FC Tulsa's Luca Sowinski, Orange County SC's Korede Osundina and the Charleston Battery's Fidel Barajas are among the teenagers that could grab the spotlight in the USL Championship this season.
A season ago, more than 50 players aged 20 years old and younger made at least 10 appearances in the USL Championship, suiting up for clubs as varied as Louisville City FC, Monterey Bay F.C., El Paso Locomotive FC and Birmingham Legion FC and many others.
It’s a sign of the quality of the young talent both coming through USL Academy systems and arriving in the Championship after seeing the opportunity the league can provide to accelerate a player’s individual pathway, and only figures to continue to grow in the years to come.
After a year in which current United States youth internationals Diego Luna and Kobi Henry set new USL Championship transfer records weeks apart, the next crop of U-20 prospects is here.
We’ve picked out 11 you should be paying close attention to over the next 12 months.
We’ve written before about the potential trove of talent in the Borderplex – which includes alumni like Ricardo Pepi and Omar Salgado – that now has the ability to be nurtured by El Paso Locomotive FC. The start of that pipeline began in earnest this offseason when the club made Diego Abarca and Joel Maldonado its first professional signings out of the Locomotive FC Academy. Abarca caught the eye last year with a highlight-reel finish for his first professional goal while posting an 86.7 passing accuracy rate in 250 minutes of action. After the prior success of Diego Luna at Southwest University Park, the 17-year-old will begin his path to hopefully marking a similar path.
The Charleston Battery's Fidel Barajas holds the Concacaf Men's U-17 Championship trophy after helping Mexico claim the title with three goals and five assists in seven appearances.
It didn’t take long for Fidel Barajas to grab our attention after joining the professional ranks with the Charleston Battery late last season as he picked up two assists in three appearances after turning pro at Patriots Point out of the San Jose Earthquakes Academy. The past month saw the 16-year-old claim the spotlight again as he recorded three goals and five assists for the Mexico U-17 Men’s National Team as it won the Concacaf Men’s U-17 Championship in Guatemala, a series of performances that only raised the anticipation for what he can do in the Lowcountry this campaign.
It says a lot about Duran Ferree that the 16-year-old went from injury replacement in the United States U-17 Men’s National Team squad for the recent Concacaf Men’s U-17 Championship to starter in the Final. That tournament might not have ended the way the first SD Loyal Select product to turn pro with the club wanted, but his distribution and shot-stopping ability was on display in his four appearances. Ferree also completed 85.3 percent of his passes in his two appearances for SD Loyal in the Championship last season and could be in line for more time this campaign as a potential backup to Koke Vegas.
18-year-old Rafael Jauregui scored his first professional goal and logged more than 500 minutes in the Championship last season, highlighting his rising talent. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
As Sacramento Republic FC battled on two fronts in the Championship and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, it meant a step up in minutes and appearances for Academy product Rafael Jauregui, who logged his first professional goal and more than 500 league minutes for the first time in 2022. Having turned 18 this past offseason, that could be a taste of what’s to come for the talented midfielder, who will have plenty of experience around him in the midfield depth chart in Sacramento but will be worth watching when he gets his opportunities to shine.
The spotlight often falls on young attacking talent, but Eric Kinzner’s arrival at Rio Grande Valley FC with two full seasons of experience in the second and third tiers makes the 19-year-old center back a player who could make an impact this season. A product of Seattle Sounders FC’s Academy, Kinzner made 21 appearances for Tacoma Defiance in the Championship across the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and then put up solid numbers while on loan with FC Tucson in USL League One last season, winning 56.4 percent of duels and 66.7 percent of tackles in 12 appearances. With an experienced group to learn from at the Toros, Kinzner has the potential to progress quickly.
The trend of talented young players signing their first professional deals in the USL Championship was one that accelerated last year, and this offseason Drew Murray joined that group as he and fellow San Jose Earthquakes Academy product Ethan Kohler both joined Oakland Roots SC. A center back, Murray made a pair of appearances in MLS NEXT Pro last season for the Quakes II, but more recently he was called into the United States U-19 Men’s National Team camp in January. The 17-year-old is a potential prospect for the next USYNT U-20s cycle and will be aiming to impress alongside veterans like Emrah Klimenta and Tarek Morad this season.
New Mexico United 19-year-old Cristian Nava posted two goals and two assists in his first full season in the Championship last season and will be aiming to build on those numbers this campaign. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
The first professional signing from New Mexico United’s Academy, Cristian Nava took a solid step forward in 2022 with two goals and two assists in just under 1,000 minutes of action for the playoff contender. That built a platform for the 2021 USL Academy Playoffs Golden Ball winner, of whom more will be expected this campaign as part of United’s attacking group after signing a new contract this preseason. A potential target? Recording 10 combined goals and assists would be another positive sign of progress.
Korede Osundina hasn’t attracted quite the same spotlight as Louisville City FC’s Joshua Wynder yet, but the two have been U.S. Youth National Teammates over the past 12 months at both the U-19 and U-20 levels. Osundina notched his first two assists in the Championship last season while making 19 appearances for Orange County SC, but he feels poised for a breakout campaign. With a goal of making the United States’ squad for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in May on the horizon, getting out to a fast start and aiding OCSC’s resurgence would set the stage for bigger opportunities.
You couldn’t have scripted Nighte Pickering’s debut for Memphis 901 FC any better last August, with his bicycle kick finish introducing him to Bluff City Mafia in spectacular fashion. After a call-up to the United States U-19s camp in January, the 18-year-old will be aiming to become a consistent contributor for 901 FC this season and has a coach in Stephen Glass who has mentored top young prospects at his former stop with Atlanta United FC.
FC Tulsa is set to have four professional signings who began the year under the age of 20 this season, and the most intriguing of the group might be Luca Sowinski. The 18-year-old announced his arrival after turning pro with the club out of the Barca Residency Academy by becoming the third-youngest player to record a hat trick in the Championship’s history behind current LA Galaxy starlet Efrain Alvarez and United States and FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira. As Tulsa looks to become an incubator for young talents, Sowinski will want to lead the way.
If you’ve followed the USL Championship at all in the past year, Joshua Wynder’s name is one you will be very familiar with. A finalist for both the USL Championship Young Player of the Year and U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Player of the Year awards, the 17-year-old Louisville City Academy product is on the sort of trajectory reserved for elite prospects. Wynder’s offseason training stint at Portuguese giant Benfica in January set the stage for a potential move this summer, so enjoy his talent while you can this season.
Tag(s): Features Orange County SC Rio Grande Valley FC Sacramento Republic FC FC Tulsa Charleston Battery Louisville City FC Memphis 901 FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United San Diego Loyal SC Oakland Roots SC Rafael Jauregui Joshua Wynder Cristian Nava Oluwakorede Osundina Diego Abarca