NASL season preview: Eleven young players to watch
The new North American Soccer League season kicks off Saturday, as the continent's second division looks to strengthen its foothold in an ever-growing and changing soccer landscape.
Television deals with ESPN, CBS and BeINSports have all been announced ahead of this weekend’s curtain-raiser. Fans of the game in North America will have plenty of opportunities to keep track of a new round of up-and-coming stars. While the NASL tends to provide a home for grizzled veterans, a handful of young and talented players are waiting in the wings for the opportunity.
Here are 11 players to keep an eye on as the season begins this weekend:
Eric Calvillo, Midfielder, New York Cosmos
While star-power certainly provides the backbone to New York’s on-field approach, the Cosmos recently started to add U.S. youth players to its roster. Calvillo is the most recent player to join the setup, signing with New York in January after playing for the U.S. U-17 men’s national team at the 2015 World Cup in Chile. He goes into this season as a new face on a deep roster, so minutes on the first team could be sparse. However, Calvillo is an impressive, versatile player, capable of slotting in as a box-to-box or holding midfielder, and can even be pressed into spot duty at right back. His ceiling may not be as high as some of the other players from the U-17 squad, but there should be potential to grow with New York via its B team that competes in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League. A good run there this summer, and Calvillo could be knocking on the door of the first team ahead of next season.
Brian Sylvestre, Goalkeeper, Carolina Railhawks
Despite signing his first professional contract back in 2011, Sylvestre remains a player waiting in the wings at Carolina, likely the backup to incumbent No. 1 Akira Fitzgerald. The 23-year-old shot-stopper is a formidable physical presence standing at 6-foot-5, who fared relatively well in an MLS loan stint with the Philadelphia Union in 2015. A move elsewhere failed to materialize after that, and this season remains a critical one to Sylvestre. Can he push on, win the starting role and establish himself as the preferred starter in Cary? Or will he continue the trajectory towards a career backup? There’s no doubting he has the abilities and requisite frame, now he needs to take his next chance when it comes and make the most of it.
Charles Eloundou, Forward, Jacksonville Armada
A name familiar to the diehard MLS fan, Eloundou originally signed with the Colorado Rapids back in 2013. He didn’t hit U.S. shores till a year later, however, because of passport issues, and struggled to crack the lineup with the Rapids the past two seasons, including a pair of loan spells with Charlotte and Colorado Springs. He signed with Jacksonville after a successful preseason trial, and still has plenty of potential after causing problems for opposing defenses in exhibition matches. The Cameroon international impressed new Armada head coach Tony Meola and was one of the top scorers during preseason. He certainly adds a different dynamic to his club’s offense, and if things click, it’ll certainly help the Florida side to a better finish in its second season in the NASL.
Luis Felipe Fernandes, Midfielder, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers
His ties to the United States are what make Luis Felipe Fernandes intriguing. Born in New York, Fernandes only recently turn 20, and is moving to the NASL looking to kick his career into high gear. Growing up in Brazil, the new Striker played for Cruzeiro’s youth academy, eventually earning a couple of call-ups to the U.S. Under-20 men’s national team in 2014. Fernandes offers drive and cover to the heart of Fort Lauderdale’s midfield, and brings a very unique pedigree to the league. He’s not a lock to start from day one, but there’s every reason to believe one he gets an opportunity he has the ability to take that and run with it.
Shamit Shome, Midfielder, FC Edmonton
It’s common to see a small handful of players depart the NCAA ranks to begin pro careers in Major League Soccer. But one of FC Edmonton’s newest players, Shamit Shome, played a season of soccer at the University of Alberta before re-joining the Eddies (Shome was a standout in the team’s Academy). Named as the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Canada West rookie of the year in 2015, Shome has already earned looks from the full Canadian men’s national team and was in camp with the Under-20s in March. Shome, at only 18, has earned rave reviews from preseason reports and looks set to make the trip to Oklahoma this weekend as FCE open against Rayo OKC.
Duke Lacroix, Forward, Indy Eleven
The road to a professional career has been something of a roundabout route for Lacroix. After four standout seasons at the University of Pennsylvania in the Ivy League, the attacker went overlooked by Major League Soccer clubs during the 2015 draft. Part of that came due to his academic intentions, as Lacroix elected to finish his degree prior to chasing a pro soccer career. That decision led him to seek opportunities in the NASL, eventually opting to sign with Indy Eleven in May 2015. He went on to make 18 appearances, playing 835 minutes and scoring two goals during his rookie campaign. After surviving Indy’s offseason makeover on the heels of a ninth-place finish, the future is bright for arguably the best player in the history of Penn men’s soccer, whether in Indy or beyond.
Ian Svantesson, Defender, Rayo OKC
Joining the NASL for the 2016 season, Rayo OKC has built up a roster in the space of a couple of months as it prepares for its debut campaign. Part of that construction included Svantesson, a standout over the past four years at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. With veteran center backs ahead of him with plenty of pro experience, the 6-foot-6 defender has his work cut out for him to earn playing time. Given the uncertainty that all expansion teams face, don’t be surprised if injuries or form open the door for Svantesson to showcase his physical abilities at the back.
Darwin Espinal, Forward, Tampa Bay Rowdies
Speaking of unusual journeys to professional soccer, Honduran Darwin Espinal perhaps took the most circuitous route on this list. Originally born in Tegucigalpa, Espinal moved to Florida with his family where be became a high school soccer standout in Broward County. From there, he moved on to Darton State College in Georgia, where he played two seasons at the NJCAA level. The Rowdies snapped him up at the end of 2014, and Espinal showed his class in his debut season, making 22 appearances and scoring four goals. The 21-year-old midfielder leveraged his NASL success into a stint with the Honduras Under-23 team that successfully qualified for the Olympics. He’ll need to fight to hold onto his starting role while keeping one eye on the chance to play in Rio later this summer, which could provide the chance to showcase himself in front of a global audience.
Jorge Rivera, Midfielder, Puerto Rico FC
Another fascinating storyline to the upcoming season will be the addition of Puerto Rico FC, which is slated to join for the fall campaign. Given that they don’t kick off until July, the team is still coming together, with just a handful of players signed to the roster. One of those is Jorge Rivera, a local midfielder also capable of playing up top. Having recently turned 20, Rivera earned a call-up to the Puerto Rican national team against New York City FC last December, where he had a decent showing. Obviously Puerto Rico is far from an international power, though Rivera’s progression – and any other young locals who earn a look in the NASL – adds another compelling element to watch for as the team nears its first game.
Victor Pagliari Giro (PC), Midfielder, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers
PC’s first season in the NASL was a good one, as the Brazilian converted from a left back into a midfielder, both wide and centrally. He scored five goals and added four assists in a little more than 2,000 minutes in 2015. With a couple of key departures from the team’s attack (both Stefano Pinho and Marlon Freitas have moved on after combining for 24 goals last year), more of the onus on offensive success will fall on the shoulders of the 22-year-old Brazilian. A cultured player who can take lethal free kicks, his adjustment to the higher expectations facing him will dictate his success this year.
Ismaila Jome, Forward, Minnesota United FC
Deciding to bypass his final year of eligibility at UC Santa Barbara, Ismaila Jome returned to Minnesota this offseason, joining United ahead of their final season in the NASL. A left-sided player with good attacking instincts and plenty of versatility, Jome featured both in the midfield and at the back for the Gauchos. Minnesota looks set to deploy him up front, where he’ll be able to take more risks, dribble at players and look to sharpen his attacking instincts. If you’re looking for a dark house impact rookie from the start of the season, Jome certainly fits that billing.