Five up-and-coming NASL stars destined for bright futures
The NASL’s backroom turmoil this previous offseason certainly hasn’t showed in its on-field product.
The second-division league has featured talent that ultimately went on to be major contributors in MLS and beyond. This list includes the likes of Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra, Brent Kallman, Fafa Picault and Haji Wright. However, the current batch of players also provide many names that could be key contributors at the next level. Here are five young players in the NASL to keep your eye on:
Bryan Sylvestre, North Carolina FC
The former Vancouver Whitecaps academy goalkeeper has taken an interesting path between the posts. He struggled for minutes before 2015, bouncing from the Caps to their USL affiliate to Harrisburg City.
However, a twist of fate brought him from Carolina on loan to the Philadelphia Union. With the Union mired in a goalkeeper crisis (remember Raïs M'Bolhi?) in 2015, Sylvestre made 12 appearances for the MLS side, keeping five clean sheets along the way.
Still just 24, he has started nine games for North Carolina FC, making previous starter Akira Fitzgerald expendable. Sylvestre was born in Florida, and can represent Haiti in international play. North Carolina’s playoff hopes may largely rest in Sylvestre’s gloved hands. It’ll be a great test of his poise and ability – one that, to this point, he seems ready to take on.
Bolu Akinyode, North Carolina FC
Similar to Sylvestre, the North Carolina FC midfielder was once an MLS academy prospect. He was a New York Red Bulls academy player, ultimately deciding to head to Seton Hall in 2011 for four years. He latched on with the USL’s Bethlehem Steel in 2016, making 24 starts between center back and defensive midfield.
He was then sold to North Carolina FC for an undisclosed transfer fee, with the NASL side realizing his potential. Everywhere he’s gone, Akinyode’s physical prowess has been tough to ignore. He’s a blend of strength and finesse, making him very difficult to keep off of the ball.
Akinyode has been seeing increased minutes for North Carolina, going the full 90 in the team’s last regular-season match and adding an assist in stoppage time. Having been called into youth international camps for both Nigeria and the United States, he continues to get looks as a top prospect. With midfield partner Nazmi Albadawi destined to head to MLS next year, North Carolina FC will look to Akinyode to be its next fulcrum.
Robert Baggio Kcira, Miami FC
Maybe the fact that his name is similar to an Italian legend’s helped him get in head coach Alessandro Nesta’s good graces. Whatever the case, this has been a breakout year for the Miami FC left back.
Baggio, a 23-year-old from New York, appeared in just 20 minutes of action in 2016. He leads the NASL in touches so far in 2017, proving his ability to press forward in attack. However, he also leads Miami in duals won, showing he’s willing to do the defensive work necessary of a fullback. Under Nesta’s tutelage, his defensive prowess should only continue to improve, given it’s his first year at the position. With age on his side and his status as a domestic player, he’s a top prospect for any MLS side. American left backs are hard to find, and Baggio seems a lock to make the leap to the top flight if he keeps up this run of play.
Dylan Mares, Miami FC
It’s never been a question of ability for Dylan Mares. The Indiana native signed on with local club Indy Eleven ahead of its expansion season in 2014. After becoming a regular starter in 2015, Mares delivered 10 goals and 11 assists in 40 starts across two seasons. The No. 10 was the focal point of an Indy attack that often seemed brutish and counter-attack based.
After signing on with flashy Miami FC this offseason, he has two goals and an assist in his first nine games. More impressively, he’s been credited with creating 24 chances in nine games, showing room for growth. Still just 25 and a domestic player, he could be a steady attacking midfield piece for many MLS teams needing depth.
Jack Blake, Jacksonville Armada
The one full international on the list, Blake may also prove to be the player with the highest upside in the NASL. Blake is a former Nottingham Forest academy prospect who signed with Minnesota United in its final NASL campaign last season. However, a Loons side desperate to make the playoffs prioritized starting veterans over the 22-year-old, so he signed on with Jacksonville Armada, and has immediately become the main focal point of his new team’s midfield.
Blake is exceptional on free kicks, having created eight chances and earned two assists from set pieces. He’s very talented on the ball, showing great technical prowess with his dribbling and passing. With plenty of potential as he continues to improve his overall game, Blake could be a key cog of any MLS midfield in the near-future.