Axel Kei among standout teenagers amid MLS youth movement

Updated Feb. 25, 2022 4:06 p.m. ET

The gradual buildup of Major League Soccer's academy system over the past decade has led to an increasingly young talent pool.

In some cases, really young.

Take Real Salt Lake's Axel Kei, who is just 14. Kei is the youngest player ever to sign with an MLS senior team. He's also among several teenagers to keep an eye on when the new season kicks off Saturday.

MLS has been trending younger in recent years. The 2021 season was the first since 2007 that the league's average age fell under 26 years. As of this week, the average among players on opening day rosters was 25 years, 238 days.


Kei, an Ivory Coast native who grew up in Brazil before his family relocated to the United States, became one of the youngest-ever pro athletes on an American team when he played for the lower-division Real Monarchs last year at 13 years, 8 months and 9 days old.

Kei was also a part of the RSL academy’s under-15 team that won that level’s MLS Next Cup championship last summer. He won the tournament’s Golden Boot with five goals in five games.

Now with the senior team, Kei has no time for teenage pursuits like video games or dating. But he still has to go to school: each day he's tutored for several hours after practice.

“It’s not just a lifestyle. It’s a job now. I wanted it, so now I have to buy into it and do what I’m supposed to do," he said. “It's my job.”

Kei, who speaks three languages, inked his two-year deal with the team in January when he was 14 years and 15 days old. That made him younger — by 153 days — than Freddy Adu, who signed with D.C. United in 2004.

Kei was among 33 “Homegrown” designated players signed to MLS contracts this offseason. The league's U22 initiative, announced last season, allows teams to sign up to three young players to lucrative contracts at a reduced salary budget charge. There were 47 players in the league considered U22 signings.

Kei isn't expected to be thrust into a starting role at the start, he still needs seasoning at the senior level. He joins a group of forwards that includes Sergio Cordova, on loan from Augsburg of the German Bundesliga, MLS veteran Justin Meram and Bobby Wood. They'll be tasked with boosting Salt Lake's attack following the departure of Albert Rusnak.

Other teenagers to watch this season in MLS:


The Chicago Fire's 17-year-old phenom first grabbed attention last season when he won the starter's job and became the youngest goalkeeper in MLS with a clean sheet. Known as Gaga, he finished with three shutouts.

“First and foremost, I think age is just a number. I think anything can be accomplished; it all depends about the work you put in every single day,” he said during the team's training camp. "So I think just having that mindset of, 'How can I be better today and improve from the person I was yesterday' is just what keeps me constantly focused and trying to improve every single day.”

It may be difficult for the Fire to hold on to Slonina, who is already generating interest from overseas.


Cowell appeared in 33 matches for the San Jose Earthquakes, including 14 starts, last season. He finished with five goals and six assists and earned an All-Star nod and a U.S. national team call-up.

There's anticipation for the 18-year-old native Californian this season, and the team threw its endorsement his way by signing him to a contract through 2025 with an option for 2026.


The little brother of Brendan Aaronson, now a starter for Salzburg, is forging his own path in soccer. Signed by the Philadelphia Union at 16, Aaronson is now 18 and poised for a breakout.

The attacking midfielder played in 14 games, with five starts, and scored three goals last year.


The Red Bulls dealt Clark to RB Leipzig of the German Bundesliga last year, but he's still with the Red Bulls on loan this season.

Clark made a splash in MLS at 17 when her scored in his Red Bulls debut. Last year, playing out the season before his planned departure to Germany, he was slowed by appendicitis.

Now 18, Clark has played in 31 games (20 starts) with six goals and five assists in two seasons.


Does it get any better than a New York native playing for NYCFC? And winning a championship?

The 18-year-old from the Bronx stepped into a starting role at right back for NYCFC last season after Anton Tinnerholm suffered a season-ending injury. Gray played every minute of the playoffs, including NYCFC's MLS Cup title game victory over the Portland Timbers.


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