The next wave: 5 young Canadians to watch during the 2023 MLS season
The 2023 MLS season is just around the corner, and with it, comes the chance for new players to leave their mark in the league.
In particular, there’s a lot to be intrigued for if you’re a fan of Canadian soccer, as this edition of MLS is expected to be the best yet in terms of Canadian players seeing the field, continuing the strong year-over-year growth that the league has seen in terms of overall Canadian minutes.
That’s had a huge impact on the Canadian Men’s National Team, as well, with players such as Ismaël Koné, Tajon Buchanan, Alistair Johnston, Dayne St.Clair, Joel Waterman, Lukas MacNaughton, and more all bursting onto head coach John Herdman’s radar while playing in MLS in recent years.
And now, in 2023, a new talented crop of youngsters is hoping to carve out a similar path toward national team minutes. Looking to follow in the footsteps of someone like Koné, who went from a non-capped professional to a MLS stalwart, World Cup participant and now Watford FC player over the last 12 months, these young players are all entering this season knowing that they could soon follow a similar path, should they grab their opportunity.
Because of that, on the eve of a new MLS season, here’s a look at the next crop of Canadians that are striving to be the next Koné, Johnston or Buchanan this year, making the most of their opportunities with their various clubs.
Karifa Yao (Vancouver Whitecaps):
All he needed was an opportunity. And now, he’s got one out on the west coast.
For 22-year-old Karifa Yao, he always thought he’d one day be an MLS regular, but that was always supposed to be with CF Montréal, the club who he progressed through the academy ranks with as a youngster.
Having spent the last two seasons on loan to Cavalry FC, where he went from raw product to polished defender across 56 games with the club, he was expecting to make the leap up to Montréal this year, especially as main centre back option Rudy Camacho starts to hit his mid-30s.
Instead, that opportunity will come with Vancouver, however, as they nabbed him in the re-entry draft last fall, in what was viewed as a very shrewd move for a Whitecaps team needing centre back depth.
And in Yao, they got someone with a lot of upside at the position, as he comes to the team having been one of the most exciting prospects in the CPL over the past couple of seasons.
A big defender, he combines his size with good mobility and ball-playing ability, making him the ideal centre back profile to play a modern brand of soccer. And so far, in Vancouver, he’s fit in perfectly, impressing the brass with his strong play during preseason.
So although he might not start the season as a starter, look for him to fight for minutes as the year goes along, pushing his way into the Whitecaps fold, where he’ll then look to grab the attention of those at the National Team level.
Sean Rea (CF Montréal):
Speaking of CF Montréal products who had productive two-year loan spells in the CPL, however, that’s a perfect way to shift towards attacking midfielder Sean Rea, who is getting set for his first full season with CF Montréal.
After two strong seasons with Valour, where he scored seven goals and added 13 assists in 53 games, winning the CPL’s 2022 Young Player of the Year award along the way, he’s now ready to make the jump up to MLS as a 20-year-old.
And now, he’s got the perfect opportunity to do so. With Djordje Mihailović now playing in Europe, Montréal is looking for someone to fill his shoes as an attacking midfielder, something that Rea will certainly be able to do.
A creative dual-threat, one that can cause problems with his creativity, footwork, shooting and passing, he will be expected to slot in right as a #10 in Mihailović’s place, helping bring a spark to a Montréal attack that is looking to rebuild itself after some key departures.
HIS NAME IS SEAN REA 😎— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) October 12, 2022
Relive the BEST moments of Rea's 2022 #CanPL season with @ValourFootball, as the #CFMTL star-on-the-rise earns his nomination for Canadian U-21 Player of the Year ⭐
DETAILS 👇https://t.co/Cq9Ms1MvJH pic.twitter.com/1J6lHYBE37
It’s not an easy task, but having matured significantly as a player in the CPL, where he really honed in on his defensive play and game-to-game consistency across his two seasons, he believes that he’s ready to make this jump now, and is looking to prove that.
Because of that, look for him to try and grab minutes right out of the gate for Montréal, as they try to repeat another strong MLS season. If he does, Herdman will also be keeping a close eye on him, too, as Canada doesn’t exactly have a lot of #10 options in the fold, making someone of Rea’s profile very intriguing to imagine one day playing at the National Team level.
Moïse Bombito (Colorado Rapids):
Canadians have a long history of succeeding through the MLS Super Draft. Tajon Buchanan, Dayne St.Clair, Cyle Larin, Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller - these are just a few of the many Canadian players that began their careers through that route.
Now, 22-year-old centre back Moïse Bombito is looking to be the next Canadian to make his mark through the draft, after he was selected #3 overall by the Colorado Rapids in the latest edition of the Super Draft.
Following a big 2022 college season, where he was named America East Defender of the Year in the NCAA with the New Hampshire Wildcats, the Montréal native is now looking to become an MLS regular with the Rapids, who are looking to bounce back in 2023 after missing out on the playoffs in 2022.
