Having picked his top 36 players age 21 or under earlier this year, former scout and sporting director Tor-Kristian Karlsen turns his attention to the CONCACAF region, identifying and breaking down the skill sets of 15 players, who are from the region and play club soccer in North and Central America.
Tor explains his methodology, before revealing the list. Players included must have been age 21 or under on July 1; the top five have been ranked, with the rest appearing in alphabetical order.
How the Top 15 was finalised
From an initial “long list” of 50, those remaining predominantly satisfied my two main criteria: Appearances at the highest level and confirmed performance over a sustained period. Since there were few players with more than 15-20 games, though, in certain cases potential was given greater emphasis.
For example, Julian Araujo, who is courted by many European clubs but not a regular starter and only 18, got the nod ahead of Mark McKenzie, who is more than two years older and performing consistently, but has not shown the same potential.
Meanwhile, Gianluca Busio only turned 18 in May, but is already integral for Kansas City, whereas some of the highest-considered Mexicans also born in 2002, such as Eugenio Pizzuto and Jesus Gomez, have hardly featured at first-team level. Top 2003 talents, including Ricardo Pepi, were noted for future reference.
What types of research were undertaken?
I consulted CONCACAF- and Europe-based professional scouts and studied statistics and scouting tools provided by online platforms such as WyScout and InStat. ESPN colleagues Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall contributed with their know-how, while personal preference also played a significant role.
How comparisons with established players were made
These do not necessarily mean there are striking similarities, rather the reference is intended to illustrate a style of play and / or inherent attributes. It is not until players are well into their 20s that they properly define their own game. This is especially true in the case of forwards or creative players, who are prevalent in this list because they tend to get more playing time at a younger age than those in defensive positions.
The top 5
Player comparison: It’s still early days, but his understanding of the game, ability to keep the ball moving and general interpretation of the central midfield role makes you think Gonzalez could mould into a player similar to Chelsea’s Jorginho.
Bio: Born in California to Mexican parents, Gonzalez was a U.S. youth international before committing to Mexico after a tug of war between the two countries. He has already made 99 appearances for Monterrey and won a Liga MX title, the Copa MX and the CONCACAF Champions League.
Strengths: Although not in the best form of his career, Gonzalez has accumulated a wealth of experience for a player who is only 21. Dynamic and aggressive, he is neat on the ball and has an efficient pressing game. He can find space in midfield and keep the ball moving from a deep, holding position, but is also comfortable in a more advanced box-to-box role.
How he can improve: He needs to be more positive in his decision-making and passing game and start looking for creative options rather than playing the safe, sideway ball.
Next step: Recapturing his 2017 form is the first priority; then working his way into the Mexico XI.
Player comparison: He has been compared to the Barcelona’s Dutch international midfielder Frenkie de Jong, and it is easy to see why.
Bio: The latest prodigy to emerge from the club’s academy, Pomykal established himself as a consistent starter last season for FC Dallas and impressed at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup in Poland, where the U.S. made a run to the quarterfinals.
Strengths: One of the teenage revelations of last year’s MLS season, Pomykal has an unusual combination of creativity, flair, vision and work ethic. Though an attacking midfielder — he is left-footed but decent with his right — with an eye for a smart layoff or exquisite penetrating ball, he also does his share of defensive work by tracking back, then looking for the right areas to pick up possession. He is also a direct, positive dribbler who, thanks to his balance, is hard to dispossess.
How he can improve: By making an even greater, continued impact on the game throughout the 90 minutes.
Next step: If he picks up from where he left off last season, he could be on his way to a big European league; he has plenty of admirers in Germany and Italy.
Player comparison: Before Aaronson settles down into a defined role, it is hard to draw comparisons. For now, he is very much one of a kind, in a good way.
Bio: Following an impressive rookie season with the Philadelphia Union, in which he was the runner-up for MLS Rookie of the Year, Aaronson earned a call-up to the USMNT and debuted against Costa Rica in February.
