On Sunday, Vahe Gregorian put out a story for the Kansas City Star about Sporting Kansas City Academy player Nati Clarke. It follows Clarke from Ethiopia as an orphan to being adopted by a family in Topeka, Kansas, through his time with the SKC Academy and youth United States National Team setup. It is really a must read.
The story had me wanting to know more about Clarke. It’s somewhat difficult to learn about Academy players, especially as someone that doesn’t live in the Kansas City area and can’t readily get to games. In my research, I discovered some very high praise for Clarke and his 15-year-old teammate Gage Akalu.
The Sporting Kansas City website does a good job of chronicling their youth teams. Clarke has 18 stories where he is mentioned and Akalu has 32. Just stop and think for a moment how weird it would be to have that much attention put on you at that young of an age. At 15 I was most certainly, outside of school, primarily playing video games with my friends. I still don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up (though I’ve been in the workforce over 20 years).
But I wanted to look beyond the SKC website to get a perhaps more unbiased opinion.
Chasing a Cup
The best and only sourced of detailed information I landed on was ChasingACup.com which is a site dedicated to the United States National Team. In their breakdown of the 2015 age group of US prospects, Clarke was ranked first and Akalu was ranked second. In the whole world. To support that, Top Drawer Soccer has Clarke as the highest ranked player of the potential 2023 class (Akalu’s ranking is behind the paywall).
And the author, David Kerr, doesn’t mince words when describing Clark saying, “There are only two players I have thought were at Nati Clarke’s level at the age of 15: Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna.” That is some high praise. He goes on to say more.
“Nati is the highest ceiling defensive prospect that the United States has produced so far in my opinion,” continues Kerr. “Nati has lighting speed, he has elite dribbling, he is a great passer, he is smart enough to play in the midfield or on defense, and he is a great defender. Right now Sporting Kansas City typically plays Nati at center back but I think he may actually be a better fit at right back long term.”
Kerr also says Clarke should be starting up an age group at fullback and ends his praise of Clarke with, “Sporting Kansas City need to sign Nati as soon as possible or European clubs will be hot on his trail.”
David Kerr also does a breakdown on the second ranked Akalu and he starts with high marks, agreeing with a quote that Akalu is “the American Neymar.”
“Gage Akalu is the smoothest dribbler that I have seen in a 15 year old prospect,” starts Kerr. “Gage also has the athleticism to back up his dribbling which make him an elite winger prospect. Sporting Kansas City have done incredible work with their 2005’s because they have produced the two best talents in the age group so far which is an incredible accomplishment. If Sporting Kansas City don’t act soon they could lose both of these players as they are both easily good enough to play in Europe.
Kerr ends his praise for Sporting KC with something that will probably resonate for anyone who is a fan of this team. He says, “Gage and Nati will both get their shot as Peter Vermes has given Gianluca Busio over 2,000 professional minutes before Busio even turned 18 and Busio is not in the same tier as Nati and Gage are as prospects” (emphasis mine).
Let me repeat his quote, “Busio is not in the same tier as Nati and Gage.” That is some high praise as many see Busio as the best prospect in the Sporting KC system. Well, at least the prospect anyone was aware of.
Chasing a Cup also has a Top 50 players under 20 in terms of US Youth Prospects and Clarke is 5th and Akalu is 22nd. First, on Clarke:
“Right now people are locking Sergino Dest into the starting right back spot for the next decade but they shouldn’t because of Nati Clarke,” started Kerr. “Nati may be the most athletically gifted player in this entire list but being athletically gifted does not get you a top 5 spot. Nati has all the technical tools in his game and if Sporting Kansas City can develop his soccer IQ then Nati will quickly be Europe bound and locked into a starting lineup for whoever can sign him. When looking for a young player to break into the USMNT for the 2026 World Cup cycle, Nati Clarke has the highest chance of them all as he will be 21 in 2026.”
And I’d be remiss to not quote Kerr on Akalu’s #22 ranking.
“Gage is the most dynamic player on the ball that you will be able to find in any youth national team.” started Kerr. “However, very silky smooth players often struggle as they move up age groups (ahem…Andrew Carleton) so until Gage breaks this trend I am hesitant to rank him any higher. If I am Sporting Kansas City then I am offering Gage a contract tomorrow and immediately moving him into the Swope Park Rangers game day rosters to push Gage and develop him so he can push for SKC minutes next season. Gage is a young player who has the talent to push to be involved for the 2026 World Cup cycle even in a position which is ridiculously loaded.”
Before moving on it’s worth a quick glance at the other lists. Rokas Pukstas (former SKC now with Barca Academy in Arizona) is on the 2004 list along with Osvaldo Cisneros. Sporting KC Homegrown Tyler Freeman is listed on the 2003 list. And Busio features on the 2002 list.
Overall, this just makes me a little more bummed there hasn’t been a Sporting KC II season to see if Clarke and Akalu would have been given academy contracts and gotten some minutes against adults. I definitely look forward to seeing these two continue to develop and hope to see much more of them with SKC II or even the first team in the near future.