Since its launch in 2019, USL Academy has provided a platform for top young players to prove themselves prior to joining the professional ranks, and even been a key point for those like former Louisville City FC defender Joshua Wynder – now at legendary Portuguese club Benfica after his transfer this summer – or former Orange County SC defender Kobi Henry – who transferred to Ligue 1 club Stade de Reims in 2022 – to build their reputations.
Here are 11 players we think you should have an eye on this week at the 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs. They range from players currently signed to professional deals with their respective clubs to those who have made notable impacts at the USL Academy League level and stepped up to the USL Championship, League One and League Two level.
All will be aiming to shine and lead their sides to success in the 16-team bracket.
Juan Santana grabbed headlines earlier this year when on his USL Championship debut, he posted a shutout on the road in Orange County SC’s 2-0 win before more than 20,000 fans at Sacramento Republic FC in August. Now the 18-year-old – whose feat made him the youngest goalkeeper to post a shutout on his Championship debut – is looking to help deliver OCSC more success this week as he builds toward a larger role for the First Team in the 2024 regular season.
Diego Abarca made history last offseason as one of the first two players to sign professional terms with Locomotive FC from its Academy program and has now made 13 appearances in the USL Championship overall after previously appearing in the 2022 campaign. An influential midfielder, the 18-year-old will be aiming to find a consistent level of playing time in the pro ranks next season and a strong showing this week will provide a platform and confidence to build on as he enters preseason with Locomotive FC hoping to make a run in the bracket.
Diego Sanchez was one of the key influences when Indy won the inaugural USL Academy League Playoffs two years ago, earning All-Tournament honors in the process, and has made a pair of appearances in the USL Championship prior to signing professionally with the club this past week. Earlier this year he was named to the Best XI at the USL Academy Cup as Indy claimed the title there and with his first full professional season ahead, the midfielder will be aiming to make another big impression for a side that always finds itself in contention at this time of year.
Tampa Bay United returns as defending title holder at the USL Academy League Playoffs, and midfielder Nick Skubis will be aiming to lead the side to more success after an outstanding campaign last year. Skubis was named the Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s best player, and recorded a goal and assist in United’s victory in the final. A longtime part of TBU’s Academy program, Skubis stepped up to the senior level for the club in USL League Two this past summer. He’s currently set to compete for Ohio State University next fall after completing his youth career.
Dalziel Ozuna became the fifth-youngest player to appear in a USL Championship contest this past April, making his debut as a late substitute against Monterey Bay F.C. aged just 15 years, 27 days old. While that introduction was needed as SAFC faced injury problems in its senior squad, Ozuna’s promise makes him among the next wave of young talent that the club is aiming to nurture and move on like former Academy product Jose Gallegos, now competing professionally in Denmark. Ozuna is still young, but should be one to watch as SAFC tries to end its season on a high note.
16-year-old Benjamin Barjolo has yet to make his USL Championship debut for Orange County SC, but the winger became the next top prospect to arrive at the club this summer and is tipped to have a big future ahead of him. Coming to the club from the Atlanta United FC Academy, Barjolo will look to impress here in the same way as current teammate – and United States U-17 World Cup winger – Bryce Jamison did a year ago when he was named to the All-Showcase Team at this event.
Miami FC has been building a pipeline to its First Team, with Chris Jean-Francois headed to Academy League Playoffs after having been a USL Academy signing this past season. The side is bullish on the potential of winger Lucas Costa, though, who has led the side with nine goals this season while coming through with key goals and assists during the regular season. Costa will be aiming to produce more good performances this week with an eye on the 2024 campaign.
Right-sided winger Ivan Moore has been part of New Mexico’s Academy since its inception, and when he joined in 2021, he was the youngest player signed to the squad at just 13 years of age. Last year he had an impressive run of performances at the Academy League Playoffs that led him to be named as an Honorable Mention to the All-Tournament Team, and this year the Uganda native figures to be a key player as United tries to make a run through the bracket.
Toby Grant has been one of the top defensive prospects for Park City Red Wolves SC, and not only made three appearance this season in USL League Two while making the step up to the senior squad, but also featuring in the club’s second appearance in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this past March. As the Red Wolves reach the bracket in the Academy League Playoffs for the first time, the 18-year-old will aim to impress alongside 2022 All-Showcase Division selection Blake Oberholzer.
One of the ways you could see North Carolina FC has high hopes for 16-year-old Raul Avalos was when it handed him his First Team debut in this summer’s exhibition against AFC Sunderland, but the talented midfielder has also built a strong resume at a young age. Part of El Salvador’s squad for the Concacaf Men’s U-17 Championship this spring, Avalos also made five appearances for NCFC U-23 this summer in USL League Two. He will be aiming to shine this week but should be a player to watch in the years ahead as North Carolina moves back into the USL Championship in 2024.
Isaac Scheer has been one of the top prospects in the Charlotte Independence’s Academy, and this year earned opportunities to not only train with the club’s First Team – which advanced to the League One Final in November – but be part of the gameday roster. Currently committed to the University of West Virginia for next fall, the midfielder will look to cap off a big year as a central figure to the Independence’s potential run in the bracket.