Oh, to be young.
There are plenty of talented young players across all 12 League One rosters for the 2021 season. On the basis of 2020, it’s clear that if you perform in USL League One, you’ll get a chance at the next level.
Young Player of the Year Chris Brady returned to Chicago Fire FC after a successful loan spell with Forward Madison FC. North Texas SC defender Justin Che signed with Bayern Munich II. Fort Lauderdale CF standouts Edison Azcona and Ian Fray earned places with the club’s senior team Inter Miami CF.
The opportunity to make a name for themselves will be there for any of League One’s young players to seize this season, but here are 10 in particular to watch. To qualify for this list, players had to be born on or after January 1, 1999.
Vang became a mainstay in the Madison midfield almost immediately after joining the club last year, and that was no accident. In a team which otherwise struggled to score goals, Vang was a real bright spot, leading the team with four goals and creating two assists from 26 chances created in 13 appearances. At only 20 years old, Vang is just going to keep getting better, and is a very exciting player to watch already.
An Inter Miami CF Academy product, Hardin enters his second season as a professional with Fort Lauderdale. Last year, he impressed just about everyone with his composure and ability to read the game, playing in 13 of his team’s 16 games. He led the team in successful passes with 741 (eighth-most in League One) and in passing accuracy (90.7 percent). The young defender also had the second-most interceptions on his team (25) and tied for a team-high 17 aerial duels won.
A tough defensive midfielder, Alisson is instrumental for Head Coach Eric Quill’s side in breaking up opposition play. In 2020, he led the team in interceptions and tackles won while ranking third in duels won and second in aerial duels won. For a side that likes to attack in numbers, it’s often up to Alisson to provide the first line of defensive cover, and it’s a job he did well last season.
Calixtro is a product of the Portland Timbers Academy, and though only 20, already has more than 50 professional appearances and nine goals to his name from his time with Portland Timbers 2 in the USL Championship. Tucson will hope he can hit the ground running in League One to make up for the departure of forwards Josh Coan and Azaad Liadi this offseason.
A member of the 2019 Real Monarchs side which won the USL Championship, Arriaga brings a good amount of big game experience for such a young player. He’ll have plenty of even younger teammates with the 15 USL Academy signings currently on the NCFC roster, and for that reason, he may be valuable both as a mentor in the locker room and on the pitch.
Esparza is well-traveled in his young career. A former U.S. U-18 international, he signed with Liga MX’s Club Tijuana in 2018 and spent time on loan with Oaxaca and Celaya of the Mexican second division. Now with Chattanooga, Esparza figures to see an increase in minutes compared to his former clubs, and has the talent to shine in League One.
A lively striker with a full bag of tricks, Viniegra joined North Texas from Brazilian side Cruzeiro Esporte Clube during the offseason. The 18-year-old will have big shoes to fill following the departure of former League One Golden Boot winner Ronaldo Damus and former League One MVP Arturo Rodriguez, but he’ll be in an environment that has helped young players thrive in past seasons. Viniegra holds both Brazilian and Mexican citizenship, and played for the Mexican U-20 national team in November 2020.
A talented young center back, Dulysse joined the Haiti U-23 national team for Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifiers in March, then impressed on his professional debut in New England’s 1-0 clean sheet win over Fort Lauderdale. He’ll be a key component in the Revolution II’s defense this season.
Kamara joins NCFC on loan from USL Championship powerhouse Louisville City FC. A native of Sierra Leone, the 18-year-old attacker recently graduated from the vaunted Montverde Academy and will earn his first professional minutes with North Carolina FC. He has featured for the Sierra Leone U-20 national team, and has a very high ceiling for development.
Another young player to join a League One club on loan from a USL Championship one, Malone returns to his birthplace of Omaha for the new season. The 20-year-old grew up in Las Vegas before moving to become part of the Seattle Sounders Academy in 2017, and then spent one season playing collegiate soccer at the University of North Carolina two years later. He joins los Búhos from Orange County SC, and will be part of a defensive unit which was one of the league’s best last season.
League One’s top young talent doesn’t stop there. Here are 15 more names to keep an eye on as the season progresses, in alphabetical order by last name:
Julian Altobelli (Midfielder, Toronto FC II)
Jorge Imanol Almaguer (Midfielder, North Texas SC)
Dante Campbell (Midfielder/Defender, Toronto FC II)
Tristan DeLoach (Midfielder, South Georgia Tormenta FC)
Christian “Kazu” Kendji Wagatsuma Ferreira (Defender, North Texas SC)
Noah Fuson (Forward, Forward Madison FC)
Rafael Guerrero (Goalkeeper, FC Tucson)
Grant Hampton (Midfielder, South Georgia Tormenta FC)
Gerard Lavergne (Midfielder, FC Tucson)
Heath Martin (Defender, Forward Madison FC)
Selmir Miscic (Forward, North Carolina FC)
Stephen O’Hearn (Goalkeeper, South Georgia Tormenta FC)
Jordan Pena (Midfielder, FC Tucson)
Colby Quinones (Defender, New England Revolution II)
Gibran Rayo (Forward, North Texas SC)
Cristian Zaragoza (Defender, Chattanooga Red Wolves SC)