MLS 2022: Three U23 homegrown players leading the goal contribution table – scout report
We’re already one month and four games into the 2022 MLS season and with the international break, it’s a good time to recap on some of the best performances so far.
Four games aren’t really enough to delve into the data so we’ll have a look at the most basic and important stats: goals and assists. In this tactical analysis, we’ll provide a scout report on the three homegrown (American or Canadian) U23 players who have registered at least four goal contributions: Brandon Vázquez, Ismaël Koné and Jesús Ferreira.
Brandon Vázquez – 23, Cincinnati & USA – 4G & 1A
Brandon Vázquez is a 1998-born American striker who also holds a Mexican passport and started his football career in Mexico playing for Tijuana’s youth teams. He’s currently the top scorer in the MLS with four goals in four games.
From Tijuana, where he only featured once for the first team, Vázquez signed for Atlanta United and spent three years there (39 games, 9 goals and 4 assists for the first team; 11 games, 5 goals and 1 assist for the B team). In late 2019, Nashville drafted him but immediately sold him to Cincinnati for €180,000. He has played 54 games for his current club, scoring 10 goals and assisting 6.
After representing Mexico at U17 level, he changed his allegiance to the USA and has represented them 19 times (3 goals) across the U17, U19, U20 and U23 levels. In his career, he’s also won two trophies: the MLS Cup in 2018 and the US Open Cup in 2019, both with Atlanta.
Vázquez is a big striker (1.88m / 6’2’’) who plays very well as a target man thanks to his size and physicality but also possesses decent speed and coordination, so he can do other things apart from receiving direct passes.
He drops deep to receive the ball with his back to the goal, using his size and technique to hold it. He has a great first touch and orientation so he can turn in one touch when receiving between the lines or keep the ball close to him until his teammates arrive. Vázquez brings the ball down with his head and chest to link up with the players in the second line and also plays good layoffs with either foot. He’s quite good in the air and can assist his teammates with head flicks but still could become more dominant given his size and physicality.
While his first touch is great both to control and pass the ball, he has some problems when he has to take extra touches or dribble in tight spaces as he’s not the most mobile or skilled. He can dribble with some quality details and power when he has some space to run and also uses his body well to shield the ball, which allows him to survive when there are no passing options around him.
Depending on what the play demands, Vázquez can drift wide and put passes into the box with intelligence, aiming at good zones that are difficult to defend. He plays with his head up and makes good decisions in general regarding his passes.
The picture above shows Vázquez’s only assist so far this season and is a good example of what we’ve just said. He receives wide, dribbles and raises his head to play the ball into a free area for a teammate to arrive from the second line and score.
What has stood out in Vázquez’s offensive game so far is his movement in the box. He makes excellent moves to get into scoring positions, attacking the near post to anticipate rivals, finding spaces between the centre-backs or being aggressive to win duels at the far post. In these few MLS games, Vázquez has shown he’s a great finisher with his head and also feels confident to shoot from difficult angles with his feet, troubling the goalkeeper as soon as he has a yard to shoot.
The plays shown below show the two goals Vázquez scored against Inter Miami and one of his goals against Orlando City. We can see the variety of movements he has to benefit from crosses.
Vázquez first runs at the far post but he sees no space there so creates separation by delaying his run and then attacks the space at the far post to anticipate the centre-back and score.Apart from his presence in the box, Vázquez also runs in behind with determination and even if his pace is just ok, he fights well for passes in behind and has good coordination for his size. He’s also shown good timing in his movements so he doesn’t need to be rapid to leave defenders behind and get chances this way.
His other goal against Orlando City below is a good example of it. Vázquez manages to get in the space between the centre-back and the left-back and keeps himself onside until his teammate has controlled the ball and can play the ball in behind. Having won the position, his first touch leaves him 1v1 with the goalkeeper and he’s composed to score.
Vázquez has shown glimpses of his good work rate and intensity to press both in defensive transitions and the defensive phase. Maybe he could make longer efforts to press more than one player, he often stops once the player he’s pressing releases the ball. While not phenomenal, he does what he’s asked to when out of possession and isn’t a lazy player.
With his four goals so far this season in the MLS, Vázquez has equalled his best record so far (four goals in 31 games in 2021). Last season he played just over 800 minutes and this season he has played all minutes, which shows he only needs confidence and playing time to score goals and be an important part of his team. If his form continues, we should soon see him in the USMNT and given his young age, he could still be an interesting transfer option for foreign clubs.
