Tate Johnson appeared for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the USL Championship as a USL Academy signing last season, and then helped Tampa Bay United win the 2022 USL Academy League Playoffs this past November. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Given the rapid growth of USL Academy, it should come as no surprise that all-but-one of the teams in the USL Championship last season had at least one player signed to a USL Academy contract within its ranks.
What’s more, those players are starting to push for minutes at some of the bigger clubs in the league, with the talent that’s now emerging being given opportunities to shine in both the Championship and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
As the new USL Championship season kicks off this weekend, here are five players currently signed to USL Academy contracts we’ll be monitoring closely in the next nine months.
Louisville City FC’s commitment to its Academy products has been visible in the last two years with the likes of Joshua and Elijah Wynder and Carlos Moguel Jr. stepping in for key minutes last season. Issac Cano is the next player aiming to make that jump, with the Lexington, Ky. native competing for the side this season and joining the First Team as an Academy signing. The 18-year-old will be aiming to make a breakthrough while gaining from the experience of teammates Cam Lancaster and Wilson Harris.
Rio Grande Valley FC's Duilio Herrera scored his first goal in the USL Championship agaisnt the Toros' South Texas Derby rival San Antonio FC last May. | Photo courtesy Christian Inoferio / Rio Grande Valley FC
Of the players in this list, Duilio Herrera has got the most USL Championship experience under his belt, making 14 appearances and logging his first professional goal as a 17-year-old a season ago. The native of Reynosa, Mexico – just across the border in the Rio Grande Valley – followed that up with a stellar USL Academy League Showcase this past November, scoring a hat trick against the Charlotte Eagles in his performances. Alongside fellow youngster Dylan Hernandez, the 18-year-old is a great example of the talent coming through the Toros’ Academy pipeline.
As highly as Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins values defensive quality, it says something that he handed 17-year-old Tate Johnson both his first Championship minutes and a first start late in the 2022 season. Since then, Johnson helped lead Tampa Bay United to the 2022 USL Academy League Playoffs title, earned All-Tournament Team honors, and has been active this preseason for the Rowdies. The North Carolina commit is a solid left back and could get more minutes in the Championship and Open Cup this year.
Indiana Fire product Diego Sanchez was handed his first taste of Championship action a season ago, coming on in the final game of the regular season, but this year the midfielder will be hoping to take the next step forward in challenging for minutes. There’s no question about the 18-year-old’s potential – you just have to look at his play in the USL Academy League Playoffs the past two years. With a full season to grow ahead of him – and learn from the likes of Cam Lindley, Aodhan Quinn and Jack Blake – this could be the year Sanchez finds a bigger breakthrough.
New Mexico United's Alex Waggoner claimed the Golden Boot at the 2022 USL Academy League Playoffs and now could make his First Team debut this season in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy David Young / New Mexico United
There might be no better example of a player making the most of a bigger stage that might not previously have existed than Alex Waggoner. The Taos, New Mexico native joined NMU’s Academy after leading Santa Fe High to a state title and winning the state’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year award last summer, and then claimed the Golden Boot at the 2022 USL Academy League Playoffs with six goals. A University of Michigan commit, Waggoner has already found the net this preseason against El Paso Locomotive FC, and with a strong frame could be a candidate for action early this year for United.