Scouting MLS: Using TransferLab to Identify Talent

James Nalton takes a look at some outstanding MLS prospects in this piece, highlighting six players who could make an impact in England

With its salary cap and roster constraints, lots of thought needs to go into building a squad in Major League Soccer. It’s not always the case that it does, and there are plenty of examples of roster builds gone wrong. One of the ways to build an identity and connect with the fans, though, while also keeping under the salary cap and within the various roster rules, is to sign and develop young players.

“Homegrown players provide great value to an MLS club’s roster, especially in the initial phase, as they do not affect the salary cap,” said Marc Nicholls, who was technical director at Charlotte FC as they entered MLS as an expansion side for 2022.

“In simple terms, it is much more efficient to develop your own players as opposed to buying them from elsewhere. There is also no limit to how many you can sign, and of course, if they progress, they can be sold or traded either overseas or internally in MLS.”

It’s not just the Homegrowns who have added youth to MLS squads in recent years. Clubs have dipped into the South American market with increasing regularity. Young players from the region are attracted by the wages on offer — sometimes as Young Designated Players, as was the case with Miguel Almiron at Atlanta United, and currently Talles Magno at New York City — and the chance to use the league as a stepping stone to Europe or better contracts back in Argentina or Brazil.

MLS has always had a relationship with South American football. One of its early heroes was the Bolivian Marco Etcheverry who spent eight seasons with one of the league’s first powerhouses, DC United. But in recent years, young South Americans have been a feature of the league more than ever.

All of this means there are plenty of promising players to look out for in any MLS fixture, and many of these have become stars of the league despite their youth and relative inexperience.

Using Transfer Lab’s Best XI feature, we are able to take a look at some of the better-performing under-23 players in MLS so far in 2022.

The 4-3-3 formation gives us a good mix, especially in midfield and in the forward line as we can use three different midfielder profiles — the deepest player, the No. 8, and the advanced playmaker (and MLS loves advanced playmakers) — while also incorporating different roles on the wing as well as a striker.

Another thing to note for the purposes of this piece: to find good players, rather than build a team, we have used the player profiles that produce the highest score. For example, if the highest-scoring player for Winger (All Round) is 90 and the highest-scoring player for Winger (Wide Playmaker) is 94, we have used the Wide Playmaker profile in order to concentrate on the best player. And the best player in the entire XI, with a Transferlab score of 94, is first up.

Santiago Moreno – Portland Timbers – Colombian

From América de Cali to MLS, Moreno continued Portland Timbers’ Colombian tradition which has seen players like Dairon Asprilla, Yimmi Chará and most prominently his brother, Diego Chará, play for the club in recent times.

While Chará D is a club (and league) legend as a result of his tenacious defensive midfield play, Moreno provides something different entirely, forcing the issue at the opposite end of the pitch.

The 22-year-old can be an effective dribbler and a creator, a lethal combination if the two arrive consistently together, and he’s not far off providing this.

There are things to be ironed out and there is an occasional waywardness about Moreno’s play, but that is only occasional. Most of the time he’s on hand to link or progress play, whichever is needed at the time depending on where he picks up the ball or the situation Portland find themselves in.

His jinking runs can take defenders out with ease, and he has an initial burst of pace that allows him to sprint away from them. With time to think, he can also play the most incisive through-passes, displaying the vision and awareness of a No.10.

Though he’s down as a right-winger in our best XI, he can be effective across the pitch in the space between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines, creating space, exploiting that space, and attacking the goal himself.

An honourable mention to 17-year-old Owen Wolff of Austin FC, who has a Transfer Lab score of 93 this season, just below Moreno in the Wide Playmaker profile, but having played fewer minutes.

Santiago Sosa – Atlanta United – Argentinian

The 23-year-old Argentine signed from River Plate in 2021 for $6 million — a reasonably high fee in the world of MLS transfers. He’s shown glimpses of the play that saw him attract interest from Europe following the 2019 U20 World Cup, but the club and fans will be hoping for more consistency once he returns from injury. 

It’s important to point out that Sosa has only played just over 300 minutes in MLS this season so the sample size is small. But he could, or should, be a key player for Atlanta once he returns, and was also in the top three for this role in 2021 just behind Real Salt Lake’s Pablo Ruiz, it makes sense to include him.

During those 300 or so minutes, he has excelled in long and short progressive passing, through balls, and dictating play through a high volume of passes. Even if this settles as he plays more minutes, he’d likely still be the top U23 player in this role of Deep Playmaker, as the next player in line, Adalberto Carrasquilla, scores just 74 to Sosa’s 94.

The plot above shows he excels in making the progressive passes that move his team up the pitch and also the importance of his link-up play or backwards passing using TransferLab’s “passes before progression” stat. If he can’t progress the ball, he’ll find someone else in a position to do so.

Atlanta will be hoping they get the best version of Sosa for the rest of the season as they look to turn around a poor run of form.

Roman Celentano – FC Cincinnati – American

It’s been a baptism of fire for FC Cincinnati’s 21-year-old goalkeeper Roman Celentano. After being the second overall pick in the 2022 MLS Superdraft (there are no ordinary drafts in MLS) he was thrown straight into a starting spot between the posts from May due to an injury to No.1, ??Alec Kann.

It feels almost unfair to shine more light on a goalkeeper who is still learning his trade and it’s not all been plain sailing while deputising for Kann, but this is a key part of a ‘keeper’s development. It also gives us an excuse to highlight a player who arrived in the league through the unique system of the draft.