And in Bombito, they’ll hope that he can help shore up their sloppy defence, which was in the bottom five in MLS in goals conceded last year, contributing to them missing the playoffs by just four points.
It’s a tall ask for a rookie to come in and help do that, no doubt, but Bombito will look to surprise, having so far had a strong camp with his new team. Dominant in the air, and strong with his feet, Bombito fits the exact sort of profile of modern centre back that teams are looking for, so if he finds his feet, he could be a steal for Colorado.
Which for Canada, is something that they’ll keep an eye on, because as seen above, they’re always looking for more centre back depth, and someone of Bombito’s profile certainly will grab their attention should he get regular minutes.
Mo Farsi (Columbus Crew):
It’s been quite the journey for Mo Farsi to get to where he is today.
At the start of 2020, he’d just signed for Cavalry FC, where he was looking to make his mark as a youngster following stints in the PLSQ, the Algerian league, and the Canadian Futsal National Team.
Now, at the start of 2023, he’s got an MLS deal under his belt with the Columbus Crew, who inked him to a homegrown contract last year following a strong season with their second team in MLS Next Pro, where he was a dominant force at full back.
In fact, he was so good that he made seven appearances with the first team, even notching his first MLS assist, quickly winning the trust of coach Caleb Porter.
Therefore, this year, big things are expected of the 23-year-old. With new coach Wilfried Nancy now behind the Columbus bench following his departure from Montréal, it’s expected that Farsi will play a big role in the way that Nancy will expect his team to play, which is quite aggressive offensively.
An electric full back, one who is very dangerous in the final third, Nancy will look for Farsi to use his speed, crossing and shooting ability in the attack, which will cause all sorts of problems for opposing defences.
Because of that, he’ll also look to climb onto Canada’s radar. They’re quite deep at full back, so it’ll be an uphill battle for him, but Farsi often hasn’t been one to shy away from a challenge, so he’ll back his ability to one day crack that squad.
And given his track record, you wouldn’t doubt his ability to do so.
Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (Toronto FC):
Given how long he’s been around Toronto FC, you’d be excused for thinking that Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty was pushing into his mid-20s age-wise, having signed for the first team back in 2020.
Instead, it’s important to remember that he’s actually still not set to turn 19 until June, meaning that he’s got a lot of soccer in his future, starting with this year.
After an injury-riddled 2022 season, one that hampered what was supposed to be a breakout year for the youngster, he will look to put that behind him in 2023, where he’s fighting for minutes on a much-improved Toronto FC team.
One minor consolation for #TFCLive yesterday: Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty.— Peter Galindo (@GalindoPW) October 17, 2021
The discipline, positioning & vision are there. Just needs to be more fearless on the dribble. Still shocked he was taken out... #CanMNT pic.twitter.com/pa8NjD4MpF
And there, he’ll look to add to his already-impressive 29 MLS games as a youngster, helping TFC take a step forward after a disappointing last couple of seasons for the 2017 MLS champions.
Able to play as a full back and winger, he’s attracted a lot of European interest due to his immense potential, but hasn’t always been able to show that at the MLS level. He did to start the 2022 season, to be fair, but a knee injury derailed that progress, so he’s looking to prove that’s all behind him now.
Because of that, many are expecting him to take a big step forward this season. Especially given all of the talent at Toronto, after a few lean seasons, it’s hoped that he can step up and match the level of the players around him, after having been thrown to the wolves as a youngster.
If he can do that, watch out, as there’s a reason why many were talking about him as Canada’s “next Alphonso Davies” a few years ago, and that sort of potential doesn’t go away overnight.
It might take more time than some expected for him to reach that potential, but that’s the great thing about development - it’s not always linear. Herdman always stresses as much, and will now be keeping a close eye on Marshall-Rutty as he kicks off 2023.
While those five names are some to watch, they’re not even the only promising Canadian youngsters to keep an eye on, either. In fact, you could make a decent XI of them, with a couple of subs to spare.
For example, in Vancouver, the duo of full back Ali Ahmed and centre back Matteo Campagna are also looking to break into the Whitecaps' first team after strong preseasons, while Toronto FC forward Hugo Mbongue has a chance to leave a mark as a depth striker option out East.
Then, at Montréal, they’ve got a whole host of youngsters to keep an eye on, such as Rida Zouhir, Jules-Anthony Vilsaint, Jonathan Sirois and Nathan Saliba, who will look to provide depth to a Montréal side that needs it, and who typically doesn’t shy away from playing their kids.
Meanwhile down in the US, look for former TFC man (and brother of Hugo) Ralph Priso to slot in as a #6 for the Rapids in front of Bombito, left back Luca Petrasso to find his feet at Orlando, and Jacen Russell-Rowe to build off an MLS Next Pro MVP-winning season with the Columbus Crew’s 2nd team, one that was strong enough to also earn him a homegrown deal alongside Farsi.