Strengths: Amid all the talk of his energy and busy style of play — it is rare to see a player of his age so keen to be constantly involved — the midfielder has good football intelligence. He shows good awareness and maps the area around him before receiving the ball, while his close control is as tidy as his short passing game and his technical abilities are practical and useful. With fine running, on and off the ball, and an impressive pressing game, Aaronson is pretty much the complete midfielder.
How he can improve: Finding a defined position on the pitch; tactically, is he a box-to-box midfielder or an attacking midfielder? Aaronson is so keen to use his wide array of attributes and skills that he sometimes plays two or three positions at once!
Next step: A player who covers so much ground and displays such a work ethic is destined for the Premier League or Bundesliga, but before that, a steady season with the Union will advance his progression.
Player comparison: He is often compared to Luis Suarez, but while there are similarities, Macias does not quite have the extreme intensity and desire to roam and chase as the Uruguayan international.
Bio: An academy graduate of his hometown club, Chivas Guadalajara, Macias has done most of his damage in Liga MX on loan at Leon, where he scored 19 goals in 38 games and was named to the 2019 Clausura Best XI. Having also hit the ground running at international level with four goals in five games, Macias will return to parent club Chivas once Liga MX resumes later in July.
Strengths: A natural striker who is able to finish with either foot, from every angle and practically every position inside the box. Though not particularly quick or powerful, Macias’ footballing IQ, ability to find the right spaces and calm, unfussy finishing — through power or precision, he rarely wastes time with many touches — make him an intriguing forward prospect.
How he can improve: He would need work on the physical side of his game to succeed in Europe, where coping as a lone frontman is often a requirement regardless of playing style.
Player comparison: Quick, tricky feet and the ability to take on opponents, create and finish make him not too dissimilar to a young Mesut Ozil.
Bio: Born in Irapuato, Guanajuato, Alvarado was born to play football, and his parents named him after legendary Brazil left-back Roberto Carlos. After coming through the youth set-up at Celaya, Alvarado spent time at Pachuca and Necaxa before joining Cruz Azul. He has 18 caps, three goals and a Gold Cup title to his name with El Tri.
Strengths: With a low point of gravity, two excellent feet and the ability to make a full-back dizzy, Alvarado is unpredictable and hard to mark. Whether playing wide or through the middle, he wreaks havoc when advancing with the ball and is equally capable of hitting a thunderbolt with either foot or outsmarting the goalkeeper with a neat touch before placing the finish. As quick with his head as with his feet, he turns ideas into action quickly.
How he can improve: As a high-intensity player, he tends to run out of steam toward the of matches and, for all his talent, is still too often considered an “impact player.”
Next step: The time is right for Alvarado to move to a major European league, and he would have no problem holding his own at a mid-table La Liga side.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order)
Player comparison: Once he gets a little more used to senior football, Araujo can be as determined coming forward as Barcelona’s Nelson Semedo.
Bio: Originally from Santa Barbara, California, Araujo has represented the United States at U-18, U-19, U-20 and U-23 levels and also took part in last summer’s Under-20 World Cup.
Strengths: A positive right-back, Araujo is comfortable on the ball and often reaches the touchline to deliver crosses. At such a young age, he is neither tactically nor physically the finished article and can be vulnerable at the back post. However, for a possession-based team with slow build-up and in which the full-backs take part in the attack, his abilities on the ball and decision-making are more than useful.
How he can improve: While Araujo is a dynamic and diligent defender, you would like to see him be even more assertive in challenges and duels.
Next step: Time will tell whether he will fulfill his next obvious career step by becoming an undisputed regular for the Galaxy, given that Belgian and German clubs are already monitoring him closely.
Player comparison: Once he reduces the ratio of defensive mistakes and adds more telling contribution to his attacking game, it will be easier to define him as a left-back.
Bio: Born in Zapopan, Arteaga is a product of Santos Laguna’s youth set-up and has already amassed 106 senior appearances for the club. As a 19-year-old, he was a regular starter with the Guerreros when they won the 2018 Clausura title.
