the road.
ALEXANDER FREEMAN, ORLANDO CITY SC
Like Loyola, Alexander Freeman is another Orlando City SC player who just wrapped up a successful Slovenia Cup of Nations with the U.S. U-19s.
Freeman stands an imposing 6’2” and, at just 18, he may still be growing. Despite his large frame, he’s smooth and confident with the ball at his feet from right back. He’s still learning how to be an effective progressor from a deeper position, but he can carry the ball forward and deliver a pinpoint pass from time to time. His passing from deep keyed many moves for the U-19s, including the second goal against Scotland.
Defensively, Freeman relies on his athleticism and strength to help against more experienced attackers. He’s still working on some of the nuances of the position, but he has the talent to be an excellent fullback. He could be in line for a debut with Orlando City’s first team before long.
KWAKU OWUSU, NEW YORK CITY FC
Samuel “Kwaku” Owusu and his center back partner Nico Benalcazar developed into one of the best defensive pairings in the league this year. While Benalcazar marshals the backline, Owusu is the active, all-action defender who takes risks with the ball at his feet.
Owusu led all center backs in goals added per 96 minutes and is especially impressive on the ball. He was the position leader in both passing and dribbling g+. Interestingly enough for a center back, Owusu is a danger in the final third, recording 2.12 xA in 2022.
The future looks bright for Owusu. He already earned his first team debut for NYCFC this season and he could be in line for more minutes next year if Alexander Callens leaves in the winter. It takes time for center backs to fully find their footing as professionals, but the 21-year-old defender looks ready to impact the game at a higher level.
CHRIS BRADY, CHICAGO FIRE
Okay, I’m sneaking a bonus player onto this list. Chris Brady was, by far, the best goalkeeper in MLS Next Pro in 2022.
It’s a little unfair that the Chicago Fire are selling a talented young goalkeeper to Chelsea and immediately reloading with another one, but it looks like that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Brady is a strong shot-stopper. Teams facing the Fire II scored just 56% of the goals they would expect to score against the average goalkeeper based on shots on target. That’s an insane figure.
Brady isn’t perfect, but when it comes to the scoreline, nothing goalkeepers do matters nearly as much as their ability to keep the ball out of the back of the net. And based on this season, the 18-year-old is really good at that. With Gaga Slonina heading to Europe, Brady should get to stake his claim as an MLS starter next season. Unsurprisingly, European teams are already interested.