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The Under-23 Soccer Mock Draft

Why should the NBA have all the fun? If you had a draft of soccer players under the age of 23, who would the top 30 picks be?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

As an English NBA fanatic, the draft has always been my favorite U.S. sporting spectacle. It’s so foreign and fantastical to us Brits. Our university sports involve monstrous drinking rituals and muddy pitches laced with dog turd land mines. There are no multimillion-dollar contracts awaiting our collegiate heroes, just a tray of shots.

So allow me this opportunity to play make believe. What if the world’s best young soccer talents were entered into a superdraft? Who would you pick if you were building a team for future glory? The rules are simple: Players cannot turn 23 before September 1, 2017. Actually, that’s it. One rule.

We considered assigning these kids to grateful European minnows, but soccer doesn’t do utilitarianism. Which, thinking about it, is fair to these fledgling talents: They can actively avoid Tony Pulis and not find themselves repurposed as fullbacks with a phobia of the opposition half.

I’ve tried to apply all the usual selection logic: phenomenal upsides, sky-high ceilings, intangibles, searching for potential unicorns, and employing half-baked psychoanalysis of a young person’s character.

Some consoling words for those left in the green room. Corentin Tolisso of Lyon: You will prove to be my Isaiah Thomas, but I couldn’t justify another Frenchman (besides, you’re just a bit too old). Divock Origi, Moussa Dembélé, Thomas Lemar, and Serge Gnabry: You guys don’t need me or this list for vindication. To Harry Winks I offer love and apologies. Just know I didn’t want to jinx you.

In ascending order, let’s dive into it.

30. Vinícius Júnior

Age: 16
Nation: Brazil
Club: Flamengo (will join Real Madrid in July 2019)
Position: Forward
Best-case comparison: Neymar

Real Madrid have paid £39.6 million for a child. That’s more than what Luka Modric cost the club. International soccer hipsters will have their lukewarm takes, and it’s probably best to hold off the RTs for now: He’s played 17 minutes of senior football. We’re as likely looking at the next global superstar as we are a future quiz answer. Real Madrid’s track record with precocious dice rolls isn’t brilliant — how’s it going at Heerenveen, Martin Odegaard? — but surely they wouldn’t pay over $40 million from a few YouTube clips?

29. Josh Sargent

Age: 17
Nation: United States of America
Club: St. Louis Scott Gallagher
Position: Striker
Best-case comparison: Karim Benzema

Someone always makes a late run for draft consideration. Fresh from showing up the under-17 age group (you’ll watch the above goal against Mexico at least 12 times), he’s now busy humiliating under-20 defenses at the World Cup currently taking place in South Korea. Werder Bremen were angling to sign him, but it sounds like the big clubs want in. Christian Pulisic may have someone to put away his chances at Russia 2018.

28. Sandro Ramírez

Age: 21
Nation: Spain
Club: Málaga
Position: Striker
Best-case comparison: David Villa

Sandro Ramírez isn’t fashionable and has seen his stock tumble despite a one-goal-in-two breakout season on an impressively average Málaga team. Short-sighted folk were blindsided by his beloved Barcelona happily waving him off last summer. Cannier ones will spot a classic redemption tale in the making. (IRL, BTW, this dude has a £5 million release clause. £5 million!)

27. Kai Havertz

Age: 17
Nation: Germany
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Position: Attacking midfield
Best-case comparison: Michael Ballack

Despite Die Werkself finishing just four points clear of relegation playoff purgatory, Leverkusen blue-chippers could make up a fifth of this draft. But their golden goose wasn’t able to commit entirely to his team’s cause this season. Rather selfishly, Havertz took a four-hour geography exam instead of lining up in a Champions League Round of 16 tie at Atlético Madrid. His captain, Lars Bender, has said he’s “never seen such a complete player at the age of 17.” Young talent Bender has played alongside: Julian Brandt; Mesut Özil; Thomas Müller; his twin brother, Sven; Toni Kroos, Mario Götze …

26. Emanuel Mammana

Age: 21
Nation: Argentina
Club: Lyon
Position: Central defense
Best-case comparison: Toby Alderweireld

