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Under-20 players poised for breakout seasons in MLS this year: Bogert

Positional battles across MLS were in full swing this month as preseason training and friendlies came to a close.

In Coachella Valley last week, some young talents matched up against more experienced players while other teenage rookies took advantage of opportunities left by injured players.

Here are some of the young (under-20) standouts from the preseason tournament in California.

Owen Wolff is a great example of taking preseason form and turning it into a key role. Last year, Wolff won a starting spot in Austin FC’s midfield, displacing designated player Alex Ring. He was one of the few bright spots in the club’s disappointing 2023 season. He had an 83.7% passing accuracy through 27 regular season games.

Wolff, 19, made 31 appearances across all competitions last year and represented the United States at the U-20 World Cup. He’s a no-doubt-about-it starter once again in 2024 and will be until he makes a move to Europe.

Charlotte homegrown winger Nimfasha Berchimas broke out at the 2023 U-17 World Cup, scoring three goals including a tone-setting brace in the opening game against Korea Republic. He turns 16 next week but just might be ready for the first team in MLS this year.

Berchimas played about 60 minutes for Charlotte in their friendly against San Jose during preseason in Coachella Valley. Both teams had mostly first-choice lineups. The best compliment I can give is that you couldn’t tell there was a 15-year-old out there amongst the adult professionals. Then on Wednesday, he scored.

The coaching staff is impressed with Berchimas’ progression and, barring injury, he is overwhelmingly expected to make his first team debut this year. He could even win a spot somewhere in the first-team depth chart rather than spending the whole year in MLS Next Pro.

Bayern Munich is very interested in the rising talent, among other big European clubs, sources briefed on the young player’s current situation told The Athletic.

The highly-rated Serbian youth international, who made his senior national team debut against the U.S. last winter and was promptly snapped up by Charlotte in a $3 million deal, spent 2023 with the second team. He’s clearly an MLS-level player and is expected to play a big role for Charlotte this year.

The defensive midfielder, 20, was excellent in his cameo for Charlotte against San Jose as well. He brings much needed youth and bite to coach Dean Smith’s options in the midfield.

NYCFC homegrown left back Christian McFarlane is ready for first team soccer in 2024.

The 17-year-old England youth international is currently slated as a backup left back and there isn’t a plan to bring in another signing. He has a clear path to minutes behind starter Kevin O’Toole.

McFarlane has been a constant for English youth national teams and not just a passenger, but a standout. Scouts say his athleticism and physical tools would already allow him to compete in MLS and it’s very easy to pick that up even by the untrained eye. A ton of teams in England have him on their radar.

Julian Hall, 15 – New York Red Bulls

New York Red Bulls and U.S. youth international Julian Hall made his first team debut toward the end of 2023 and is looking to get more first team minutes in 2024. Preseason has been a good start.

Hall is only 15. Like Berchimas, he shouldn’t have high expectations immediately, but could earn a role down the line. Against St. Louis last weekend in preseason, Hall came on off the bench and won a penalty that Wiki Carmona scored.

Serge Ngoma, 18 – New York Red Bulls

Another U.S. youth international attacker, Serge Ngoma broke into the first team at 16 years old in 2022, where he scored two goals in just over 100 minutes. He was a popular breakout candidate last year but didn’t make a regular season appearance due to injury.

Ngoma, now 18, is back in preseason and should have plenty of chances at minutes in the Red Bulls attack anchored by Emil Forsberg. New head coach Sandro Schwarz is likely to tinker with different combinations until he finds the optimal look.

In his first MLS preseason after starring at the University of Maryland, Kimani Stewart-Baynes is making an early case to be in the Colorado Rapids rotation.

Stewart-Baynes, 19, has two goals and an assist in three preseason appearances. He was selected No. 4 overall by the Rapids at the 2024 MLS SuperDraft.

The winger was called into Canada’s U-20 squad for 2024 Concacaf Under-20 Championship Qualifiers later this month.

It’s been quite the winter for New England Revolution homegrown winger Esmir Bajraktarevic.

The 18-year-old made his senior U.S. national team debut — nutmegging a Slovenian defender with his first involvement in the game — and now he’s excelling in preseason with New England.

“Right now, he’s our starting right winger,” Revs head coach Caleb Porter said.

New England got a breakout season from homegrown central midfielder Noel Buck last year. This year, it could be the right time for Bajraktarevic. With Dylan Borrero still out, he has won a starting spot. He’ll likely play a key role for this squad even when Borrero comes back.

(Top photos: USA Today Sports)

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