January 4, 2024, by Brendan Joseph | Courtesy of www.starsandstripesfc.com
With the 2023 Major League Soccer season ending and a new calendar being hung on the wall, there is an opportunity to look at players who took a step forward and could be on the precipice of much bigger things. While some careers will plateau, others will continue their upward momentum and begin to translate potential into on-field success. Niko Tsakiris might be in line for a strong year after becoming a regular for his club. The 18-year-old San Jose Earthquakes midfielder broke into the starting lineup after missing several months due to injury.
Born in Saratoga, California and the son of former player and current coach Shaun, Tsakiris competed with De Anza Force before relocating to Florida to attend the prestigious IMG Academy. After moving back to California, he joined the San Jose Earthquakes youth setup, which forced him to miss school every morning in order to train with the first team, and displayed a fantastic first touch that was well beyond his years. Top Drawer Soccer rated him as the second-best player in the Northern California region and ninth-best midfielder nationally for the Class of 2024. The COVID-19 pandemic provided the opportunity to “let [his] body rest while training” and “develop physically.”
His father’s experience in the sport has guided him through the youth and professional levels. “With my dad, he’s helped me a ton, both on and off the field,” Tsakiris told American Soccer Now. “Always being around the game and him and picking up little details here and there. Not everyone has this opportunity to be a pro at such a young age and to have someone like my dad in my corner, it’s something that I don’t take for granted. And I’m lucky and blessed to have him, without a doubt. Taking advantage of him being around him as much as I could was helpful up until this point. And then hopefully it continues to be that way throughout my career. He’s been amazing.”
In January of 2022, the club signed him to a Homegrown Player contract through 2025 with an option for 2026. In his first season, Tsakiris split time between the senior and reserve levels. He made six appearances in MLS Next Pro, contributing one goal and one assist. With the MLS team, his first goal came in a 5-0 win over Bay Cities FC in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. OpenCup. The year ended with 12 total matches and assuming a starting role at the end of the schedule, which was considered an unexpected turn of events. Despite San Jose enduring a poor year, the interim manager praised the teenager’s play and labeled him as “the future of San Jose, MLS, and maybe Europe.”
Under newly hired manager Luchi Gonzalez, Tsakiris opened 2023 with an adductor injury that kept him out of the lineup for several months. He finally made his season debut in May, ultimately featuring in 18 total first-team matches and emerging as a rotational starter. The club named him Young Player of the Year after setting career highs in appearances, starts, and minutes.
“As a young footballer, you [have] to work on almost everything,” Tsakiris shared on The Soccer Hour. “This offseason, working in and around the box I think is important for me – you know, still looking to get my first goal. It’s something I want to build on for next season: scoring goals and giving assists and just helping the team win… I think one of my [best] qualities is playing forward and helping the group advance into the final third.”
At the international level, Tsakiris is of Greek and Portuguese descent and began competing with the United States program in the U-15 group. He was a regular with the U-20 team during the most recent cycle, playing in five matches at the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and registering a goal and an assist in the 6-0 final victory over the Dominican Republic. At the ensuing 2023 U-20 World Cup, his four appearances and finish in the final group stage match against Slovakia helped the squad ultimately reach the quarterfinal round.
Tsakiris lines up at center midfielder but is also capable of featuring in an attacking role while displaying “good body control and an ability to progress the ball into the final third.” He is described as having “range, vision, and the sort of natural comfort on the ball that remains rare among US-reared players” with “levels of vision and awareness beyond his years.” Matt Doyle of MLSSoccer.com notes that there are “still miles to go defensively” and that the teenager fails to “consistently provide the final ball.”
Football Talent Scout rates his potential at an 8/10, marking him as a European prospect. “[Tsakiris] likes to have the ball at his feet and has the natural ability of an ‘orchestrator’ midfielder who can perform at all of [the] midfield positions,” wrote Jacek Kulig. “[He is a] player with excellent technical ability, 1vs1 short-dribbling skills, close ball control, and fast direction shifts in possession. [He is a] midfielder who sees the game differently from most, revealing creativity, cleverness at his off-the-ball movements, great vision, and passing ability orchestrating or providing dynamism to the team’s build-up process with ease and effectiveness… [He displays] extraordinary thinking when on the ball – he often chooses options which are unexpected for the opposition.”
Tsakiris is an interesting prospect with solid tools but has a long way to go in his career, still in the early stages and looking for his true breakout season. Based on early indicators, that big step forward could come in 2024 as the Earthquakes look to build on last year’s playoff qualification. Center midfielder is a position that requires a high level of usage and involvement, which can be demanding on young players while also providing the sort of pressure that produces diamonds. With further experience, the teenager might emerge as a long-term talent to watch or perhaps get his first taste of senior squad action during a future January camp.