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5 MLS wonderkids you should know something about

Alphonso Davies, 17 years old, Vancouver Whitecaps
By Fabrizio Gabrielli

 

Alphonso Davies’s story – from being the son of refugees to become the youngest footballer to ever debut with the National Canadian Team – isn’t just a beautiful tale of integration. It’s also an example of how in certain well-organized environments (the MLS), a diamond in the rough endowed with great physical ability and a healthy dose of talent can transform himself into the blueprint of a champion.
Throughout two seasons, Davies has gone from fifteen-year-old wunderkid to record transfer from Major League Soccer to one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe, Bayern Munich, despite not even being 18. This was all possible due to the trust that his environment placed in his abilities: in the last Regular Season, he made 30 appearances, 26 as a starter, an impressive figure for a young man of his age.

Alphonso Davies is a very physical, extremely fast winger. He does best in open spaces that spread out as he aims towards his direct opponents and overtakes them. He loves to continually face off in one-on-one challenges, which he insistently seeks to achieve a numerical advantage during setup or plunge into the wing in search of a cross. When deployed on the right flank using his opposite foot, he instead often tries to focus more on passing (11 assists this season) than shooting. Shooting is a fundamental at which he does not excel, but his stats show a margin of improvement: last season, he scored one-third of the shots he took (13 out of 35), with a scoring rate of about 50%, which has allowed him to sum up 6 goals.

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With a 4.5 successful dribbling average per match, he’s MLS’s most compulsive (and most effective) dribbler. However, his favorite move is still to lunge toward the wing, surging forward to scatter his direct opponents. He can change his pace with apparent ease, which often allows him to gain essential advantages over his rivals when attacking the length of the field.
Currently, Alphonso Davies’ most obvious limitation is finalizing every move characterized by his sprints; his number of successful crosses is only 0.5 per match. An important key to Alphonso Davies’ talent, and thus to his potential development, is his adaptability. In addition to being a winger, this year he was often deployed as a low side wingback with offensive duties (on 8 occasions).

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In his role as a wingback, he’s shown maturity in his decision-making and responsibility in his coverage. The primary duties that always fall to him, even when he is in a lower position, included in a side chain with a more advanced teammate, are creating density on the wing or embedding sprints into the pace of the maneuver. Here, he makes choices that are never dull and that are a result of the enormous trust placed in his athletic abilities.

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He receives a low kick in the third quarter: skips past his first opponent with a grand-ponte and escapes the pressure of the second with a sprint that brings him along to carry out a solo offensive transition.

All in all, Alphonso Davies is a real vertical player. Despite his graceful control and light first-touches, his technique is not that of an entertainer who has to lead the ranks of the show. Instead, it is of an already mature footballer who plays not with the frenzy of a skittish stallion, but with his head held high and the detachment of someone who knows the move that can influence a match. These features, along with an excellent physical build for a 17-years-old lad (1.78m tall for 70 kg) and his athletic gifts, make him one of the most exciting prospects ever to have bloomed in the MLS academy.

 

Yangel Herrera, 20 years old, New York City FC
By Emanuele Atturo

 

City Football Group’s project is possibly the most exciting and trailblazing in the landscape of international football. Within it, Manchester City is the shiniest showcase. However, behind this lies a mosaic of teams that are fully integrated through the highest level of professionalism, from talent scouts concerned with ferreting out talent from the farthest corners of the earth to trainers who can then concern themselves with developing this talent.

Like Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno, Yangel Herrera is another South American acquired by Manchester City before he even got to establish himself at a high level. When City decided to invest 2 million pounds in him, Herrera was 19 and had made 32 appearances with Atlético Venezuela. City immediately loaned him to the American franchise of the group, New York City. A few months later, Herrera had gained significant experience as a captain of his national team in the U-20 FIFA World Cup, during which he immediately thanked his coach, Patrick Vieira, and teammate Andrea Pirlo. “Vieira and Pirlo have helped me so much,” he said. “I’ve learned that the standard is very high and I’ve got to learn and improve myself if I want to solidify my position.”

