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The Next Generation: Young Canadians Impressing Early in the 2016 USL Season

The new partnership with MLS is creating professional opportunities for young Canadian players, and some have already seen them pay off.

When Major League Soccer signed a deal with the United Soccer League, it was to allow players a bridge between the academy and professional level. Instead of a reserve league, like elsewhere in the world Major League Soccer's second teams would play in a lower division in the pyramid.

It is going to take a much larger sample size to know if this structure is effective, but the early results are positive. MLS teams have been able to use the league to get their fringe players some minutes at a professional level, while giving their promising prospects a place to develop.

In that sense, the league has opened up a clearer pathway for young academy players to reach the professional ranks, and young Canadians are already starting to take advantage.

This is the second year that Canada's three MLS sides have had USL affiliates. Last season, as would be expected, there were some growing pains for the programs. They continue this season, but both Toronto FC II and the Vancouver Whitecaps II have seen improvement.

More impressive than that team improvement, however, has been the play of individuals. Former Ottawa Fury coach Marc De Santos is now coaching at Swope Park Rangers, the Sporting Kansas City affiliate, and has brought young Canadians with him. None has impressed more than Mark Anthony Gonzalez, one of the hottest players in the league lately, who has four goals and two assists in nine games.

Also impressing in the United States has been Michael Cox of Orlando City B. Orlando appears to be a great place for young Canadian strikers and Cox has continued that trend. Playing alongside Orlando's Canadian first round draft pick Richie Laryea, Cox has five goals and an assist in 11 matches played.

For Toronto FC II, this season has been all about the emergence of a pair of young Canadian attackers. At the start of the year, it was Raheem Edwards who got off to a torrid pace. Edwards scored four goals in eight games, and likely would have appeared for the senior team in the recent Voyageurs Cup tie against Montreal if he had not gone down to injury.

Since then, Malik Johnson has taken over, scoring four goals of his own all in spectacular fashion. Johnson's speed and ability to beat attackers is unmatched by anyone in the Toronto FC system, and at 18 years old he has plenty of time to continue his growth.

From a team perspective, none of the Canadian teams can claim to have anywhere near the team success that the Vancouver Whitecaps II have had. The Whitecaps are the top team in the USL's Western Conference, and sit third place in the entire league through their first 13 games of the season.

A number of players have had solid starts to the season out on Canada's west coast, but none has generated interest like 15-year-old Alphonso Davies. Davies became the youngest player to make an appearance in Voyageurs Cup history when he played twice for Vancouver against the Ottawa Fury. Davies is also the youngest player to ever score in the USL, and has two goals this season.

Vancouver has five Canadians who have scored at least twice this season. Daniel Haber, Brett Levis, Davies, Ben McKendry and Marco Bustos have shared the wealth up front. Also impressive has been the play of 17-year-old fullback Kadin Chung, who has a pair of assists so far this season.

At the end of the tunnel is players like Mo Babouli, who made their time in the USL count and have now earned a senior contract. These players will be hoping to follow in Babouli's footsteps, and with what they have shown so far at the USL level, at least a few of them will sooner rather than later.