25. Alessio Romagnoli

Age: 22
Nation: Italy
Club: AC Milan
Position: Central defense
Best-case comparison: Alessandro Nesta

As the possibly outmoded saying goes, defense wins championships. Which means somewhere in this draft, a couple of probably, slightly overrated center backs go higher than they should. Both these guys come with robust pedigree: Mammana’s been anointed Argentina’s first decent CB since Walter Samuel, and is utterly dominant on aerial challenges, while Romagnoli is finally showing why Roma got so riled when Milan poached him two summers ago for €25 million. Still, it’s cruel fun to imagine the merry dances Alexis Sánchez and Harry Kane might lead them in during “difficult” first Premier League seasons.

24. Franck Kessié

Age: 20
Nation: Ivory Coast
Club: Atalanta
Position: Central midfield
Best-case comparison: Victor Wanyama

Thanks to title magnet N’Golo Kanté, industrious and low-maintenance midfielders are next season’s must-have. Kessie’s exactly the type of do-it-all swingman equivalent any squad should welcome: He’s direct, physical, and a true box-to-box talent who looks like he’s developing a useful eye for goals (six this season).

If he wises up and loses the positional indiscipline, rumored next stop AC Milan will be a two-season lily pad to a premium Spanish or English destination.

23. Kepa Arrizabalaga

Age: 22
Nation: Spain
Club: Athletic Bilbao
Position: Goalkeeper
Best-case comparison: David de Gea

Trusting young goalkeepers isn’t something that comes easily to European soccer’s big fish. However, new Spain international call-up Kepa — a wonderful, low-frills keeper — looks good enough to overcome such ageism. Arsenal see him as a successor to a creaking Petr Cech while Real Madrid, as ever, feel a keen sense of duty to contest any transfer involving talented young Spaniards, and so they’ll probably claim him.

22. Youri Tielemans

Age: 20
Nation: Belgium
Club: AS Monaco
Position: Central midfielder
Best-case comparison: Paul Scholes

They may have around 500 fans and play above a car park, but let us warmly applaud Monaco and their recruitment team. Faced with Europe’s beefiest checkbooks angling to rip apart their title-winning team, they signed one of world football’s most coveted teens before the end of May. Only 20, Tielemans played almost 200 games for Anderlecht and unveiled a neat new skill this season: thundering footballs past despairing goalkeepers from 25 yards out.

He’s great.

21. Raheem Sterling

Age: 22
Nation: England
Club: Manchester City
Position: Winger
Best-case comparison: Raheem Sterling

20. Keita Baldé Diao

Age: 22
Nation: Senegal
Club: Lazio
Position: Winger/Striker
Best-case comparison: Sadio Mané

The issue with Raheem is we know what he is at this point. In this sense he’s like a Duke senior: They make safe-but-incredibly dull draft picks because they’ve probably plateaued. And if Pep Guardiola can’t get Sterling scoring in double figures in the Premier League, perhaps we’re looking at a Bernardo Silva–accelerated departure from the Etihad next summer, followed by four decent-but-Walcotty-seasons at Arsenal before West Ham inexplicably double his wage as his legs start to go. Meanwhile, despite being just three months younger, Lazio lightning bolt Keita is beginning his upward trajectory after a sensational season in Serie A.

19. Davinson Sánchez

Age: 20
Nation: Colombia
Club: Ajax
Position: Center back
Best-case comparison: Jérôme Boateng

Certain player names just sound like they’re going to be stars. Particularly when they’re freakishly athletic defenders with the ball-playing abilities of a decent La Liga playmaker. I want a guy from Colombia called Davinson Sánchez on my team, please.

18. Kasper Dolberg

Age: 19
Nation: Denmark
Club: Ajax
Position: Striker
Best-case comparison: Luis Suárez

Coached by Bergkamp, finishes like Van Basten” purred the headlines in the run-up to the Europa League final. Then Dolberg’s Ajax failed to land a glove on a wonderfully ordinary Manchester United team, and my mind turned to last season’s Eredivisie phenom: Vincent Janssen. He too drew breathless praise and illustrious comparisons. He too scored goals for fun. Vincent, however, has the turning circle of an ocean liner and can often appear like he’s running backward through treacle. Dolberg, meanwhile, is whippet quick and, funnily enough, exactly what Spurs need.