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Herrera’s interceptions, one of his best qualities.

On May 25, Herrera injured his hip in the match against the Houston Dynamos and had to sit out all of 2018. But he was able to return on October 21, playing 18 minutes against DC United and then 90 against Philadelphia Union. Herrera can play midfielder, but he’s mostly deployed as an inside forward in Patrick Vieira’s 4-3-3. Indeed, a glance at his stats gives you an idea of his features. Even with his not-so-big sample of matches (a little under 1,000 minutes), Herrera is the player with the most verified tackles per ninety minutes and the most successful interceptions in the MLS. So, he’s a player who’s always at the core of his own team’s defensive stage. He’s a midfielder with some fight in him.

It would be easy to imagine the classic South American midfielder – all heart and overwrought competitiveness – but he’s precisely the opposite. Although only 20 years old, Herrera stands out for his interpretation of the game, with and without the ball. His work is essential for bridging distances between players during the possession, and he has an extraordinary instinct for reading the trajectories of his opponents’ passes. He tackles with surgical precision, more remarkable for his choice of time than for his physical strength. If there’s one aspect of Herrera that doesn’t stand out, it’s his athleticism: he isn’t fast in his first steps, and he struggles to hold his own in a purely physical confrontation when the opposition is playing at a higher level. He’s a paradox for a midfielder with defensive features.

Herrera at his best.

Herrera is a defensive but cerebral player. This inclination is on display even when he’s in possession, where he is neat and essential. However, when the game requires it, he becomes more vertical and seizes upon his extraordinary insight into the game, sometimes even with his left foot. Above all else, Herrera is excellent at finding low-to-the-ground tracers that cut from right to left. In this, he needs to improve his playing under pressure, especially if he eventually wants to make it to Europe. It’s a scenario that’s not too far off: in MLS, his tactical intelligence already makes him stand out above the rest.

 

Milton Valenzuela, 20 years old, Columbus Crew
By Dario Saltari

 

Before coming to MLS, Milton Valenzuela, who turned 20 in mid-August, had played only 12 matches over 3 seasons in the Argentine Primera División, wearing Newell’s Old Boys jersey for less than 850 minutes. But ever since he arrived in the States, the Argentine wingback has played nearly all of his matches as a starter, beginning with an assist, and establishing himself as one of the best prospects in the entire MLS. Only a few weeks ago, the American championship included him among the 22 best Under 22 players in the league – number 12, to be exact.

In short, Columbus Crew had some great intuition in a championship that for the past few years has been trying to invert the balance of transfers, which has been heavily unbalanced by importations up to now, and with the “en masse” arrival of players from Europe at the end of their careers. “I like the fact that we’re working with young players; I like the fact that these players have resale value,” declared Gregg Berhalter, Columbus Crew coach, with brash sincerity. “We would like nothing more than for Milton to have a successful career in MLS and perhaps have suitors in higher leagues that come after him because of his quality.” Given such openly mercenary reasoning, it is natural to wonder whether the Argentine wingback is already attractive to an important team in one of the five major European championships.

Valenzuela is a purely offensive wingback, with a very refined technical awareness and outstanding insight into the game. Seen solely from this perspective, he performs his role in a very modern way, acting as a ‘de facto’ director and often entering the field with the ball to assemble with his teammates or directly create opportunities for a goal. Valenzuela is the third-ranking MLS defender for key passes per 90 minutes (1.3), and even when he has to cross, he’s never mechanical while kicking the ball into the middle. Instead, he always lifts his head to seek the most effective pass to his teammates around him (and in fact, he is also third-ranking for the number of successful crosses per 90 minutes: 1).

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His limitations, both offensive and defensive, are mainly physical. Valenzuela is short, slight, and not explosive at all, making him essentially inoffensive when it comes to dribbling (only 0.4 successful dribbles per 90 minutes) and very vulnerable when he is forced to defend a large area of the field behind him. That is to say that he could still grow technically when it comes to defense, especially by better using his body in one-on-ones (which often lead him to make errors, even serious ones) and better managing response times and wait times.

