In the final edition of our MLS 2021 season previews, Sam Dunwell cranks up the SmarterScout analytics to go looking for rough diamonds. Using the power of the SmarterScout platform, Sam has been digging deep to find those players making the step up from the US second tier (USL) to MLS for the first time. The term ‘Rookie’ is used liberally here – we have tried to find players who are yet to play a minute in the MLS, although some will already have cards in circulation from previous seasons and may not qualify for a new ‘Rookie Edition’ card design. Those that will are marked with an (R) but will not have cards to purchase until the 2021 photos arrive at Sorare HQ!
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Goalkeeper – Ben Lundt (R) – FC Cincinnati
Given David Ochoa’s one start for Real Like City last season disqualifies him from this article; we have cast the net a little wider and landed on Ben Lundt. The Berlin native had a fantastic 2020 in the USL, finishing the season as USL Goalkeeper of the Year and earning a full call up to the FC Cincinnati MLS squad for 2021. Lundt amassed 59 saves and 11 clean sheets earning All-League First Team honors. This was also to go with the goalkeeper of the year award. The German finished with a save percentage of 74.4; the second-highest in the league among goalkeepers who played in at least 14 games. He also finished with a league-best nine clean sheets, which includes seven regular-season shutouts. Lundt is unlikely to break into the first team during 2021. As one of four goalkeepers competing for the starting berth, that position is likely to be hotly contested between the returning Przemysław Tytoń and Spencer Richey. As an investment for the future though, Lundt would appear to be the best rookie keeper around the league right now and could be one to keep in your Sorare vault until the time comes.
Defender – John Tolkin – New York Red Bulls
Although not a Sorare Rookie under the new definition, Jon Tolkin is yet to play a minute of senior football in the MLS. Yet to even turn 19, the teenager has been a part of the NYRB academy setup for the last six years, working his way through the ranks on a journey that looks destined to take him to MLS level. While in the Red Bulls Academy, he not only received call ups but has featured for the Under-17 U.S. Men’s Youth National squad eight times. With 15 goals already at USL level, Tolkin is a player who is yet to lock down a position; he featured as a left winger, a central midfielder and at left full back to date. Marked as a defender in the 2020 Sorare card gallery, Tolkin could easily end up playing MLS football in a more advanced role. with a wand of a left foot to rely on. The quality of the player’s delivery has led him to be a given set piece opportunities for the NYRB II USL side and Tolkin is also happy shooting from open play.
Reports from our SmarterScout partnership (above) show the kinds of areas Tolkin is happy to shoot from. If the player can break into the MLS first team this season then this could be an exciting prospect for many years ahead.
Midfielder – Adam Saldaña (R) – LA Galaxy
After featuring in every USL game last season for LA Galaxy II, Saldana was fully deserving of his promotion to the senior side ahead of the 2021 season. The midfielder was a fixture in the lineup in 2020 for Los Dos; starting every fixture in the important holding midfield role. A deep lying, ball winning midfielder, Saldana dominated the key metrics of interceptions, recoveries and ground duels won, making him a great prospect for the Sorare matrix. Standing at just 5ft 6in, this is a natural terrier of a player who loves to win back the ball and release others to get forward. Two seasons with LA Galaxy II have confirmed the promise in a player who had already enjoyed several excellent seasons with the LA Galaxy Academy. With international recognition as well – he has made 26 appearances for the U.S. U-17 side – Saldana seems destined to play some part in the MLS campaigns of the future and would seem to represent an excellent rookie prospect.
Forward – Wilson Harris (R) – Sporting Kansas City
After three seasons of play in the USL, Harris turned 21 in November 2020, weeks after signing professional terms with Sporting Kansas City. His third season with SKC II proved to be his best; culminating with the forward winning the coveted USL Young Player of the Year award for 2020. An incredibly efficient striker, Harris scored eight goals from open play in 2020 from just 28 shots across the course of the season. With a shot to goal conversion rate of almost 30%, it’s easy to see why the player has earned himself a reputation for ruthlessness in front of goal. Harris is no goal poacher though, our partnership with SmarterScout demonstrates the player’s drive and desire to influence the course of attacking play from all over the pitch, with shots both inside and outside the penalty area.
Scoring from a range of positions is seemingly no issue either, as the goalscoring map below demonstrates:
How much gametime Harris gets in 2021 for Sporting Kansas City remains to be seen. This is a club which takes pride in developing its young players however and Harris should get his chance at some point along the way.
Forward – Kimarni Smith (R) – DC United
A product of the Sheffield United academy in the English Premier League. Kimarni Smith’s career has taken a different route with the forward being the fourth overall pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. With statistics from US College level difficult to reproduce in meaningful form; we rely on Smith’s raw performance data and the views of those who have brought him to DC United. Smith scored 26 goals and recorded 11 assists in 63 appearances (43 starts) for Clemson from 2017 to 2020. In his final season in NCAA Division I in 2020, Smith scored eight goals and recorded three assists in 11 appearances.
The forward earned several recognitions in his final season, including two TopDrawerSoccer.com Player of the Week selections, three TopDrawerSoccer.com Team of the Week nominations, and three College Soccer News Player of the Week awards, as well as being named the MVP of the ACC Tournament. DC United General Manager Dave Kasper was full of praise for the Englishman, saying: “Kimarni possess a unique skillset that combines technical ability with a strong athletic profile, which will be important in our playing style this season.” It may take a little while for Smith to get his chance and it is as yet unclear as to whether he will continue as a central striker or shift to a wide forward position. However 2021 plays out though, this is a rookie card which may well be in high demand when released.
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