Strengths: Arguably among the less naturally talented players on this list, he nevertheless deserves respect for what he has done already as a professional. Hardly ever substituted or injured, Arteaga is a mainstay on Santos Laguna’s left side. Always happy to make energetic offensive runs, he is full of tricks, twists and turns and can be a handful attacking-wise.
How he can improve: Must be wary of being exposed defensively when committing himself too early in one-on-one challenges, while some of his ball recoveries — even deep in his own half or in danger zones — are due to tenacity rather than composed, well-executed defending. His end product can also be better. Overall, this is a rare case of a player who could benefit from taking the pace of his game down a notch.
Next step: He has attracted only sporadic interest from Europe, but a move to one of the Mexico’s giants — or MLS — remains a possibility.
Player comparison: From the intelligence of his movement and positioning, as well as his speed of thought, it is fair to suspect that Busio has spent time watching Andres Iniesta on YouTube.
Bio: Born in North Carolina, Busio also holds Italian citizenship. At 16, he became the third-youngest player to start an MLS game — behind only Freddy Adu and Alphonso Davies — when he lined up against Houston Dynamo.
Strengths: For all his flair and skill on the ball, Busio is yet to make a huge impact at senior level, although inspiring performances as a U.S. youth international mean expectation has perhaps been unrealistically high. Somewhere between a creative No. 8 and a central attacking midfielder, he picks up positions between the opponent’s lines. He can play using few touches, strike the ball with his right foot and has a knack for precise through passes.
How he can improve: Adding the physical robustness and body strength to fend off challenges in midfield and successfully track defensive runs is essential if Busio wants to make the final breakthrough at first-team level.
Next step: With an Italian father, a move to a Serie A club has been mooted, yet becoming a regular MLS starter should be his most obvious next target.
Bio: Signed by the Columbus Crew on a Young Designated Player contract in 2019, Diaz has chipped in with goals and assists since arriving from Herediano. He made his international debut last September against Uruguay.
Strengths: Still settling into MLS, Diaz has shown enough to suggest there are good things to come. Very much a traditional wide player, he is mainly fielded as a right midfielder but can also be deployed as a right-back. With a direct style, he loves taking on defenders and can deliver a wicked, curled cross with his right foot.
How he can improve: Prone to losing his overview of the game when moving infield with the ball, he must also develop his game beyond “give and go” and be more patient in build-up play.
Next step: Settle into the Columbus Crew side, perform consistently over 90 minutes and win more caps for Costa Rica.
Jesus Ferreira (FW; FC Dallas, United States)
Player comparison: He has the directness and pace of a wide forward yet prefers to play in central areas and often comes deeper than a traditional second striker. As such, he is hard to pigeon-hole, but the star potential is undoubted.
Bio: Born in Santa Marta, Colombia, Ferreira is the son of 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira, who earn 39 caps for Colombia. Jesus Ferreira became a U.S. citizen last December and made his USMNT debut in February against Costa Rica.
Strengths: After a breakout 2019, in which he scored eight goals and added five assists, the deep-laying striker has the potential to kick on. Despite not being a giant, he is able in the air and makes his presence felt on the ground, where he likes to pick up the ball and operate in front of the opponent’s defensive line. He features an impressive blend of pace, balance and technical abilities, is excellent at finding space and can finish with both feet.
How he can improve: He must up his concentration during the less exciting moments of the game; at times he can be sloppy in possession and lose his man on defensive set pieces.
Next step: If he continues to play like he did last season, Ferreira should get more chances with the national team.
Player comparison: As an inverted winger with an excellent right foot and creativity as his top attributes, why not look to Kevin De Bruyne for inspiration?
Bio: Born in Jacksonville but raised in Chicago, Mihailovic is the son of former Washington Diplomats midfielder Aleks. In January 2019, Djordje scored 40 minutes into his international debut against Panama.
Strengths: Fielded as an inverted wide player on the left, he is expected to take advantage of his creativity and passing quality to set up opportunities; his perfectly curled assist for a goal against the New England Revolution in March showcased what he can do.
How he can improve: For someone reasonably well-developed physically, he still gets knocked off the ball rather easily. In time, his lack of explosivity might see him more useful playing through the middle.
