The 2021 Major League Soccer season saw a number of young talents break out of their shell to lead their respective clubs to success.
Players like Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike gained international attention for their contributions on the pitch, while underrated athletes like David Ochoa became instant heroes.
Here are Major League Soccer’s youngest talents - ranked.
15. Moses Nyeman
Club: D.C United
Moses Nyeman rose through the D.C. United academy ranks to the coveted first team roster.
His precision and dedication makes him an exciting prospect for Hernan Losada - and he’s well on his way to becoming one of the most dynamic players to settle in a number eight position at only 17 years old.
14. Leon Flach
Club: Philadelphia Union
He might have been perceived as just another player when the Philadelphia Union brought over Leon Flach from German side FC St. Pauli, but his time on the pitch proves he’s not like the rest.
The US youth international midfielder is known to thrive on the defensive end but his underrated abilities while attacking makes him a lethal weapon against any opponent. The 20-year-old started 31 games for the Union in 2021, inspiring them to a playoff run.
13. Justin Che
Club: FC Dallas
The defender has a dream start to the 2021 season, coming off of a wintertime loan to Bayern Munich. Upon his return to MLS, the homegrown player hit it off with fellow sensation Ricardo Pepi.
Though FC Dallas finished the year in 11th place on the Western Conference table, Che’s contributions on the pitch continues to inspire transfer buzz. It's only a matter of time before he’s the latest FCD academy product who heads overseas.
12. Kevin Paredes
Club: D.C United
Paredes took the leap forward in 2021, growing from an unnoticed homegrown player to an established part of D.C. United’s starting 11 under Hernan Losada.
The left wing-back uses his creativity and speed to create chances for the Black and Red in the final third. He’s already on the USMNT radar. He will only continue to fulfil his potential in 2022.
11. Cole Bassett
Club: Colorado Rapids
The midfielder sparked success for the Colorado Rapids during the 2021 season, recording five goals and four assists in 32 games. He found his place, settling in as a number eight during Colorado’s rise up the Western Conference standings.
The 20-year-old impressed audiences with his ability to cover ground and take an action-inspired approach to the position. This is only just his start.
10. Cristian Casseres Jr.
Club: New York Red Bulls
It’s crazy to think Casseres is still considered a young talent in MLS considering his lengthy list of accomplishments. Now in his fourth season with the NY Red Bulls, Casseres proves his attack driven tactics in the midfield work well in his favor.
He scored some crazy goals throughout the 2021 season, tallying up to six and four assists. Whether he orchestrated the play or found the net himself, the Red Bulls are better off with the Venezuelan on their side.
9. Cade Cowell
Club: San Jose Earthquakes
It’s hard to overlook Cade Cowell.
The 17-year-old had a breakout 2021 season for the San Jose Earthquakes, leaving little to the imagination on what he is capable of achieving. His technical skills translate best in the final-third, finding a pocket of space to set up teammates for success.
Cowell is on his way to become one the league’s best.
8. Efrain Alvarez
Club: LA Galaxy
Every year, the LA Galaxy homegrown player reaches new heights in his burgeoning career. Alvarez used his innate talent as a left-footed attacking midfielder to become a key figure for Greg Vanney in 2021.
At only 19, Efrain also stands as a rising talent for Mexico's national team.
If the stats aren’t enough to convince, Zlatan Ibrahimovic called him "the biggest talent from everybody in MLS" after playing with Alvarez in 2019. High praise.
7. Caden Clark
Club: New York Red Bulls
Clark hit the ground running in 2020, scoring on his first-team debut. His forward, aggressive manner has earned him a direct ticket from the New York Red Bulls to UEFA Champions League regulars RB Leipzig - following in Tyler Adams’ footsteps.
Clark often plays in a wide midfield role, but shifts centrally when necessary to instil chaos on the attack. Though the Minnesota native heads to the German Bundesliga now that the 2021 MLS season has concluded, he can't be forgotten.
6. George Bello
Club: Atlanta United
George Bello is only 19, and already in his fourth professional season with Atlanta United.
The attack-minded left back wasted no time in demonstrating his abilities to earn a starting role in Gonzalo Pineda’s squad, starting 26 regular season games in 2021, managing one goal and three assists.
His abilities to outrun opponents to spark action caught the eye of USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter, who made Bello an essential part of the team during the Gold Cup final and key World Cup qualifiers.
5. Julian Araujo
Club: LA Galaxy
The LA Galaxy right back became a key figure for Greg Vanney in the rebuild of the five-time MLS Cup champions. He started all 32 regular-season games for the California-based team, recording seven assists and 14 goal scoring attempts.
His eagerness on the ball and ability to supply swift assists on the fly earns him a spot on this list. Araujo stands as an up and coming talent slowly building his way to stardom.
4. James Sands
Club: New York City FC
James Sands continuously proves that a steady midfielder can make all the difference. His presence on NYCFC’s squad inspired the team to a 2021 MLS Cup run.
The homegrown player’s silent but deadly tactics earned him a US men’s national team call up, and he formed a vital part of the USMNT’s 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup winning squad as teammates relied on his precision and anticipation to outsmart opponents.
3. David Ochoa
Club: Real Salt Lake
After a spectacular 2021 season, David Ochoa truly proved himself during Real Salt Lake’s Round One MLS Cup match against the Seattle Sounders.
The Mexican national goalkeeper became the night’s instant hero after stopping Kelyn Rowe’s penalty to earn the advantage and ultimately end the Sounders’ playoff streak. He managed five clean sheets in 2021 and recorded 83 saves.
2. Daryl Dike
Club: Orlando City SC
Daryl Dike managed a whirlwind start to his professional career after being picked up by Orlando City SC during the MLS SuperDraft in January 2020.
A couple of months into his rookie year, the University of Virginia product was loaned off to Barnsley to compete in the English Championship, and he nearly earned the Tykes promotion to the Premier League before returning to Orlando to make his mark on Major League Soccer.
This year alone, he recorded 10 goals and three assists.
1. Ricardo Pepi
Club: FC Dallas
Of course, the one and only Ricardo Pepi lands first on the list!
He defied the odds this season, becoming the breakout star of 2021. The FC Dallas homegrown player was named Major League Soccer’s Young Player of the Year after recording 13 goals and three assists for the Western Conference team.
Internationally, Pepi climbed his way into a starting role in Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT squad.
Pepi, nicknamed “El Tren” after his momentum on the attack, is unstoppable. It remains unclear where the striker will play next year, but his place as the best young talent of the league is indisputable.