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Ledezma, Llanez and the next wave of USMNT stars set to break through in Europe

21:00 GMT+4 25/03/2020
Richie Ledezma PSV Ulysses Llanez Wolfsburg USMNT
The growing pool of talented American youngsters gives reason for hope, and there are several talented prospects that look set to take the next step

The moment Giovanni Reyna stepped onto the field for Borussia Dortmund, a new question emerged: who's next? For years, Reyna had been hailed as American soccer's next big star, the heir apparent to Christian Pulisic at the Chelsea man's former club. And, now that Reyna has emerged as a regular figure for Borussia Dortmund, that new question looms large.

Reyna, like Pulisic before him, is on a different level than almost every other player in the U.S. men's national team pool. There are plenty of good players that will almost certainly go on to play at good clubs, but Reyna and Pulisic have the ability to play at a world-class level. It's something the USMNT has never truly had and this upcoming generation of players have inspired hope unlike any before it. 

That hope comes at a time of need. We're now midway between the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle and the potential redemption of 2022 in Qatar. After that comes the 2026 tournament on home soil. This generation, these young players, will be representing the U.S. over a six-year period that will be unlike any before it. Like the class of 1994, this group will face a particular set of challenges, expectations and difficulties, especially on the heels of the 2018 disaster.

And, fortunately for the U.S., there's reason to hope. There are talented young players at big clubs throughout Europe as more and more players make that leap. Players like Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie have established themselves as key fixtures for Champions League-quality teams when healthy while Reyna has taken his first steps towards that as well. But there's still that question: who's next?

Ulysses Llanez, Wolfsburg

LA Galaxy product Ulysses Llanez made the move to Germany in April of 2019 and, in the months since, he's enjoyed a steady rise for both club and country.

Reports out of Germany state that Llanez is set to begin training with the Wolfsburg senior team after establishing himself as a fixture with the Under-19s by providing 11 goals and six assists this season. It's the latest sign of faith in the American attacker, who was added to the team’s Europa League roster back in early February but has not yet dressed for the senior squad or Wolfsburg II. 

Internationally, Llanez earned his first USMNT cap in January against Costa Rica as he scored his first senior goal from the penalty spot, showing the poise and confidence of a veteran to finish from the spot.

"It’s typical he took the penalty because that’s what type of player he is," USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter said following that Costa Rica game. "He plays with confidence. Even at the beginning of the game, he didn’t see nerves, he was going at guys one v one, he’s getting into good spaces, he’s running behind the line. His defensive work was strong as well."

He is expected to be a key part of the U.S. Olympic qualifying team when Concacaf's tournament kicks off following the competition's coronavirus postponement. The fact that Wolfsburg was willing to let him join January camp and head to Olympic qualifiers is a slight concern, but the recent first-team call-up shows they do value him.

Richie Ledezma, PSV 

There are few bigger signs of faith than a contract extension, and that's the type of faith PSV has shown in Richie Ledezma.

PSV announced last week that the club extended the midfielder's contract through 2022 with Ledezma's old deal set to end this summer. You could easily interpret that as a club looking to keep hold of a player rather than losing him for free, but his progress with Jong PSV is more than enough reason to believe that Ledezma is getting closer to making a leap.

Ledezma is the only teenager in the Dutch second division to create at least 35 chances, and the attacking midfielder has scored four goals in 25 appearances this season for Jong PSV. That has earned him training stints with the senior team, a good sign that the club has him in their plans.

"I've been saying this since day one in 2018: the first team," he said after signing his new deal. "I want my [first team] debut and to play consistently for them. If I can't do that, I'll play for Jong, help them out and give everything. I feel like I'm really close, training with them, I'm okay with that, but I'm just waiting for my chance and to take it. I'm ready for anything."

In terms of attacking talent, there aren't many more dynamic players in the USYNT pool than Ledezma, who was a key figure for the U.S. U-20s at last summer's World Cup. He has weaknesses, physically and defensively, but his ability to create in the final third lends itself very well to the Dutch game.

And there are few better places to refine that sort of talent than the Eredivisie and there are few clubs better at developing that talent than PSV. Because of those factors, it seems Ledezma could be part of the much-needed wave of attacking talent the USMNT so desperately needs.