17. Ousmane Dembélé

Age: 20
Nation: France
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Position: Attacking midfield
Best-case comparison: Ronaldinho

This time last year, he was Kylian Mbappé: the player you’d justify DVRing Rennes vs. Nantes for. The one with all the dribbling and the hat tricks. You found yourself in bars watching Euro 2016 games, didn’t you? Droning on at disinterested friends about how Didier Deschamps was an unadventurous fool for not selecting this incredible 19-year-old I can’t believe you’ve not heard of. “He’s just signed for Dortmund,” you told them. “He’s going to win them the league.” He didn’t. He might soon though. He’s the draft pick who falls in your lap after too many people overthink an underwhelming NCAA tournament performance.

16. Naby Keita

Age: 22
Nation: Guinea
Club: RB Leipzig
Position: Central midfield
Best-case comparison: Arturo Vidal

15. Julian Weigl

Age: 21
Nation: Germany
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Position: Central midfield
Best-case comparison: Xabi Alonso

It’s a straight choice here between the Bundesliga’s two most stylish and, yes, ruthlessly efficient central-midfield prospects. Keita’s the voguish choice. The whirling dervish playmaker with a Kanté engine who led Red Bull’s much reviled plaything to the Champions League. Weigl, however, is a midfield Rolls-Royce. The cerebral passing of Xabi Alonso muddled with Sergio Busquets’s glorious bastardy.

14. Anthony Martial

Age: 21
Nation: France
Club: Manchester United
Position: Winger/striker
Best-case comparison: 2015–16 Anthony Martial

Operation #LiberateTonyMartialFromMourinho begins here. Luke Shaw, you can be the getaway driver.

13. Saúl Ñíguez

Age: 22
Nation: Spain
Club: Atlético Madrid
Position: Central midfield
Best-case comparison: Andrés Iniesta

When Saúl scored his wonder goal against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League semifinal first leg, that, we assumed, was that. The soccer gods had ordained Spain’s next annoyingly good midfield deity. But then Atlético’s niggly, sort-of-nothing-y 2016–17 season happened, with Saúl arguably its most high-end casualty. Class, however — holy, god-given Spanish midfield class — is permanent. A summer of Diego Simeone screaming at him on sweltering cross-country runs him should do the trick.

12. Adrien Rabiot

Age: 22
Nation: France
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Position: Central midfield
Best-case comparison: Emmanuel Petit (Arsenal edition)

Here’s our requisite troublemaker pick. He’s even got the headline-making parent/agent/momager. But somehow, despite all the pouting about playing time and contracts, and his sulky threats to quit for the Premier League, Rabiot became the deposed French champions’ best midfielder (don’t @ me, Marco Verratti stans). I love his elegant dribbling, his aggression, and I particularly love his wonderful hair. I think I would forgive Adrien and his mother most things.

11. Niklas Sule

Age: 21
Nation: Germany
Club: Bayern Munich
Position: Center back
Best-case comparison: Leonardo Bonucci

Some transfers make so much sense that they’re dull. Bayern Munich transfers usually make so much sense that they’re sort of dull. In January, they signed the best young defender in Germany and allowed him five extra months at the Hoffenheim finishing school before a decade of Sule Rule at the heart of the champions’ back line begins this summer. This pick makes so much sense that it’s dull.

10. Marcos Asensio

Age: 21
Nation: Spain
Club: Real Madrid
Position: Attacking midfield
Best-case comparison: Eden Hazard

Don’t mention this guy’s name around Gareth Bale. He’s coming for you and that receding man bun, Gaz.

9. Héctor Bellerín

Age: 22
Nation: Spain
Club: Arsenal
Position: Right back
Best-case comparison: Dani Alves

Speaking of interesting hair, here comes Dani Alves’s true heir. Draft scouts will have of course noted Bellerín’s defensive abilities need sharpening, but I’m a Spurs fan and even I love him. I mean, I’ll like him more when he does eventually return to Barcelona, but for now, I admire his sprinter’s speed and winger’s skill with gritted teeth from across North London.