Ismaël Koné – 19, Montréal & Canada – 1G & 3A
Ismaël Koné is a 2002-born Canadian midfielder who was born in Ivory Coast. This is his first professional season after playing for Saint-Lauren SC and he has scored once and assisted three times (including a drawn penalty) in the MLS so far, adding another goal in three CONCACAF Champions League games too.
Koné is one of the most surprising breakouts in the MLS this season. With just seven senior games and less than 500 minutes under his belt, he has caught the eye of the Canada National Team coach John Herdman, who included him in the squad for the World Cup Qualifiers and handed him his debut on the 25th March against Costa Rica.
Koné is a right-footed central midfielder who usually plays in a double pivot alongside the former Tottenham star Victor Wanyama. Standing at 1.88m / 6’2’’ and despite his lean and teenager look, he’s strong, quick and capable of long and repeated efforts, which allows him to dominate midfield and cover a lot of ground in all phases of the game.
Confident and brave to receive in central areas under pressure, Koné understands well how to attract players to then release the ball and combine, playing forward even when under pressure. With Wanyama covering his back, he shows good dynamism and has some freedom to get into the opposition half. He reads the game well to arrive into scoring positions with late runs, which is how he got his first MLS goal shown below.
When on the ball, Koné plays mostly short and quick passes. He’s intelligent with his first touch, usually ending up with a good orientation to play out of pressure. He’s also a good ball carrier and when he has some space in front of him, he combines skill and speed to get past players and progress quickly.
Technically, Koné is good but not consistent. He mixes some excellent first touches and quality details to escape pressure with some sloppy touches and passes that lead to losing possession. One of these mistakes cost his team a goal against Atlanta United in the opening minutes of the game when he missed a back pass and assisted the rival striker Josef Martínez.
Koné’s dribbling ability, dynamism and speed can be seen in the penalty he drew against Atlanta United, which is counted as an assist by some and is shown below. Koné runs in behind from the right half-space to receive a deep pass. With just one touch, he nutmegs his rival and gets into the box, which forces the rival to pull his shirt and concede the penalty kick.
What’s interesting about Koné is that he plays in the same way all over the pitch. He understands when to release the ball and plays seemingly easy passes into free spaces so the attacks are fluid and advance and he does that both to progress from deep and to create opportunities and get the ball into the final third.
His first assist against Philadelphia Union is a great example of his calmness in all situations. In the picture below, we see him in the box after making a run from right to left. Instead of rushing and playing quickly, he takes an extra instant to evaluate his options, attract four rivals and then pass the ball to the free teammate on the left, who scores. Here, Koné shows his ball-carrying abilities to get into that position, his calm to pick the right option, his technique to manipulate the ball to set up the pass and the timing to assist his teammate.
Koné’s passing range is also quite good even if, again, inconsistent. He moves the ball quickly and when he switches the play it’s usually with some accuracy as he completes the pass but not with the perfect accuracy as his teammates often need to readjust their position or receive in an uncomfortable position.
When given some time, he can play deep through passes to create dangerous situations. This is especially useful in attacking transitions, as he plays forward immediately after recovering the ball so rivals can’t counter-press and can create chances very quickly in counterattacks if he has some movement in front of him.
Koné’s first assist against Atlanta was exactly like that. He recovered the ball and immediately raised his head, realizing the rival defenders were out of position. Before any rival could counter-press, he hit a good curved pass to set up a 1v1 chance for his teammate to score.
In defence, Koné helps his midfield partner a lot and can even play as a lone defensive midfielder if needed. He’s lively and quick in small spaces, has good anticipation and reacts very quickly to intercept passes. His good speed and work rate allow him to defend big spaces comfortably and play in a box-to-box role. Even if he looks lean and not too big, he’s still strong in duels and very aggressive in the tackle. His long legs make him a good tackler from difficult angles too.
From what we’ve seen in his few senior minutes, Koné can be an excellent player when he’s ‘on fire’ like he was during long parts of the game against Atlanta. In those moments, he seems to be everywhere in attack and defence, accelerates the attacks and can create chances with his passes, dribbles and movements.
He’s still extremely young and inexperienced but if he manages to keep his best level consistently, we’ll be hearing his name a lot in the next few months, especially with Canada having qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and him having just made his international debut.
Jesús Ferreira – 20, Dallas & USA – 3G & 1A
Jesús Ferreira is an attacking midfielder born in Colombia in 2000 who has spent his whole career in the USA and holds an American passport. He has scored three goals and provided an assist for Dallas FC in the MLS so far this season.
