This week, we ask Doug, Jason, Graham and Austin Lindberg to pick out the young players who are ready for Europe.
Cyle Larin | Forward | Orlando City SC
As the profile of MLS rises and the league's young talent draws more attention from abroad, the transfer rumor mill continues to scoop up a handful of names. Perhaps the most prominent player on the list is Orlando City striker Cyle Larin. The UConn product has proven over a year and a half in MLS that he has all of the talent necessary to move beyond the confines of North America and succeed on the other side of the Atlantic.
In his first year in the league, the Canadian international obliterated the MLS rookie goal-scoring record by five goals (he struck 17 times). In 2016, he has racked up 11 goals in 20 matches. Even as the league's defenders have put together a dossier on him, Larin has remained effective at the front of the Lions' attack. And even as the Lions have themselves struggled with injuries and consistent chance creation, Larin has remained a constant threat.
His physical presence is the most obvious of his gifts, but like any top scorer, Larin possesses a quick shot and a nose for goal. Consistency is a concern, but that's often true of strikers his age. At just 21, Larin's game is only going to improve over the course of the next few seasons, especially if he's given an opportunity to train and play against greater competition. He's already good with his first touch and capable of finding the dangerous pass.
Maybe not since Villarreal bought Jozy Altidore for $10 million back in 2009 has MLS had a striker with as much potential as Larin. He won't command a $10 million fee -- in part because he's a few years older than Altidore was then -- but he is ready to make the move if MLS can get a fair return.
-- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
Andre Blake | Goalkeeper | Philadelphia Union
Only in MLS is 25 considered young, but Philadelphia Union standout Andre Blake qualifies for a couple of reasons. First of all, he's a goalkeeper, and keepers tend to take the longest to mature. Second, like most MLS players, Blake spent several years in the college ranks; the Jamaican out of UConn was already 23 when he finally turned professional.
Blake's talent has never been in question. In 2014, the Union made him the only keeper ever drafted No. 1 overall, but it wasn't until this season that he became the club's full-time starter. He has more than justified the decision so far.
MLS fans voted him into the starting XI at last week's All-Star game in San Jose, and Blake lived up to the billing by showing off his otherworldly shot-stopping ability with an acrobatic save on a first-half blast by Arsenal's Mohamed Elneny.
Blake's profile had already been growing outside of MLS. In June, he was the Reggae Boyz No. 1 for the Copa America Centenario, a role he'll reprise when World Cup qualifying resumes next month. All of this means that Blake's days in MLS are probably numbered. His contract expires in December and he will have no shortage of options in Europe, where he'd follow in the footsteps of fellow CONCACAF keepers Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Keylor Navas.
"My hope for him," Union boss Jim Curtin told MLSsoccer.com earlier this season, "is to some day play at Manchester United. I think he has that ability."
Curtin also hopes he'll use it to lead Philly on a deep playoff run before heading out the door.
-- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)
Kellyn Acosta | Midfielder | FC Dallas
Of course it's tempting to name Jordan Morris as the obvious answer to this question, and given how this season has panned out for the Seattle Sounders (they currently sit in ninth place in the Western Conference), it's possible that even Morris would say "Jordan Morris" in response to this question. As well as Morris has done, his has been a sink-or-swim apprenticeship in the professional game.
The thing is, that's what was on offer in Germany for Morris within the competitive culture of European club soccer. That, indeed, is the type of context that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wants for his players to sharpen their skills.
Which brings us to Kellyn Acosta, who has been subject to a different kind of honing as the national team attempts to shape him into the type of full-back who can solve their long-term shortage of viable talent in the position. You can imagine Acosta being encouraged to make the move to Europe to complete that process, but given how patchy the experiment to move him out of midfield has been, it seems more likely that he'll continue to grow into a consistent midfield mainstay in MLS. It is here where he will perhaps realize 85 percent of his potential before moving to reinvent in Europe, fighting for minutes en route to unlocking the remaining 15 percent. There's rather more chance he gets lost in the shuffle. Regardless of the standard of play, European conscription is not the right path for everyone.
-- Graham Parker (@KidWeil)
Jack Harrison | Forward | New York City FC
There is a difference between a young player who's ready to take on the challenge of European soccer, and a young player who's on the verge of making such a move. In terms of talent and tactical nous, Jack Harrison is ready to make that jump.
But don't expect New York City FC to package up and ship off the No. 1 overall draft pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft for a tidy profit.
The 19-year-old is only 11 appearances into his professional career, but he's already demonstrating his game-breaking abilities in MLS. The former Manchester United academy product missed NYCFC's first 12 matches of the season overcoming a pelvic fracture, but he arguably has been just as important to the club as its big-name Designated Players: David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.
Since his debut on May 21 (that 7-0 defeat to crosstown rivals New York Red Bulls), Harrison has started nine of 10 league matches, scoring three goals and assisting on three others. He scored one and set up another when the Red Bulls returned to Yankee Stadium six weeks after Harrison's debut, leading NYCFC to its first New York derby win 2-0.
Few, if any, young players have had an impact on MLS quite like Harrison has in his rookie campaign. He has demonstrated that he's of the standard to make a difference in this league, and very probably capable of doing so in Europe in the near future.
New York City FC will be more than happy to keep Harrison on this side of the Atlantic for as long as it can. It will be interesting to see just how long that is.
-- Austin Lindberg (@LindbergESPN)