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10 Young Players to know now for the 2024 USL Championship season

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 01/11/24, 2:30PM EST


After big moves domestically and overseas in the past 12 months, the talent pipeline is continuing to flow across the league’s clubs

Birmingham Legion FC's Matthew Corcoran had a standout 2023 campaign, earning a place in the United States' squad for the FIFA Men's U-17 World Cup. | Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

2023 USL Championship Young Player of the Year Fidel Barajas of the Charleston Battery became the latest player to make the move from the league to top-flight competition on Thursday with his transfer to Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer officially confirmed by the clubs.

Barajas’ move followed in the footsteps of numerous young players – including now-teammate Diego Luna at RSL – who have been transferred domestically from the Championship in the past two years.

Meanwhile, as many have made the move to top European clubs, with players like 2021 Championship Young Player of the Year Jonathan Gomez now on the books at Real Sociedad in LaLiga, and his Louisville City FC teammate Joshua Wynder now at Portuguese giant S.L. Benfica. Elsewhere, Orange County SC’s has sent two top young talents in defender Kobi Henry (Stade de Reims) and forward Korede Osundina (Feyenoord) to clubs in top leagues in Europe.  

That talent pathway shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, with players electing to join the professional ranks as Barajas did in the USL Championship for the chance to showcase his talent in First Team soccer.

Here are 10 players aged 20 and under that should be on your radar now ahead of the 2024 USL Championship season.

Pape Mar Boye, Phoenix Rising FC

It’s rare for a player coming into the USL Championship from college to engender this level of anticipation, but what we’ve seen in one season at Clemson University is exactly why Pape Mar Boye’s signing with Phoenix Rising FC this month has drawn such attention.

The 20-year-old center back emerged as one of the top talents in the college game this year, earning Defensive MVP at the College Cup as the Tigers claimed their fourth national title. He was then reportedly offered a Generation adidas contract by Major League Soccer to enter the 2024 MLS SuperDraft, where it was believed he would have been one of the early selections, if not the No.1 pick. Instead, the native of Senegal signed with the defending USL Championship title holders, not only putting his future in his hands but offering the potential that he could be the next overseas export from the league to a top European league.

Matthew Corcoran, Birmingham Legion FC

Birmingham Legion FC boasted an experienced roster a season ago, but 17-year-old Matthew Corcoran emerged as one of the notable figures in a side that reached the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and played his way into the United States squad for the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup in November.

Corcoran’s distribution as a central midfielder for Legion FC was what stood out most in his performances – he posted an 82.2 passing accuracy rate overall, and a 51.7 percent long passing accuracy rate – but he also proved adept at chance creation, including at set pieces. The FC Dallas Academy product recorded 13 chances created from set play among his 27 chances created overall.

Earning his first call-up to the United States U-17s in the final camp before the World Cup in October, he earned his place in the squad for Indonesia, and his passing and defensive positioning drew a wider audience. Turning 18 next month, Corcoran could soon join his former Academy teammate Jonathan Gomez in moving to a higher level.

Xavi Gnaulati, Monterey Bay F.C.

In comparison to some in this list, Xavi Gnaulati has barely scratched the surface on his professional career, but his move to Monterey Bay F.C. from the departed San Diego Loyal SC will be worth watching as he enters his first full season as a professional.

The 18-year-old was a USL Academy signing for SD Loyal in 2022 and made appearances in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before signing pro terms last July. He only saw 137 minutes of action in six appearances, but one of those came in one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season, scoring his first two professional goals against Monterey Bay in a dramatic 3-2 victory. There’s more work to be done here, but Gnaulati will be hoping to earn more opportunities this campaign, and he has one of the greats in Rafael Baca to learn from in central midfield.

Bryce Jamison, Orange County SC

Orange County SC's Bryce Jamison was one of three USL Championship players that competed for the United States at the FIFA Men's U-17 World Cup last November. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC

One of the graduates of the Barca AZ Academy that joined a USL Championship club to start his professional career, Orange County SC’s Bryce Jamison was one of three players from the league to be part of the United States U-17 squad at the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup last November after logging just over 1,000 minutes in the Championship last season.

Jamison’s speed on the right flank is his biggest calling card. He has the willingness to take players on off the dribble while knowing when to check back, completing 18 dribbles at a 54.5 percent success rate this past season. The next step will be to build his finishing numbers after notching a goal and assist last season, but Orange County has already shown its ability to move players to European competition, and after the success of former teammate Korede Osundina in the Netherlands over the past three months there will likely be suitors for Jamison’s services soon.

