After a transition year, 2019 ushers in a new era of hope for the United States men’s national team. The side recently began life under a new coach in Gregg Berhalter. Having had a year to evaluate and gauge the United States’ young talent pool, we decided to rank the top 23 players aged 23 and under in terms of potential impact in 2019 and beyond.
With the Gold Cup, an Under-20 World Cup, the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League tournament and the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament for the U23s, 2019 is a pivotal year for the U.S. and its development. Below is a list of 23 players aged 23 or under who will play a role with the U.S. senior team in 2019. What did we get right? Whom did we leave out? Who were the biggest surprises? We kick off our rankings with none other than 20-year-old whiz kid Christian Pulisic …
Editor’s note: To avoid speculating too much and due to the uncertainty around these unique situations, dual nationals not committed to the U.S. — such as Bayern Munich’s Timothy Tillman and the LA Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez — have been omitted, as have gifted teenagers like Giovanni Reyna and Chris Richards, who due to their age or club situations are unlikely to contribute with the senior national team this year.
Tier 1: Surefire starters
1. Christian Pulisic, Winger/Attacking Midfielder, Borussia Dortmund (on loan from Chelsea) — No surprises here, as Pulisic, despite being just a teenager at the time, was far and away the USMNT’s best and most productive player (seven goals, six assists) during the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle. The Dortmund winger remains miles ahead of everyone in the U.S. player pool and is fresh off sealing a £57.6 million move to Chelsea. Pulisic is the present and long-term future of the U.S. national team, and as his second-place finish to Kylian Mbappe in the Kopa Trophy (best under-21 player in the world) confirms, the 20-year-old is widely considered one of the best young talents in world football.
2. Tyler Adams, Central Midfielder, RB Leipzig — The New York Red Bulls Academy graduate’s rise has been rapid for both club and country over the past year. The 20-year-old has become a staple in midfield for the national team and is a regular starter for his new club in the Bundesliga. His energy and motor make him a nuisance to play against. The question going forward: What is his best position? Is he a box-to-box midfielder? Defensive midfielder? The good news for the U.S. is that Adams looks to have the versatility and skill set to thrive in either spot. Oh, and he’s already scored against Mexico.
3. Tim Weah, Winger/Striker, Celtic (on loan from PSG): The hype around Weah is obvious: His dad is a former Ballon d’Or winner (1995) and the younger Weah came through the academy of a top European club (PSG) and has trained day in and day out with world-class players like Neymar and Mbappe. Still just 19, Weah has already shown flashes of his talent and potential, whether it be his blinding pace or his willingness to take people on and “try stuff.” Weah still has a long way to go in terms of becoming the finished article, but the attributes are there and three quick goals since arriving at Celtic on loan is a welcome sight.
4. Weston McKennie, Defensive Midfielder, Schalke 04: The 20-year-old Texan is already one of the most accomplished players in the pool, featuring regularly for a Champions League side in Schalke, where he recently made his 50th first-team appearance. Like Adams, McKennie boasts tremendous versatility and endurance, but also is a player who plays with edge and never shirks a tackle. During the transition year that was 2018, the combative midfielder emerged as a leader among a young U.S. group and seems to be unfazed no matter how big the moment or situation.
5. Josh Sargent, Striker, Werder Bremen: Striker has long been a position of need for the U.S. and with Jozy Altidore still frustrating — especially in big games — Sargent might not just be the future but also the present at the position. After setting the 2017 Under-20 World Cup alight with four goals at age 17, Sargent secured a move to the Bundesliga. As he has done at every level, the Missouri native immediately started scoring, racking up seven goals with Werder Bremen II before scoring just two minutes into his first-team debut. Maybe the American likeliest to break out in 2019, the 19-year-old has already shown flashes of strong hold-up play, comfort on the ball and natural goal-scoring instincts, a combination the U.S. hasn’t seen for some time.
6. Zack Steffen, Goalkeeper, Columbus Crew (will sign with Man City in July): Goalkeeper has been a position of strength for the United States for a couple of decades now and 23-year-old Zack Steffen looks to be next in a long line of talented American shot-stoppers. The 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year, Steffen first announced himself to U.S. soccer fans with his penalty-kick heroics at the 2015 U20 World Cup. The No. 1 job is Steffen’s to lose at present and the youngster’s future is bright, having already agreed to sign with Man City in the summer. A terrific athlete and a goalkeeper who is comfortable playing with the ball at his feet, Steffen was the biggest bright spot in a mixed 2018 for the Stars and Stripes.
