22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR is a list of the top 22 players in MLS under the age of 22 as voted on by an expert panel consisting of MLSsoccer.com analysts, MLS Player Department staff and external media members.
- 15 of 22 players are from an MLS NEXT academy
- Average age of the list: 20
- Three players are age 17: Cade Cowell, Justin Che and Moses Nyeman
- Ricardo Pepi, age 18, is youngest player to top the rankings since Alphonso Davies in 2018 (also 18)
- 4 players from FC Dallas
- 2 players from D.C. United, New York Red Bulls, and New York City FC
- Age cutoff: Players had to remain 21 or younger before the end of the 2021 MLS regular season (Decision Day, Nov. 7)
The 2021 season has been a breakthrough one for Pepi in every sense of the word. The FC Dallas homegrown now seems entrenched as the US men’s national team starting striker, a perch he’s earned after scoring for fun since entering the lineup at FC Dallas this season. Nicknamed “El Tren,” it’s an apt descriptor for a lethal finisher whose in-the-box instincts ensure he only needs a chance or two to steal three points. It’s surely already a matter of when, not if, Pepi will head to Europe and chart a journey that could reach the game’s highest levels.
Given what he’s already achieved, it’s easy to forget that Dike’s introduction to professional soccer only began in July 2020. The SuperDraft product turned plenty of heads during his rookie year, leading to a wintertime loan to Barnsley in the English Championship. He nearly earned The Tykes promotion to the Premier League, igniting widespread transfer interest in the physical, efficient No. 9. Dike’s also part of the US men’s national team depth chart and has reinforced his importance to Oscar Pareja’s project at Orlando City since returning to the fold, leveling up with each test.
Take one glance at Sands and odds are you wouldn’t assume too much from NYCFC’s first-ever homegrown. But his steadiness and presence have earned the trust of several Cityzens’ managers over the years, prompting his US men’s national team breakthrough at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup. Whether it’s as a defensive midfielder or center back, Sands seems to calm the game down with his distribution and puts out fires whenever they arise. By relying on precision and anticipation, he’s often able to outsmart opponents.
Already a well-established Uruguay international, Rodriguez has admittedly experienced peaks and valleys since coming to LAFC midway through the 2019 season. But when he’s at his best, such as a world-class goal in this summer’s El Trafico, it’s clear how much upside the speedster possesses. The key seems to be channeling those highs with consistency in order to truly reach the top level. Rodriguez has already tasted European soccer with a loan to Spain’s Almería. Will another opportunity soon present itself?
The right back, who hails from southern California and recently opted for Mexico’s national team over the United States, has taken MLS by storm in 2021, emerging as a centerpiece in head coach Greg Vanney’s rebuild of the five-time MLS Cup champions. Araujo has shown eagerness to bomb up the flank and supply assists, all while getting stuck in defensively. Phrased another way, the high-potential fullback ably combines sparks with ruggedness.
A budding US international, it’s remarkable to think that Bello is already in his fourth professional season with Atlanta United. The attack-minded left back has shown an ability to unbalance opposing defenses with both overlapping and underlapping runs, capable of pinching into the middle or keeping his heels on the touchline. Bello has already gone from talented prospect to first-team starter at the club level and is now a regular with the USMNT, including starts in a Gold Cup final and key World Cup qualifiers.
If you need an example of Cowell's potential (and readiness), look no further than an April 2021 home game against FC Dallas. That’s when the San Jose homegrown hit an outside-of-the-foot, line-splitting pass that pronounced what’s become a breakout season in MLS. The Earthquakes attacker clearly has the physical traits that make him an enticing prospect, but his technical skills and final-third intuition reflect how there’s also brains and brawn to his game. At this pace, a US men’s national team breakthrough is surely not too far away.
Clark was shot out of a cannon in 2020, scoring on his first-team debut and developing a penchant for long-range stunners. His direct, aggressive style has already earned him a transfer from RBNY to UEFA Champions League regulars RB Leipzig, sending him on a similar trajectory to US men’s national team captain Tyler Adams. Clark often plays in a wide midfield role, though can shift centrally and cause havoc with his counter-pressing and transition play. With significant upside, the Minnesota native will head to the German Bundesliga once the 2021 MLS season concludes.
For the first few years of his professional career, it seemed as though Ferreira would be a tweener – someone whose skill and verve made him a key contributor, though perhaps not shoehorned into one position. That uncertainty has been smoothed over in 2021, with Ferreira thriving as an attacking midfielder who plays underneath the striker. The son of former MLS MVP David Ferreira, he's certainly capable of a 10g/10a season. The FC Dallas homegrown, quite simply, brings creativity and end product to match.
Will Bassett soon follow Sam Vines’ footsteps in making the journey from Colorado Rapids homegrown to Europe-bound move? We wouldn’t be surprised if a transfer arrives, with Bassett linked to a host of overseas clubs in recent months, including Portuguese side Benfica. Bassett has settled in as a No. 8 during Colorado’s rise up the Western Conference standings, impressing as a ground-covering, all-action midfielder. He’s a two-way threat whose best days are ahead of him.