If his technical flaws can be corrected with coaching and the accumulation of experience in football at a higher level, it’s yet hard to know whether Valenzuela can overcome his physical limitations. The Argentine wingback has great creative talent and should count on that if he wants to get into European football through the backdoor offered by MLS.

 

Latif Blessing, 21 years old, Los Angeles FC
by Marco d’Ottavi

 

Professionally grown at the Academy of Liberty Professionals, in Ghana, Latif Blessing was shy of 20 years old when he was chosen as the best player of the Ghanaian league, of which he also was the top goalscorer. With this curriculum, seeing him land a spot in a European team seemed a foregone conclusion, being Europe the path of choice of the best African football talents. Instead, it was the MLS, which for some years has been zeroing in on prospects trained by the best Ghanaian academies (the last two drafts yielded four Ghanaian players) that secured him. In the US championship, Blessing played the first season with Sporting Kansas City, before ending up at the Los Angeles FC, selected by the Californian franchise in the 2017 expansion draft as an unrestricted player.

Latif Blessing is electric full of energy player, super-fast in the first steps. He is a second striker by talent but can perform indistinctly as right or left winger, where he is part of the Los Angeles FC 4-3-3 scheme. So far, in this season he has scored 7 goals and served 7 assists, showing remarkable lucidity in the last 16 meters (he plays 2 key passes every 90 minutes). His game is more natural when he starts from the left, with his right foot, and can, therefore, enter the field to connect with his teammates. Blessing does not consider crossing an option: in 1771 championship minutes, he only attempted crossing 11 times (2 of which were successful).

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Blessing’s most significant limitation is his physique: 1.65 cm tall for 63 kg – in spite of the determination of each one of his plays, he runs aground when he must give continuity to actions requiring large chunks of the field. He tries an average of 4 dribbles over 90 minutes, succeeding in less than half of the times: any dribble from a standstill position or which leverages his ability to anticipate his marker’s move is often successful; dribbling while throwing out of balance and passing his adversary is a different matter. His shot from outside the box is lackluster (20% of his shots come from this area of the field, but they are never intimidating), though he compensates with his good instinct to move within the penalty area. Blessing is somewhat of an atypical wing; he is a second striker in a forward position of sorts: he is more at ease in moving without the ball. For example, when he arrives from the weak side and cuts into the area to take advantage of his ability to advance on the defender and of his quick first steps.

Latif’s nickname is “Game Changer,” which honors his ability to bring formidable energy and determination to the last meters of the field. This is also why Bob Bradley, the Los Angeles FC coach, often uses him to change the game in progress, to bring freshness and unpredictability in the offensive phase. Latif has a contagious energy even outside the field: his favorite competition is the MLS Open Cup, which he won last season, because in every game “you have to give your best not to be eliminated”, and when he was at Sporting Kansas City he was voted the best dancer of the team – indeed, after every goal Latif breaks into a dance. That’s also why he immediately became one of the idols of the fans of a one-year-old team.

For a sport that increasingly looks for physical players, Latif could struggle to find a spot in a league that is more challenging than the MLS. It’s not easy to bet against Latif: if in the next few years he could channel all the desire and energy he brings to the field, it would not be a long stretch to see him make it to Europe.

 

Tyler Adams, 19 years old, New York Red Bulls

 

The first time I saw Tyler Adams, I was wrong. I saw him bring Bastian Schweinsteiger with him along the side field, and he kicked him after failing to capture the ball: the match was between the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls last summer. No doubt I was late on Tyler Adams, considering that this is already his second season as a starter of the first-choice NYRB line-up and that he debuted in the National team a year ago. The few-second long clip posted on social media fooled me on his real abilities; I thought he was your standard under-20 light and hyper-technical offensive midfielder.

You too would think of Adams as an offensive midfielder if you saw him for the first time, while he receives the ball with his back to the football goal and withstands an initial charge by Schweinsteiger, so violent that for a moment he pulls him to the ground, and then turning as if nothing had happened towards the offensive midfield. If you then saw him stroll with Schweini at his heel, hiding the ball from the German’s second attempt, slowing at the sideline with his shoulders and stroking the ball with his sole, before stretching out to avoid Kapphelof’s leg-breaking slide, you may conclude that you were not wrong about him.