7. Matt Miazga, Center-back, Reading (on loan from Chelsea):The towering 6-foot-4 center-back tops the list of under-23 defenders for the U.S. despite taking a step back this season. Since leaving New York Red Bulls in 2016, Miazga has been part of the infamous “Chelsea loan brigade,” recently joining Championship side Reading after spells with Vitesse (Netherlands) and Nantes (France). After two strong seasons in the Dutch Eredivisie, Miazga stumbled during a six-month stay in Ligue 1 and will hope his move to Reading can reignite a disappointing season. Center-back should be a long-term position of strength for the U.S., with Miazga and Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers at the heart of that.
Tier 2: Potential starters or regular reserves
8. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Center-back, Swansea City (on loan from Tottenham): Another youngster yet to find his feet with the senior national team, “CCV” remains one of the program’s top prospects in defense. Born in England, Carter-Vickers has been at Tottenham since he was 11 and has played for the U.S. since joining up with the under-18s in 2014. Carter-Vickers is not the quickest, but he makes up for it by reading the game well and consistently getting stuck in. Getting game time is key for the strong and physical defender; due to limited chances at Spurs, he has worked hard on loan spells with Championship sides Sheffield United, Ipswich Town and Swansea.
9. Antonee Robinson, Left-back, Wigan (on loan from Everton): Born in England to an American father, like Carter-Vickers, the 21-year-old Everton prospect has been tabbed by many as the answer to the never-ending search for a left-back. While Robinson’s national team performances have been a mixed bag, he does boast attributes like pace and crossing ability that make him an intriguing option long-term. So far Robinson has been excellent in games against Bolivia, France and Mexico but was exposed badly against Brazil and Colombia. The theme: Robinson is much better going forward, with his defensive positioning often getting him into a lot of trouble. On loan at Wigan, Robinson just recently returned to action after undergoing ankle surgery in November.
10. Ethan Horvath, Goalkeeper, Club Brugge: While Steffen is the clubhouse leader for the goalkeeper job, Horvath isn’t far behind. The 23-year-old has regained his starting job in Belgium, starting the past 18 games and recording six clean sheets for the second-place side. With the national team, Horvath was stellar in a 1-0 defeat to Italy in November, making five saves and sparing the U.S. a three-or-four-goal beating. Steffen is the guy for now, but the U.S. is also in safe hands with Horvath beyond him.
11. Kellyn Acosta, Central Midfielder, Colorado Rapids: After a humbling 2018 that saw Acosta go from one of Major League Soccer’s brightest assets to a surprising midseason trade, the 23-year-old has a major point to prove in 2019. Probably best in a box-to-box role, Acosta’s best qualities are his energy, ability to connect play from midfield and his knack for making things happen from set pieces. Acosta has been inconsistent with the national team, like many of his peers, but his performance at Azteca in a 1-1 draw with Mexico during 2018 World Cup qualifying hinted at his potential.
12. Jonathan Amon, Winger, FC Nordsjaelland: Maybe the biggest wild card on this list, the lively Amon has played only once for the senior national team but left an impression. In that match against Peru, Amon showed off his terrific speed, made a couple of excellent first touches and drew the foul that resulted in the U.S. goal from a set piece. He’s raw, but the FC Nordsjaelland player is exciting due to his combination of speed and creativity, and at just 19, still has plenty of time to grow.
13. Erik Palmer-Brown, Center-back, NAC Breda (on loan from Man City): Because he’s often overshadowed by other young center-backs in the U.S. pool, it’s easy to forget that Palmer-Brown has played in two U-20 World Cups, made his MLS debut at age 17 and had Porto and Manchester City on his résumé by age 21. Currently on loan in the Netherlands, Palmer-Brown rose quickly through the Sporting KC Academy and was named the best player at the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championships and earned a spot on the Best XI of that year’s U20 World Cup.
14. Jonathan Lewis, Winger, New York City FC: The 21-year-old winger has made cameo appearances in Berhalter’s first four games in charge of the national team and has been productive, picking up two assists in his first 57 minutes with the Stars and Stripes. Lewis’ productive short spells for the U.S. line up directly with his excellent per-90 metrics with club NYCFC, teasing at his untapped potential. Lewis will have his work cut out for him trying to establish a regular starting role for a good NYCFC side, but his pace, crossing and willingness to take people on make him one of the top winger prospects.