Paredes has taken a sizable leap forward in 2021, going from a homegrown finding his way to an established part of D.C. United’s starting XI under first-year manager Hernan Losada. Often deployed as a left wingback, Paredes has plenty of creativity, speed and guile to create chances in the final third, either off the dribble or crosses. Still only 18, he’s on the US men’s national team's radar screen, reflecting just how high his ceiling is.
A regular on 22 Under 22 lists ever since signing with LA as a homegrown player, Alvarez continues to reach more milestones in his burgeoning career. The attacking midfielder is a rising talent for Mexico’s national team and has become an integral piece for the Galaxy’s new era under Greg Vanney. As the left-footed creator exits his teenage years, he’s enjoying his most productive season yet in MLS. Need a glimpse of Efra's potential? Just ask Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who sung his praises in 2019.
There’s a reason why US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter has name-checked Pomykal on multiple occasions. Whether it’s playing centrally or out wide, the FC Dallas homegrown midfielder clearly boasts the ability to feature on the international stage. Now in his sixth year as a professional, it’s about staying healthy for a prolonged period and seeing the left-footed play-driver’s potential over a prolonged period. The talent is most definitely there.
FC Cincinnati splashed the cash for Brenner ahead of the 2021 campaign, expelling a reported $13 million for the Brazilian youth international striker from Sao Paulo FC. That outlay is a reflection of Brenner’s upside, with widespread European suitors also clamoring for his services before he chose MLS. The No. 9 has experienced an up-and-down first season in the Orange & Blue, but that’s more a testament to the club’s on-field struggles than the quality he possesses.
When Flach was signed by Philadelphia from German side FC St. Pauli, it didn’t reverberate too broadly across MLS circles. That lack of buzz was soon viewed as misguided, with the US youth international midfielder proving an immense addition for the defending Supporters’ Shield champions in 2021. Whether he's deputized as a defensive midfielder or as a shuttler in their 4-4-2 formation, Flach continually leaves his imprint by doing the simple things well – then getting stuck in and springing attacks forward.
Che has enjoyed a whirlwind 2021 that began with a wintertime loan to Bayern Munich, the German Bundesliga giants who have a longstanding partnership with FC Dallas. Upon returning to MLS, the homegrown defender has featured extensively at right back – though his future, both for club and country, may rest at center back. Transfer buzz has followed Che all year, and it seems a matter of time before he’s the latest FCD academy product who heads overseas.
It’s been an eventful past year for Akinola. The Detroit-born, Brampton, Ontario-raised frontman scored in his one and only appearance for the US men’s national team last December before declaring his allegiance to Canada and making his debut at the Concacaf Gold Cup. Fate then cruelly intervened when Akinola suffered a torn ACL with Canada against the USMNT that essentially ruled him out for the rest of 2021. Don’t expect this to be anything more than a temporary roadblock, however, for a striker who has 12 goals in 26 MLS appearances over the last two seasons.
Ochoa announced himself on the national stage at the onset of the 2021 season when launching the ball into the “Wonderwall” following a Real Salt Lake win at Minnesota United FC. Disrespectful? Entertaining? Whatever your view, it showed that he has an edge that's possessed by top-end goalkeepers. Since then, Ochoa has proven that he’s far more than just bluster with multiple standout performances to help RSL stay in the thick of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race. He's also swapped the US for Mexico, declaring his international future in a moving letter.
As promising as NYCFC’s academy looks, the club also continues to import talented youngsters – particularly from South America. Step in Thiago Andrade, who was signed in April from Brazilian side EC Bahia and has carved out an important role off the bench or from the jump. He’s a U22 Initiative player whose pace in the open field and technique in tight areas suggest a bright future awaits, with Thiago Andrade another example of City Football Group’s vast global scouting network.
It’s easy to forget that Casseres is even still eligible for 22 Under 22. Now in his fourth season with the New York Red Bulls, this is the third straight year that the all-action midfielder has made the list and he’s already a regular for the Venezuelan national team. Whether it’s as a harrier or orchestrator, Casseres Jr. has the potential to overtake games and supply the occasional golazo.
Vancouver, somewhat quietly, have stockpiled young talent that leaves them poised to climb the MLS hierarchy. Caicedo reflects that trend, arriving last January from Deportivo Cali and emerging as a leading U22 Initiative signing. The Colombian youth international with pace to burn is electric in wide spaces and creates chances at a high clip, giving the Whitecaps a foundational piece for the long-run.
The second-youngest player on this year’s 22 Under 22 list, Nyeman's ball retention and passing eye both jump off the page. After rising through D.C. United’s academy ranks to their first team, Nyeman is penciled in as a US men’s national team prospect – even training with them before the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup. He’s only just surpassed two calendar years of being a professional, so it’s hard not to get excited about his potential as a dynamic No. 8.