By Joseph Lowery (@joeincleats)
In Major League Soccer, young players don’t always get a chance to show their stuff. When they do get a chance, only a very small percentage of players under 21 actually add value to a team over more experienced options - that’s why it is such a big deal when youngsters play and make an impact in MLS. Because of the relative rarity of young players getting minutes in MLS, we are going to look at and appreciate some of the top U-21 talent that has burst onto the scene and produced this season.
This is “American Soccer Analysis”, not “Every Country Soccer Analysis” so we are going to focus exclusively on American youngsters. Lets kick this thing off in Kansas City.
Jaylin Lindsey, Fullback, Sporting Kansas City
Peter Vermes’ system at SKC is a fullback’s statistical paradise. Graham Zusi and Jimmy Medranda have both put up outstanding numbers and Jaylin Lindsey, though he has been playing more sporadically, is doing the same. Lindsey, 18, has become a big part of Sporting Kansas City’s squad, recently getting some starts at left back despite being a natural right back. In almost six hundred minutes, Lindsey has not only cemented his status as a top American prospect, but he has proven himself as one of the better fullbacks in Major League Soccer. Among fullbacks with at least 500 minutes, Jaylin Lindsey is…
- 14th in key passes (passes that lead directly to a shot) per 96 minutes with 1.14. Even as a defensive player, his vision and passing ability are both extremely valuable.
- Second in passes per 96 (24.0) and passing completion percentage (85.1%) in the final third. Lindsey gets forward in possession and is comfortable in attacking areas.
- Third in expected passing completion percentage at 81.2%.
These passing numbers speak to Lindsey’s talent and fit in his manager’s set up. Vermes has infused some youth into his backline, while keeping the positional profile he wants at outside back. Lindsey is an attacking-minded defender capable of making a tangible, statistical difference when given the opportunity. The 18-year-old is improving every chance he gets and is on the fast track to the USMNT.
Chris Durkin, CDM, DC United
Chris Durkin is smooth. He is great on the ball and operates well in tight spaces, especially for an 18-year-old.
For a team like DC United who need skillful players to support a talented (at least on paper) attack, Durkin is a valuable player to promote attacks from deep in midfield. Manager Ben Olsen has his squad playing in a 4-1-4-1 usually with either Júnior Moreno or Chris Durkin playing as the lone defensive midfielder in front of the back four.
While Moreno and Durkin have put up very similar per 96 numbers across most categories, there is one major difference between the two players: productivity in DC’s defensive third. Durkin averages an 85.6% pass completion percentage, while Moreno averages an 80.6%. Compared to Moreno, Durkin also ranks higher in Score, a statistic that quantifies passes completed over the expected number of passes completed. In fact, Durkin’s Score in the defensive third (0.54) is second among all midfielders with over 1000 minutes played this season - ahead of MLS stars like Wil Trapp, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Bradley, and Ilie Sanchez. With efficient passing numbers like these, Durkin may not be in Major League Soccer much longer, so enjoy him while you can.
Tyler Adams, Midfielder, New York Red Bulls
The New York Red Bulls’ style of play does very specific things very well. It pressures opposing teams into giving up the ball and allows them to win the ball high up the field and attack quickly. One thing the Red Bulls’ style does not do well is provide pretty passing numbers. The Red Bulls are last in MLS in terms of passing completion percentage and expected passing completion percentage.
Yet, even playing in a scheme that results in low passing numbers, Tyler Adams shines through. Out of normal starters and rotation field players, Adams is top three for the Red Bulls in terms of overall passing completion and passing completion in the final third.
Still, more important for the New York Red Bulls than passing completion is ball advancement. Former manager Jesse Marsch preached moving the ball vertically upfield as a primary attacking method. New manager Chris Armas, while focused slightly more on possession, also emphasizes verticality and Adams is his vertical-ball-progressing-poster-child. While fourth-to-last among midfielders with 1000+ minutes played in average passing distance, Adams averages a very high 3.8 yards of vertical gain per pass, making his “vertical ratio” one of the best among MLS midfielders.
Though Adams is generally regarded as an active, disruptive defensive midfielder, he is putting up some promising offensive passing numbers as well. Adams is statistically shining for the New York Red Bulls’ and improving his overall game along the way.
Trusty/McKenzie, CBs, Philadelphia Union
By conventional wisdom, Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin is crazy. In his 4-2-3-1 set up, Curtin starts just-barely 20-year old Auston Trusty and 19-year-old Mark McKenzie at center back. It is not as if these two teenage center backs. the youngest CB duo in MLS, are just playing to satisfy the #PlayYourKids quota on Twitter; Trusty and McKenzie have put up some quality numbers. Among center backs with over 1000 minutes played, McKenzie is sixth in passing completion percentage (88.3%) and third in expected passing completion percentage (84.0%). Among the same group of center backs, Trusty is in the top 26 in terms of passes per 96, vertical, distance, and touch percentage.
Still, even more valuable to the Union than McKenzie and Trusty’s passing numbers is Philadelphia’s overall defensive production. Led by two young central defenders, the Union are well inside the top half of MLS (9th) in expected goals allowed. Every single team that has allowed fewer expected goals than the Union rely on players with far more experience at center back, making Philly’s youth-infused numbers even more notable. It’s especially easy to be encouraged by the production and development of these young CBs when one of them makes a defensive play like this one:
Just like conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t start two center backs who aren’t legally old enough to drink, conventional wisdom also says that two extremely young center backs providing genuine value in MLS have successful careers ahead of them.
Reggie Cannon, RB, FC Dallas
From a mistake prone young fullback to a solid, proactive right back, Reggie Cannon has come a long way in a short amount of time. Cannon is now a key piece in FC Dallas’ attack, providing stability and plus passing numbers on the right side.
Among fullbacks with at least 500 minutes, Cannon is sixth in passing completion percentage (84.2%) and tenth in passing completion percentage in the final third (79.8%). That 79.8% completion rate in final third number is not only first among FC Dallas fullbacks this season, but it is also higher than any regular Dallas fullback had averaged since ASA started collecting data for MLS matches.
It gets better. If Cannon maintains his passing percentage in the attacking third, he will be tenth among fullbacks with 1000+ minutes in final third passing completion in the “ASA era” (2011-Today). Making the top ten is a feat for any player, but for a 20-year-old fullback in his first full professional season? It’s incredible. Cannon is going places (like the Olympics, Europe, and eventually the senior USMNT).
Now, let’s move on to “Quick Hitters” where sample size is even more irrelevant than above!
- RSL’s Brooks Lennon has the fourth most key passes among all fullbacks in Major League Soccer with 28.
- In just 105 MLS minutes, Andrew Carleton has 0.9 xG+xA. A tiny number of minutes, yes, but an impressive xG+xA figure nonetheless.
- Like Jaylin Lindsey, Wan Kuzain has gotten some run recently for Sporting Kansas City. In his 338 minutes, Kuzain is 10th in the league in passing completion percentage.
- Finally, there is one man leading the league with a staggering 4.81 xG/96: Portland youngster Jeremy Ebobisse (in, ahem, 12 minutes of playing time). Gio Savarese must hate data.
That’s all for this MLS/USMNT youngster deep-dive. Check back at the end of the season for a follow-up on these players and more!