Prospect Watch: Quakes Academy Class of 2017

With an exemption from the salary cap and exclusive signing rights, it’s little wonder that the sharpest MLS teams are focusing more and more intently on homegrown signings. To catch up with FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, longtime leaders in this area, the San Jose Earthquakes have been putting heavy investment into their own academy over the last few years by offering full scholarships, bringing in experienced coaches, and of course, laying the groundwork for a $35 million academy complex to open in a few years time.

As such, Quakes fans want to know who the next future home-grown signing could be after Tommy Thompson broke the ice in 2014. The most likely names remain the three college players that I’ve covered extensively here and on my podcast: Josh Morton (academy class of 2014), J.T. Marcinkowski (2015), and Amir Bashti (2015). Next up would be the two further names I added to that list from the class of 2016 in this article.

The class of 2017, however, has the potential to be special. As you can see above, no class in the Academy has ever produced more than two serious pro prospects, yet I have for you at least five names to add to the list, many of which have already had relatively regular sessions training with the first team:

Andrew Paoli – CDM

Paoli is the apple of any coach’s eye as one of those high-soccer-IQ, pivot-holding #6s that sit as the deepest of a midfield three in the mold of Sergio Busquets. If you’re looking for MLS comparisons, perhaps Wil Trapp would be the closest approximation.

He’s not a hulking presence or overly quick, so his style would sit in contrast to an athletic enforcer like Fatai Alashe. He’s more of the kind of defensive midfielder that is always positioned correctly, makes tidy tackles, and, most importantly, distributes effectively from deep.

As for his overall quality, though, there’s no doubt, given the huge number of honors that have come his way: he’s been a mainstay of the US Youth National Teams at his level and the US Soccer Development Academy (the organization that administers academy-level play) named him the best U16 player in the western United States. He’s already committed to UCLA for the next level.

He’s the real deal. And in my opinion, he’s the most likely from the list to be a future pro.

Arda Bulut – ST

Bulut, who has already gotten some hype in Turkish media due to his Turkish roots, is for now a regular in the US youth system. He’s not particularly big or strong, and his pace is fine but not necessarily a primary asset. What stands out, on tape, is the intelligence of his runs, his solid technical ability, and instinctive finishing. I’ve seen him do it comfortably with both feet, although not as much with his head. He’s clinical, though, and was one of the country’s top goalscorers this season with 26 goals.

He’s already committed to Stanford, and in my opinion he’ll be a good fit under Jeremy Gunn with his work rate and eye for counter-attacking runs. He was named to the all-Western first team at the U16 level, and I’d bet on him being productive throughout his college career, although, like with many pure goalscorers, it’s hard to project how high his ceiling is.

Forgiving me the indulgence of a Tottenham comparison (more will follow), the player he reminds me most of from world football is Harry Kane, another intelligent, technical player with lethal finishing who doesn’t rely on pace. The physical/aerial game that Kane brings, however, is something Bulut currently lacks. As for a stylistic comparison closer to home, with the huge caveat that I’m in no way implying a similarity of skill level or future production, Quakes fans will immediately think of Chris Wondolowski with his movement and goalscoring when they see Bulut.

Adolfo Trujillo – LW

Trujillo is a tough one to figure out. He’s got a big frame as far as wingers go (if somewhat wiry), he has some showy tricks on the dribble, and he’s got some serious pedigree (including USYNT call-ups, a trial with Liverpool, and an eye-catching 5-star rating from TopDrawerSoccer.com). There’s no doubt that the upside that got him early notice is still there, since he was one of the few to look comfortable against the first team from this age group.

Despite all that, he didn’t impose himself 100% of the time at the U16 level, and his contributions did not receive the same acclaim than that of some of his teammates. It is, however, not uncommon for wingers to take a while to figure out how to be consistently dangerous, since their volume of touches is small and the positions they take those touches in are typically closed down quickly.

In fact, when searching out a comparison, the player that stood out to me as a stylistic fit also had a famously long learning curve: Erik Lamela, another long and tricky winger. Trujillo’s upside is as high as anyone’s in this group; it’s just not clear what his path is to get there. If he scratches the surface of that potential however, the real challenge will be fending off interest from abroad to keep him in San Jose.

Ivan Valenica – CAM

Valencia is an energetic midfielder who is comfortable keeping the passes ticking over in the attacking half from a number of positions, including his primary role as a number 10. He would fit in just as well from wide areas, however, or even as a deeper number 8. On tape, it’s not hard to identify him, since he’s constantly at the center of attacking moves, and he has impressive vision and calm in the final third. He has good technique and dribbling skills, but it seems like he is more frequently effective through the simple rather than the spectacular. The comparison, then, is perhaps an obvious one: Darlington Nagbe, who checks all those same boxes.

Valencia hasn’t received any USYNT call-ups or post-season honors from USSDA, but he’s already made a commitment to Cal, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him quietly solidify himself in the coming years as a hot prospect in the Quakes developmental system.

Christopher Grey – CB

Grey received a few call-ups at the younger USYNT levels, but recently he got tabbed for Jamaica at the U-20 level, playing well above his age group for the country of his parents’ birth. He reads the game well, is pretty quick for the position, and he’s refined playing it out of the back with his natural left foot. On the other hand, he’d need to grow a bit and bulk up as he gets older in order to fit into the role of an MLS center-back. He’s a converted left-back, and I could actually see him returning to the position at a later stage in his development.

For now, however, he’s been extremely productive in his role, and was recognized on the all-Western USSDA U16 team with Bulut and Paoli. He’s also given a commitment to Cal, which I think will be a good developmental fit.

I struggled a bit to find an adequate stylistic comparison for him, but Samuel Umtiti, a somewhat undersized left-footed CB with LB experience, was one that came to mind. Ultimately, perhaps the best comparison would be a smaller version of Jordan Stewart.

Other Names To Remember

Of course, the very oldest of this age group is still just 17, and for every Charles Renken and Freddy Adu who doesn’t live up to their teenage promise, there’s a Chris Wondolowski who exceeds their wildest teenage dreams. So don’t take the above list as comprehensive.

In particular, I wanted to highlight Dominic Peters. He rose to fame when he saved Chris Wondolowski’s penalty attempt in the Academy-First Team friendly this January, and based on conversations with Paul Holocher, it seems like his rise within the academy was just as meteoric, having been noticed on a random field adjacent to Academy training. Peters stands in contrast to Class of 2016 stud Drake Calendar in that he’s not the same on-the-hoof athletic specimen, but his positioning, handling, and composure make comparisons to Jasper Cillesen (the name Peters himself came up with when I asked him) more apt.

Peters is committed to Wake Forest, a nouveau riche NCAA power that just put out first overall draft pick Jack Harrison. The college game is more favorable for goalkeepers than just about any other position, and with the huge glut of talented young keepers under Quakes control, the more time for development, the better.

Beyond Peters, there are at least two more players who warrant mention. Forward Kaya Febretti, who would start up top for most academies in the absence of someone like Bulut, has committed to UCSB for college and pulled an impressive four-star ranking from TopDrawerSoccer. Left-back Alonso Del Mundo, destined for Cal, has drawn particular praise for his rapidly improving game. Since both of them are playing for major D1 programs, they’ll be on the national scouting radar, and will be given a chance to take the next step in their development under good coaching.

And of course, don’t count on another name coming out of the woodwork that I haven’t even mentioned.

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