Da’vian Kimbrough, Sacramento Republic FC

There have been few debuts more visible than Da’vian Kimbrough’s for Sacramento Republic FC last October when he came on as a late substitute against Las Vegas Lights FC to become the youngest player in North American soccer history aged 13 years, seven months, and 13 days.

If you’re expecting to see much of Kimbrough this upcoming campaign, though, you may be out of luck. Republic FC has accentuated its desire to bring its prodigious young talent through carefully at the senior level, while continuing his progression at the club and with Mexico’s U-16 Men’s National Team. There’s certainly no reason to rush when you have a player whose resume already features being named the MVP at the Bassevelde U13 Cup while competing as a guest for the New York Red Bulls Academy. Other former winners of that award? How about Kevin de Bruyne, for one.

Carlos Moguel Jr., Louisville City FC

Louisville City FC has already produced one gem from its nascent Academy system in Joshua Wynder, but this could be the year in which Carlos Moguel completes his ascent after a breakthrough campaign in central midfield in 2023. The 20-year-old recorded four assists and 24 chances created last year while making 25 appearances overall, and his 1,310 minutes almost trebled his action from the prior two campaigns.

Moguel has the tools to be a strong two-way performer – he notched 22 tackles won, 13 interceptions and 85 recoveries in the past campaign – but his best attribute might be his distribution. Last season he notched four assists on 24 chances created with a cross accuracy rate of 36.1 percent, predominantly on set pieces. Expect another step forward this season as LouCity aims to continue its success in its 10th anniversary season.

Cristian Nava, New Mexico United

Academy product Cristian Nava's return from a torn ACL is one of the most anticipated storylines for New Mexico United's 2024 season. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United

All of the signs were pointing in the right direction for Cristian Nava in preseason a year ago before a torn ACL just before the start of the campaign. The first player to sign professional terms with New Mexico from its Academy prior to the 2022 season, though, Nava is set to return and try to build on the success he produced in the youth ranks, most notably winning the Golden Ball at the 2021 USL Academy League Playoffs.

An attacking No. 10 – who was featured alongside New Mexico’s Academy in Trevor Noah’s The World According to Football – Nava has creativity and an eye for goal he showed off while logging two goals and two assists in 968 minutes in the 2022 campaign. His first appearance at Isotopes Park this season will be an emotional one and could set up a big rebound campaign.

Nighte Pickering, Memphis 901 FC

From the moment he announced himself at Memphis 901 FC with a bicycle kick finish in his debut, Nighte Pickering has become one of the must-see talents in the USL Championship. In his first full year with the club a season ago, the 18-year-old recorded four goals and four assists, giving him the third-most goal contributions by a teenager in the league last campaign and a rate of a goal contribution every 132.4 minutes.

With that as the benchmark, this year could be the season for Pickering to fully break out as part of 901 FC’s forward line, with the aim of putting himself in contention for the Championship’s Young Player of the Year award and in the mix for the next United States U-20 Men’s National Team cycle as it gets underway. The FC Dallas product certainly appears capable of doing so, and Europe could beckon soon as a result.

Diego Sanchez, Indy Eleven

A product of Indy Eleven’s Academy system, Diego Sanchez joined the professional ranks in December after competing for the Boys in Blue for the past two seasons as a USL Academy signing. He continued to shine at the 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs, earning All-Tournament  Team honors after which his decision to turn pro arrived.

A creative attacking midfielder, Sanchez can drop deep to pick up possession and pick out teammates with his passing ability as well as being capable of delivering on set pieces. With an experienced group around him at Carroll Stadium, he’ll be aiming to impress new Head Coach Sean McAuley and make a name for himself this campaign.

Nate Worth, FC Tulsa

FC Tulsa's Nate Worth came on impressively in the 2023 USL Championship season and is poised for a breakout campaign this year. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Nate Worth’s arrival early in 2023 to FC Tulsa and then emergence in the second half of the USL Championship season showed why the club plucked him out of the New York Red Bulls Academy, with the 16-year-old central midfielder stating his desire to compete at the Championship level in the environment Tulsa could provide.

Worth was a fixture in the starting lineup for Tulsa down the final stretch of the season, scoring his first professional goal in the final game of the season, but it’s his calmness in possession that stands out most. Worth averaged 68.5 touches per 90 minutes and had a passing accuracy rate of 85.8 percent on an average of 50.2 passes per 90 minutes. With a move to Europe likely in his future, getting to compete alongside incoming veterans Justin Portillo, Charlie Adams and Jeremy Kelly, Worth is a player to keep a close eye on in the upcoming campaign.

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