Next step: Mihailovic is expected to be one of Chicago’s top players this season, and, if that comes to fruition, a recall to the USMNT should also be on the cards.
Player comparison: If Kaka has been an inspiration for Ruiz, it shows in most areas of his game. Even his body structure is akin to that of the Brazilian legend.
Bio: Ruiz has taken the fast lane to stardom in Liga MX and recently joined Tijuana having made his name at Queretaro. He has won Mexico honours at Under-20 level.
Strengths: An elegant midfielder who likes to operate between No. 8 and No. 10 territory, Ruiz has a skinny frame, tidy close control and silky movements with the ball. Though often targeted by the opposition for his tendency to hang on to possession, his creativity going forward means he has a knack for pinpoint, defence-splitting passes.
How he can improve: As much as the essential qualities are in place, Ruiz could up his end product in terms of goals and assists. As he exits his teens, he will also be expected to contribute more defensively.
Next steps: Having just moved clubs, the agile midfielder will probably have to wait another year to move abroad, although he’s arguably ready for European football.
Player comparison: Sands possess some of the same skill sets as the West Ham and England defender/midfielder Declan Rice.
Bio: The New Yorker became the first NYCFC homegrown player to play for the club in 2017, and his reputation has grown ever since. After a breakout season, in which he started 18 league games, Sands was called up for the U.S. Under-23 team for the United International Football Festival in November 2019.
Strengths: Sands is tactically mature beyond his years. From a holding midfield role, he provides balance and is a constant outlet to keep the ball moving, while as a defender he shows an ability to read the game and growing physical presence. Not the most spectacular player, but he is composed on the ball and rarely makes mistakes.
How he can improve: Increase risk-taking in his passing game, especially when playing in midfield. Although it might not be in his nature, more aggression and “edge” could be the difference between staying in MLS and a move to Europe.
Next step: Continuing his positive development from last season and cementing his status as a key player for NYCFC.
Gilberto Sepulveda (DF; Chivas, Mexico)
Player comparison: Atletico Madrid’s Uruguayan international centre-back Jose Gimenez would be a suitable reference as Sepulveda pushes to develop his game.
Bio: Another graduate of the highly regarded Chivas youth set-up, which also produced the likes of Javier Hernandez, Carlos Salcido and Francisco Rodriguez. An accomplished player for Mexico’s youth teams, Sepulveda was named to the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship Best XI in 2018 and represented his country at the Under-20 World Cup a year later.
Strengths: The centre-back has become a starter for Chivas in recent times. Primarily a “stopper” who enjoys defending and the physical side of the game, Sepulveda comes out on top in the vast majority of aerial duels, though mainly through determination rather than size. His attitude and willingness to sacrifice so the ball stays out of the net are hallmarks of a future captain.
How he can improve: While it’s hard to improve mobility — he tends to struggle against quick and tricky opponents — Sepulveda would benefit from working on his passing game and ability on the ball.
Next step: Focus on keeping his status as a starter for his club will, in time, open up new opportunities as he develops his game and gains experience.
Player comparison: Given Ugalde’s knack of popping up to convert chances with composure, Gabriel Jesus is the first player who springs to mind.
Bio: Already a key figure for 35-time Costa Rican champions Saprissa, Ugalde had 16 goals and nine assists in 2019-20, earning his first Costa Rica call-up in February.
Strengths: He thrives when playing off the shoulder of defenders, picking up loose balls in the box and converting tap-ins. While that might sound simple, Ugalde is very good at it and has the temperament — plus a bit of cunning — to go with the opportunism. Though still developing and with modest experience, he has shown enough for Saprissa and youth national teams to suggest he has a special knack for goal scoring.
How he can improve: He did not manage to follow up a promising Apertura season and ended up with only three goals from the latter part of the campaign, so consistency is a target, as is the need to develop his all-round game beyond the penalty area.
Next step: He has been linked with a move to a club within the City Football Group network, which might mean his next move is to MLS (NYCFC) or a European development competition such as the Belgian Pro League (Lommel SK).