National Writer: Charles Boehm

MLS is Back: 7 homegrowns with breakout potential in 2024


‘Leveling up.’

We hear the term a lot these days in professional sports. One entry on the crowd-sourced wisdom of defines it as “to make a move in your life or career for the better,” while another goes back to the term’s roots, calling it “when a player of a video game has earned enough experience points to acquire a new level in a skill or skills.”

For all the attention paid to the arrivals of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and other famous veterans of the world stage, that 30-plus crowd, and really the league as a whole, couldn’t function at peak performance without the energy and ambition of the young’uns further down the roster. Last season, homegrown players as a category set new records for minutes, games played and goals scored, constituting about 20% of those who took the field in MLS action.

Here are a few we believe are best poised to level up in ‘24.

Whether it’s a factor of increased attention and investment by the club, a serendipitous crop of local talent or a combination of both, the Revs have been churning out exceptional homegrowns lately – though it must be said that the most interesting of the bunch at present is an import from the upper Midwest.

The son of Bosnian refugees who fled the horrific violence that engulfed their native Srebrenica in the 1990s, Bajraktarevic was recruited from Appleton, Wisconsin to join New England’s residential program and quickly climbed the ranks. Still a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, the playmaker has taken big steps forward in recent months, incisively applying his cleverness and skill in the high-tempo environment of the Revs’ first team.

With Colombian winger Dylan Borrero still recovering from last year’s torn ACL, the kid is getting his shot as an inverted right winger for a trophy-chasing side.

"Esmir’s a special player. What's interesting about him is he's very technical and creative, but he's dynamic, too. He's explosive," new Revs head coach Caleb Porter told

"And he's a confident kid. He's got a little edge. For me right now, he's our starting right winger. We got Borrero out, so he's going to get a lot of minutes."

Not so long ago it appeared this US youth international, the son of former MLS striker Scott Sealy, was on a fast track to a big European league. Just 15 when he signed a homegrown deal with FC Dallas, the young forward joined PSV Eindhoven on a two-year loan in 2021 and notably spent time under the tutelage of Dutch legend Ruud van Nistelrooy.

But no permanent move materialized and he returned to Texas last summer, with some wondering if he’d lost his way.

He’s still just 20, though, and was the surprise standout of Dallas’ preseason, thriving as a wingback in Nico Estévez’s intriguing new 3-4-2-1 formation and showing real menace on free kicks, too. Pacey and elegant, left-footed but capable of working on either flank, Sealy’s emergence is a welcome boon for FCD – and he’s got many talent watchers rooting for him to put it all together after his winding path to this point.

Many MLS insiders believe it’s just a matter of time before Atlanta’s precocious left back/winger earns a multi-million dollar move abroad. One of the original members of the Five Stripes’ earliest academy teams, Wiley is a quick study with elite athleticism who last year showed signs of the top-tier decision-making that can make all that so devastatingly effective in the run of play.

He notched four goals, four assists and 19 key passes in 30 MLS appearances, along with some head-turning displays as the United States made a quarterfinal run at the U-20 World Cup, where he also scored. Now Atlanta expect him to be a key ingredient in their push to rejoin the league’s elite.

"Caleb’s ceiling is higher than any of us even know," U-20s coach Mikey Varas said last March. "I am happy to see it happening and coming to fruition. No surprises for us. Caleb is a top player and a top human being."

Neal is one of two names here who also featured in last year’s version of this list. At that point, the calm, rangy center back had just made his senior USMNT debut before playing not so much as a minute for the Galaxy in MLS, a rare situation that underlined the scale of his upside.

He would go on to log 1,290 league minutes in 2023, ranking as one of the most accurate passers in his position and earning the No. 14 spot on’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list even as he suffered a painful snub from the US U-20 World Cup squad. It’s a tribute to his maturity and mindset that he called the 22U22 nod “one of my goals for this year,” adding “a few of my U-20 national team teammates got that last year. And I was like, I think once I get playing time, I’ll be in there.”

He’s still got to prove he can body up opposing strikers and withstand the rough-and-tumble of life as a daily starter. But he’s already one of the faces of the rebuilding Galaxy, who very much need a local guy like him to inspire others rising through their academy.

McGlynn, too, is a repeat honoree from last year, and here’s why: Over the past two years the native New Yorker has faced and just about answered all doubts about his top-tier athleticism and ability to execute Philly’s hard-nosed pressing tactics.

He started the 2022 MLS Cup final and more than held his own, then starred at the U-20 World Cup, drawing a rising buzz of European interest with the distribution range in his cultured left foot.

Now a regular starter for the Union, McGlynn – like others on this rundown – is likely to get his chance on an even bigger stage in this summer’s Olympics in France. He and Philly are hungry for hardware after several agonizing ‘nearly’ moments, and the team’s success would surely only speed his ascension at both club and international levels.

STL’s curly-mopped playmaking dynamo hails from a family of virtuoso jazz musicians, and there’s comparable artistry in his game, even in the organized noise of CITY SC’s hectic high press.

He also took a less conventional route than your typical young MLS riser: Jackson wandered from New York Red Bulls to French club Toulouse to Seattle-area side Crossfire as an adolescent, then on to Minnesota United’s second team, before finally getting a real chance for senior minutes when St. Louis acquired him (with his homegrown priority in tow) before their inaugural season.

And much like the club itself, he seized that opportunity beyond anyone’s expectations, pushing his way into Bradley Carnell’s regular rotation with an effective blend of bite, creativity and work rate. It helped him gain his USMNT debut last month, and now he aims to make a late run into the Olympic team with a strong start to the MLS campaign.

Born in England, raised in NYC and eligible to represent the US, England and Jamaica, the Pigeons’ teenage left back exemplifies the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the “Play Your Kids” movement. McFarlane isn’t yet old enough to rent a car, but has been focused on the pro pathway since age 14: He was the third-youngest first-team signing in MLS history at the time.

Reports out of New York City FC’s preseason suggest he’s still well ahead of schedule and could earn significant minutes this season – no small feat considering their progressive game model and talented roster. As a member of the City Football Group, his club is well-connected to offer a staircase towards the sport’s loftiest stages should he keep on course, and he’s already the subject of keen international recruiting efforts, spending time with both US and English youth teams.