Ferreira is a product of Dallas’ academy and has always played for the club except for a six-month spell on loan at Roughnecks FC (now Tulsa FC) in the USL Championship, where he played 14 games (6 goals and 2 assists). Ferreira has featured 90 times for Dallas, contributing 21 goals and 15 assists.
Despite being born in Colombia, he has always represented the USA, both at U23 (4 caps, 1 goal) and senior levels (7 caps, 2 goals). He’s not a regular starter for the USMNT but seems to have earned his spot in the squad since the end of 2021.
Ferreira is an attacking midfielder who can also play as a false 9. He usually moves in central areas around the final third, sometimes as a striker but always staying away from the centre-backs and looking to receive between the lines. His positioning means he can go missing for long spells of the game if his teammates can’t get the ball to him as he doesn’t have the dynamism to drop deep or drift wide to get the ball.
Technically gifted, Ferreira is excellent at receiving with his back to the goal and playing layoffs to get the third man into play and progress with quick combinations. He can also turn with his first touch and has the quality to assist his teammates with accurate through passes in behind the defensive line. He has a good passing range to switch the play and send the ball to either wing and uses his left foot comfortably, which opens more options for him in every play.
When he gets the ball facing the goal and far from it, Ferreira usually delays the game and likes to take a lot of touches, which sometimes attracts rivals and creates spaces but also can make his team lose momentum and slow down the attack. He does the opposite when he receives the ball near the box and he always tries the killer pass there, which, again, isn’t always the optimal solution but makes him create lots of chances.
Above, we see the assist he got against Portland Timbers. Ferreira receives the ball in his favourite zone, centrally and between the lines or ‘Zone 14’ as it’s also known. While the pass is travelling to him, he scans his back and his first touch is perfect to turn, so he just doesn’t need extra touches to assist the run of his teammate with a well-weighted pass.
His third goal in that same game shown below is another good example of his positioning and quality in that zone of the pitch. He receives the ball from the left again, takes a couple of touches to advance and when the defender steps out, he calmly finishes between his legs and into the low corner. It’s interesting to see how he usually manages to receive the ball far from the centre-backs so he doesn’t have to get into challenges.
Regarding his scoring ability, Ferreira times his runs well to appear in good positions in and around the box. He delays his runs to create separation from the defensive line and receive cutbacks. When playing behind a striker, he gets advantage of his movements to receive the ball with space and time at the edge of the box and create chances. He also makes good runs in behind when rivals press high and has a quite good pace so he feels comfortable running off the ball and into long passes.
Let’s have a look at the other two goals he scored against Portland to understand his movements in the box. In the first goal below, Ferreira starts the play with a combination in midfield before the ball goes wide. As his teammate sends a low cross, he sprints into the penalty spot zone. When the striker lets the ball run through his legs, he outpaces his marker to arrive at the penalty spot and puts the ball in the top corner.
His second goal in that game is a perfect example to sum up his qualities around the box. Ferreira receives the ball at the edge of the box, takes just two touches to turn and pass the ball to the right and then attacks the box. His teammate puts a first-touch cross and Ferreira finds the space between the centre-backs to head it home, showing anticipation and scoring instinct.
In the defensive phase, Ferreira’s contribution is mixed. When he’s the most offensive player in his team, he doesn’t have an excellent work rate and he doesn’t press intensely or supports the midfielders too much. However, he’s always focused and ready to capitalize on any mistake the rivals make around him. He senses danger well in the defensive phase and is intense when he has to.
When playing more in a midfield role behind a striker, his work rate is much better. He tracks back at a good speed and does well in defensive transitions, especially when it’s him who lost possession. He’s adaptable to different roles and when he doesn’t defend it’s because of the tactics rather than because of him being lazy.
Ferreira has been one of the best prospects in the MLS for some time now. His start of the 2022 MLS season wasn’t excellent but his four goal contributions in the last game before the international break put him back in everyone’s mouths. Already a part of the USMNT, he’ll have to fight hard to earn a starting spot ahead of the World Cup. If he does, his value will increase even more and it shouldn’t be long before we see him in Europe.
The season has just started in the MLS but there are already some young players who are not only performing well but also having a direct impact on the score sheet. There are just 11 players in the 28 MLS teams with at least four goal contributions and only the ex Celtic Patrik Klimala is 23 or younger apart from the three we analyzed.
Other well-known names in this list are Carlos Vela (ex Arsenal or Real Sociedad), Lewis Morgan (ex Celtic or Sunderland) and Josef Martínez (MVP and top scorer of the MLS in 2018). Seeing these young and domestic players among these experienced foreign players speaks a lot about the development of the American and Canadian academies and their ability to produce top-level players for the league.