Celentano isn’t just the top Shot Stopper in the under-23 age range. TransferLab also marks him as among the best in the league regardless of age group, along with Brad Guzan, Drake Callender, and Eloy Room.

While there is a lot of hype around Chicago Fire’s 18-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina, who looks set to join Chelsea (even though he won’t qualify for a work permit yet — more on that later), Celentano has arguably been the better of the young American shot-stoppers this season. TransferLab certainly seems to think so.

Even if we change the goalkeeper profile to All Round, Celentano still ranks highest among under 23s but his score drops to 74. This tells us he has work to do in other areas, but being a very good shot-stopper in MLS, even with shortcomings in other areas, may still be good enough to get you international caps and a move to Europe. Just ask new Arsenal signing Matt Turner.

It’s too early to be talking about transfers across the Atlantic for Celentano as he needs to establish himself in MLS first and become the trusted first-choice for Cincinnati even once Kann is fit. But for a player freshly drafted from Indiana Hoosiers, he couldn’t have wished for a better start to MLS life.

Dejan Joveljic – LA Galaxy – Serbian

Like Sosa, Joveljic is included on this list despite having only played around 600 MLS minutes at the time of writing. But ask LA Galaxy fans, or indeed followers of the league, who they’d like to see more of and many would name the Serbian striker.

The Red Star Belgrade youth moved to Eintracht Frankfurt in 2019 just as his compatriot Luka Jovic left the German side for Real Madrid, but he really made his name on loan in the Austrian Bundesliga with Wolfsberger AC.

This prompted LA Galaxy to make a move him, and he has impressed on the occasions he’s made the lineup this season.

He ranks highly in TransferLab for pretty much every metric you’d want from a striker and has eight goals and two assists in 612 MLS minutes, and three goals in four US Open Cup appearances. 

He’s a linkup player as well as a goal threat and has shown signs he can press when needed. We now just need his coach, Greg Vanney, to get him in the team more often!

Talles Magno (and Taty Castellanos) – New York City – Brazilian (and Argentinian)

Valentin “Taty” Castellanos has been the New York City FC forward in the headlines recently, having attracted interest from numerous Premier League sides during this summer’s transfer window.

Given the amount of interest, and Castellanos’ importance to the team and the locker room, NYCFC are holding out for something closer to the fee which saw FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi move to Augsburg for $20 million (around £16.5 million).

The hard-working Castellanos appears just below Joveljic in the striker position in Transfer Lab’s U23 team of MLS 2022 so far, but a player they have similarly high hopes for in the Bronx is Brazilian forward Talles Magno.

The 20-year-old might be able to do a job up front should Castellanos leave this summer, leaving space for the next young South American in line, Gabriel Pereira (20) and Thiago Andrade (21), but at the moment he’s usually most effective cutting in from the left wing.

Though he has a Transfer Lab rating of 89 using the Classic Winger profile, Talles has recently shown he’s able to contribute in other areas on top of the more traditional wide play.

As his TransferLab profile shows, he’s a dangerous dribbler but also useful when it comes to linkup play and creating chances. He boasts a high pass accuracy for a player in such an advanced position, and  his playmaking ability was on show recently against Atlanta United when he sent Castellanos through on goal with a perfectly weighted through ball.

Work permits?

As well as convincing teams from Europe that their performances in MLS can translate to a new team in a new league, there is another obstacle players have to overcome before they can make the move across the Atlantic — the work permit.

It can be difficult for players without competitive international appearances to obtain a work permit to move from MLS to the English leagues.

Looking at the players already linked with moves to the Premier League this summer, Castellanos should have no problem obtaining the Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) required to acquire a work permit. He gets the 15 points required for a GBE as a result of NYCFC’s championship-winning season in 2021, and their participation in the 2022 Concacaf Champions League plus the progress to the semi-finals in that competition.

Arsenal, meanwhile, were able to sign goalkeeper Turner from New England thanks to his regular appearances for the United States. They have also signed centre-back Auston Trusty from Colorado Rapids, who gets enough GBE points due to his side’s qualification for and participation in the Concacaf Champions League, though he’s still likely to be loaned out initially.

As we can see, for players who don’t play for their national team with no league or continental success, obtaining a GBE can be more difficult.

The aforementioned Slonina, for example, doesn’t qualify for a work permit at Chelsea so we can expect an immediate loan once they’ve signed him, which will likely see him return to Chicago Fire.

TransferLab’s GBE calculator shows he obtains a reasonable number of points for playing in a Band 4 league but lacks points in the additional categories to reach the 15 required.

One cap for the United States in a competitive game will be enough to get Slonina the points required for a GBE to play in the Premier League. Unlike Arsenal’s situation with Trusty, Slonina has a realistic chance of a cap soon, and Chelsea may be hoping this arrives in the Concacaf Nations League next March, leaving him free to join them in the summer of 2023.

If any Premier League clubs are looking at Santiago Moreno, they will also be keeping an eye on his international status as, like Slonina, once he makes an appearance in a competitive game for his country, he will be eligible for a GBE.

His points for domestic minutes played will likely rise to five in 2022, putting him just below the 15 points required. An international cap would easily take him over the threshold.

The world of work permits has always been difficult to navigate, and the new rules post-Brexit provide different challenges, but MLS remains open for business to Premier League clubs in the right circumstances, and there are plenty of promising young players for their scouts to keep an eye on.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Lev Radin

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