Chris Richards, Bayern Munich

Breaking into the Bayern Munich first team is no easy feat, and it remains to be seen if Chris Richards will ever be good enough to do it. However, there is no doubt that there is a very good centerback somewhere in there and, at some point, some team will find a use for him.

Richards has earned chances with the Bayern first team before, having featured for the club's senior side during the 2018 International Champions Cup. This January, Richards was called in to January training camp, a period that has traditionally been quite favorable to young Americans. Both Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic used January stints to springboard their way into the first team at Dortmund and, although Bayern is a different challenge and centerback is a different position, a January call-up certainly doesn't hurt.

The former FC Dallas defender has featured extensively in the 3. Bundesliga with Bayern's reserves this season, even adding a pair of goals. Those performances come on the heels of a standout U-20 World Cup last summer, where Richards emerged as the brightest young centerback in the U.S. pool. 

“Out of all the centerbacks I’ve coached I think he’s the one with the most potential,” former U.S. Under-20 coach and current Houston Dynamo boss Tab Ramos told Goal last year. “He has unlimited potential. All the other guys you could tell they’re good. They’re solid. I look at [Matt] Miazga, [Cameron] Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown. I just think Richards has a really high ceiling. He also has great charisma, which other guys follow, and he makes a team better because of it.”

Richards is about to turn 20, so he's getting close to shedding the tag of young prospect, but it is fair to expect a young defender to take a little longer to develop. The passing ability is there, as is the athleticism, and, once it all comes together, Richards should be a fixture for club and country for years to come.

Konrad de la Fuente, Barcelona

If Richards is put into the "unlikely" category when it comes to featuring for his current team, you can hit Konrad de la Fuente with the "near impossible" designation. Such is life when you're behind the likes of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele and Ansu Fati.

But the Barcelona youth product is slowly making his way up the ladder, and there are few ladders that build a player up as well as Barcelona's

After several months of cloudiness surrounding his future, ESPN reported in February that De la Fuente is set to sign a three-year contract extension with Barcelona that will see him promoted to the club's second team next season. He has featured for the B-team in the past but, having drawn interest from Hertha Berlin in the winter, the 18-year-old winger is now committed to continuing his growth at Barcelona.

Patrick Kluivert is head of Barcelona's academy system, and an endorsement from the legendary Dutch striker is certainly a good sign.

“I’ve spoken quite a few times with Konrad,” Kluivert told Sports Illustrated. “I think Konrad is a very bright player. He has a very good one-on-one action. He needs to score more, but as I say that in the last three games he has scored four goals, so that’s a good thing. I think when he continues like this next year, he will be for sure in the Barca B team.”

De la Fuente has obvious strengths (his dribbling ability, athleticism, skill in one-on-one situations) and obvious weaknesses (his finishing and decision making) but there's still time to sort those out. It's unlikely he ever does so in a way that sees him usurp the stars listed in the opening paragraph, but there's nothing wrong with using a Barcelona education to find your path elsewhere when the time is right.

Sebastian Soto, Hannover

Sebastian Soto, the goalscoring star of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team, earned brief minutes in the Bundesliga last season and looked to be on the path towards consistent minutes in the 2. Bundesliga this campaign. it hasn't happened, but it hasn't been because of lack of talent.

Soto's lack of game time this season can be traced back to a contract impasse that began last summer, when clubs like Borussia Dortmund, PSV, Benfica and Club Brugge were said to be after the striker. According to ESPN, Hannover held out for a seven-figure deal, despite the fact that Soto's contract is set to expire this summer. It never came, and Soto has played just three games since.

But, when he does hit the market this summer, Soto should be in demand. He scored four goals at the U-20 World Cup last summer and scored 17 goals in 24 appearances for Hannover's U-19s last year. Wasting the 2019-20 season certainly hurt his development, but the 19-year-old's nose for goal should allow him to find a club where he can take that next step.

"He's definitely a team-first type player and he's excellent around the box," Ramos told Goal last summer. "When he gets a chance, he puts it away. People just can't do that consistently. You have tons of great players who can't score goals and he can."