15. Reggie Cannon, Right-back, FC Dallas: Another from FC Dallas’ top-ranked academy, like McKennie and Acosta, the 20-year-old Cannon has quickly emerged as one of the best right-backs in MLS. The ex-UCLA Bruin started 33 of FC Dallas’ 34 games last season and finished third in the league in tackles with 91, while being booked only four times. Cannon struggled mightily in his second cap vs. Italy, but there is a lot to like about the Chicago native on the right side of defense.
16. Cristian Roldan, Central/Wide Midfielder, Seattle Sounders: Ask someone who has coached or played with Roldan and you’ll likely hear the words “work rate” and “versatility.” Roldan isn’t flashy, but he is responsible and could earn a regular spot in Berhalter’s XI due to his high soccer IQ and willingness to do the “dirty work.”
Tier 3: Youngsters who could break through in 2019
17. Lynden Gooch, Winger, Sunderland: With Sunderland having fallen down to League One, Gooch has become somewhat of a forgotten man with the United States men’s national team, playing just 17 minutes for the side in 2018. While it’s not ideal that Gooch has gone from playing in the Premier League to playing in League One in two years, the good news is that Gooch is playing often and well for the Black Cats. Now 23, Gooch has seven goals and nine assists in 38 games so far this season (over all competitions), boasting electric pace and surprising strength as a winger.
18. Andrija Novakovich, Striker, Fortuna Sittard (on loan from Reading): The tall and lanky Novakovich is coming off a breakout season in which he bagged 19 goals to finish as the runner-up for the Dutch second division’s Golden Boot. Making the move up to the top flight with Fortuna Sittard, Novakovich started quickly by scoring four league goals in his first six games but has scored just three in 16 league appearances since. Still on the books at Reading, the 22-year-old has some good feet for a player of his size, and in a team that hasn’t consistently gotten goals from its strikers, Novakovich has shown he is a natural finisher.
19. Djordje Mihailovic, Attacking Midfielder, Chicago Fire: Like Lewis, Mihailovic has taken advantage of early opportunities under Berhalter and burst onto the scene in 2019. The Chicago Fire’s homegrown midfielder scored on his international debut vs. Panama and has impressed since breaking into the Fire’s starting XI last season following ACL surgery. The 20-year-old figures to be a key starter with the under-23s as they look to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and in a player pool short on playmakers, Mihailovic has the skills to potentially become a key player sooner rather than later.
20. Haji Wright, Striker, Schalke 04: A member of the “Schalke USA” contingent alongside McKennie and Nick Taitague, Wright’s production with Schalke II earned him a first call-up to the senior team last November. Just 20, he has made seven appearances for the first team to date, highlighted by his first goal for the club against Bayer Leverkusen on Dec. 19. Long touted as one of the top U.S. prospects, Wright is breaking through at the moment and his first senior call-up shouldn’t be long now.
21. Keaton Parks, Central Midfielder, New York City FC (on loan from Benfica): Parks has made waves in Europe over the past year, the youngster famously breaking into Benfica’s first team last season to make six appearances at the age of just 20. With playing time harder to come by in Portugal in 2018-19, the native Texan was loaned to New York City FC in January for what will be a key season for his development. Parks is very good and clever on the ball in midfield and his move to MLS might be the best thing for his immediate prospects with the national team.
– Keaton Parks taking a bold step forward from Benfica to NYCFC
22. Emmanuel Sabbi, Winger, Hobro IK: Born in Italy, raised in Chicago, trained in the Canary Islands and thriving in Denmark, Sabbi has probably taken the most indirect route to USMNT relevance of anyone on this list. The 20-year-old winger played for the U.S. at the 2017 Under-20 World Cup and recently made two appearances for the U23s in friendlies vs. Egypt and the Netherlands. After starting the season on fire for Hobro with four goals in the club’s first five Danish Superliga games, Sabbi has cooled of late but still leads the relegation-threatened side with five goals. Don’t be surprised to see Sabbi make his U.S. senior debut in 2019, as like Weah, Amon and Lewis, he is a youngster who should get a look out on the wing.
23. Brooks Lennon, Winger/Right-back, Real Salt Lake: After three years at Liverpool, Lennon returned home to academy club Real Salt Lake in search of regular playing time, initially on loan and last season on a permanent basis. The 21-year-old, a forward/winger by trade, made the shift to right-back early last season for RSL, immediately impressing with his crossing and ability to get forward. While Lennon has been successful further up the pitch at various underage levels for the U.S., his best chance to break into the national-team setup quickly might be at right-back. Expect him to crack the national team at some point in 2019.