8. Christian Pulisic

Age: 18
Nation: United States of America
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Position: Attacking midfield/winger
Best-case comparison: Brian Laudrup

America’s first soccer superstar would make a savvier pick higher up the board by European clubs thirsty for that U.S. fan dollar (we see you, Liverpool and Tottenham).

But Pulisic is no marketing scam. He’s dynamic, skillful, and that rarest of things for an American attacker: fearless. His ceiling is several elevator floors past Landon’s. Build around him, Bruce.

7. Marcus Rashford

Age: 19
Nation: England
Club: Manchester United
Position: Striker
Best-case comparison: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

You can’t teach pace, commentators like to tell us, angering the world’s community of sprint coaches. Rashford is terrifyingly quick, but he’s also come out of the other side of a bracing season armed with the smarts you get from watching Zlatan speak in the third person at training every day. And next season, Rashford will likely receive further higher education from Antoine Griezmann. Learning’s fun!

6. Kingsley Coman

Age: 20
Nation: France
Club: Bayern Munich (on loan from Juventus)
Position: Winger
Best-case comparison: Ryan Giggs

5. Leroy Sané

Age: 21
Nation: Germany
Club: Manchester City
Position: Winger
Best-case comparison: Arjen Robben

Without Pep Guardiola, his great champion, Coman dropped down a gear this season. This could mean a summer reunion, City fans: You should be praying to your lord Gabriel Jesus that it works out. Coman is excellent and has won the league title in every season he has been a professional footballer. He’s the Bizarro Jesús Navas. Coman would also go quite nicely with a winger so confident that he has a tattoo of himself on his back. The Premier League does not deserve Sané.

4. Gianluigi Donnarumma

Age: 18
Nation: Italy
Club: AC Milan
Position: Goalkeeper
Best-case comparison: Gianluigi Buffon

It’s the sort of unsexy pick that would have Knicks fans booing, but it’s the safest selection of the lot. You get the chance to lock up your goalkeeping situation for the best part of two decades in the form of a giant Italian teenager.

3. Gabriel Jesus

Age: 20
Nation: Brazil
Club: Manchester City
Position: Striker
Best-case comparison: Romário

Sergio Aguero — Manchester City folk hero Sergio Aguero — scored 33 goals in 2016–17. It’s his best-ever return. He’ll turn 29 this summer. He won them the title with a goal in the 94th minute of the most outrageous game in the club’s history. And yet a sizable hunk of City fans would very much like to get on with the Gabriel Jesus era now, if you fancied heading back to Atlético now, thank you, Sergio. The Brazilian is probably that good.

2. Kylian Mbappé

Age: 18
Nation: France
Club: AS Monaco
Position: Striker
Best-case comparison: Thierry Henry

Here we have the guy who’s come out of nowhere to electrify the world just in time for a summer bidding war that could sink several European economies. He looks like the planet’s next great striker. There’s no discernible weakness. I want to see evidence that he wasn’t engineered in the basement of a Monte Carlo laboratory/casino.

But no. 1 draft picks have to be made with a certain level of pragmatism. I want to see Mbappé do it in one of Europe’s stately leagues before I’m happy betting the house on him. This could well be Portland leaving Michael Jordan on the table, but …

1. Dele Alli

Age: 21
Nation: England
Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Position: Attacking Midfield
Best-case comparison: Cristiano Ronaldo

In a recent Ringer piece, I called Alli the EPL’s Russell Westbrook. I stand by that. There’s the numbers (22 goals and eight assists from midfield), the liberated sense of style (check out Dele’s new tattoo: Bamm-Bamm Rubble), the unrepentant aggression, the sensation that you’re about to witness something special every time he gets the ball. “In the box,” said Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, “he looks like a striker, and outside the box, he plays like a midfielder.” It helps put him in a category of almost one. He’s going to be whatever he wants to be. Dele Alli is our no. 1 pick.