However – surprise, surprise – Tyler Adams is, first of all, a great defensive midfielder.

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What we can see in that action is the difference between two different “brands” of defensive midfielder. There cannot be a more symbolic handover than this one: one of the most prominent European defensive midfielders near the end of his career, with 8 Bundesliga, 1 Champions League and a World Cup (among other things), who gets fooled by an American kid who will soon be headed to Germany.

Schweini has always been a “hard man,” a more fluid midfielder than those who came before him, but with the same style of play made of simple elements: defend and attack, first one and then the other. For Tyler Adams, on the other hand, there is no distinction between phases and his primary talent makes it really difficult to understand in what role he has specialized over the years. Though his game is mostly conservative – he presses, interrupts his opponent’s game and consolidates his team’s formation – even if Tyler Adams has specialized in the tasks of the defensive midfielder/inside forward, he is a universal and multi-functional player who, in fact, also played as a wingback.

Tyler Adams was the first sixteen-year-old to sign a contract with NYRB first team. He scored at his debut on the field (in a friendly game with Chelsea) and the following year (2017) he played 24 games, almost all as a starter, finishing among the finalists for the Best Young Player of the Year award. Last season, he played in the Conference Semi-finals and shortly after that, he was called up in the senior National team. He was raised in Wappingers Falls, a picturesque village in the Hudson Valley, and until a year ago he still lived with his parents: “It’s nice having those home-cooked meals all the time, but I’ll enjoy living on my own and going into that next part of my life”, he used to say. He looks like the classic sports prodigy with his head on his shoulders: while leapfrogging through his career stages in the MLS and the National team, he found time to graduate high school and today takes online courses in Sports Psychology, at Southern New Hampshire University (MLS partner).

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With high probability already since January – after the playoffs with his New York Red Bulls (first in the Eastern Conference with 2 points ahead of Atlanta, winning the Supporter Shield) – we will see him in Europe, playing for the Red Bull Leipzig. This year, with his simple and precise game that alternates vertical and horizontal plays, Tyler Adams has been the New York Red Bulls player with more passes. Not only is he not an offensive midfielder, but he not even one of those young talents who feel like they are holding the world by its tail. On the contrary, Tyler Adams expresses himself through continuity and adaptation to the pace of play: if Schweini tackles, he dribbles, and if the former goes for another tackle, the latter goes for yet another dribble; but where Schweini takes his time, Adams looks around and passes the ball, as he always does.

Tyler Adams lacks the creativity of an offensive midfielder, but with the ball on his feet he can do whatever the game requires, and it will be great to see him in the German vertical plays, with more forward passing lines and a short duration of action. What he can count on, which will provide him with an excellent base to feel at ease, is his intelligence without the ball by which he applies pressure and takes the ball away from his adversaries. Adams gets the best of most of the one-on-one duels he faces (66.5% of one-on-one and dribbles he attempts), although sometimes he tends to project himself too far forward, leaving too much space behind him. However, he has exceptional dynamism by which he always shortens to a minimum the distance between himself and his adversaries.

In a friendly game against France, he dabbled into a challenge with a high-level midfield – actually, with a world champion midfield – and with Matuidi in a forward position, we saw all his elasticity and the ability to recover when his first pressure fell flat, and he found himself covering the space he left behind. With a short and aggressive team like him, with close players with whom to swap the ball on short exchanges and to let his technique shine in passes and controls, Adams can aim to become one of the best.

To be sure, there are still many unknowns when we talk about a player who has yet to turn twenty and with a physique that cannot remain as it is if Tyler aspires to play football at the highest level. Will he be able to withstand the intensity and kgs of the Bundesliga? Will he have the same clarity in handling the ball, the same calm in setting the play? Will he be able to snatch balls as he does in the MLS? Time, for sure, is on his side.