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Five Years On: Revisiting Our Very First U-23 Countdown

How does our 2014 Top Ten look five years down the road?

Pescara v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

One of my favorite CdT features is our annual U-23 countdown, a series we've unrolled every summer since 2014. Come late July-early August each year, we have measured, compared and predicted the future of some of Roma's youngest players. And since we now have five of these officially in the books, I thought it would be interesting to go all the way back to the summer of 2014 to see what became of our first set of fledgling footballers. Besides simple nostalgia, five years seems like a good amount of time to determine whether someone has succeeded, flopped or fallen somewhere in between.

So, with that in mind, let's travel back five years, to a time when Transformers: Age of Extinction and and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams were eating up your entertainment dollars and people were dumping buckets of ice over their heads to raise awareness for ALS.

Let's start right at the bottom...

#10: Federico Ricci

AS Roma v Bursaspor Kulubu - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

What We Said

“At only 20 years old, Ricci may have to wait three years or so before he becomes a Roma regular, but if he continues his progression, he might force his way into the lineup just as Gervinho’s contract expires in 2017.

In our dream scenario, Ricci’s left foot develops into a lethal weapon, providing the same type of southpaw spark as Rossi or Alessio Cerci. At the very least, his versatility and hustle should ensure a long professional career.”

What Actually Happened

Not a whole lot, unless you consider traversing the peninsula an accomplishment. Shortly after publishing that piece, Ricci spent the next three years on loan with Crotone and Sassuolo—who eventually purchased him on June 30, 2017, the same day Roma bought back Lorenzo Pellegrini. Ricci's most successful season was his 2015-2016 campaign with Crotone in which he scored 11 goals in Serie B. Currently signed with Spezia, Ricci is set for another season in Italy's second tier.

Verdict: Big Miss

#9: Alessio Romagnoli

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-AS ROMA-GENOA Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

What We Said

“As it stands now, he’s fourth in line behind Benatia, Leandro Castan and Davide Astori at centerback, and with Ashley Cole and Urby Emanuelsonon board, he shouldn’t be needed at fullback...we hope.

As it turns out, in the long run, Romagnoli’s best case scenario may be an Astori-like career. They’re a similar build and have a somewhat similar skillset, and Astori even suffered through his own disciplinary issues earlier in his career, so it’s not too farfetched to envision his career following a similar trajectory.”

What Actually Happened

In grand Roma tradition, Romagnoli was sold the minute he started to show promise, ushered off to AC Milan for €25 million in the summer of 2015, prompting one of the more controversial pieces we've ever published here. In terms of his actual career arch, I gotta say, we weren't that far off: Romagnoli has been a solid defender, not the star we thought we were losing, but a guy you can plug in your lineup for a decade and feel comfortable about it. He hasn't made Milan fans forget about Nesta or Maldini, but they don't seem to stressed having him back there.

Verdict: Spot On

#8: Tin Jedvaj

AS Roma v Genoa CFC - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

What We Said

“While his short term future in Roma is cloudy, his deeper understanding of the game and greater physical tools should keep him a step ahead of Romagnoli on the developmental ladder, provided he gets the necessary minutes abroad. As for what he may ultimately become, the world may very well be his oyster. He does, in many ways, remind one of Mehdi Benatia, both in terms of stature and playing style, so we’ll consider that the high water mark, keeping in mind that Benatia was sort of a late bloomer himself.”

What Actually Happened

Well, not that. Jedvaj is somehow still only 23-years-old, and while he hasn't become a top defender, he's carved out a bit of a niche as a utility defender for Bayer Leverkusen, making over 80 appearances at a variety of defensive positions over the past five seasons.

Verdict: Perhaps we got too excited at the time, but thanks to that versatility he's got a long career ahead of him.

#7: Antonio Sanabria

International Champions Cup 2014 - AS Roma v FC Internazionale Milano Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

What We Said

“Sanabria has size and agility, his left foot is weaker in name only, he can move in space and he can create his own shot, so the options are pretty vast. Just like any other player in the game, what he may become depends on the team around him and his manager’s tactical preferences, but he’s nearly as talented as any teenager in the sport today.”

What Actually Happened

With no room for him on a roster that featured Mattia Destro and Marco Borriello during the summer of 2014, Sanabria made two appearances with Roma before being loaned to Sporting Gijon, eventually making a permanent switch to Real Betis in 2016, who still own his contractual rights despite his recent loan spell with Genoa, which runs through June 2020. Sanabria is only 23-years-old, so he still has time to come good, but he's struggled to gain a foot hold anywhere thus far.

Verdict: Way off, but he's still relatively young and could turn into a poacher for hire.

#6: Leandro Paredes

AS Roma v Empoli FC - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

What We Said

“While he is nominally an attacking midfielder, Paredes has, much like Totti, featured on the left side of the pitch, both in a withdrawn and attacking role. As you can see in his highlight packages, Paredes, though listed as a right-footer, can create with either foot from a variety of angles and positions.

This ambidexterity, coupled with his off the ball movements, creativity, vision and understanding of attacking football, profiles the perfect trequartista. Time will tell if he develops even an ounce of Totti’s scoring ability, but if Roma ever reverts from its current 4-3-3 course, Paredes seems the perfect fit for a 21st century in-the-hole playmaker the long run, we have every reason to be optimistic. While he’ll never equal Totti’s accomplishments, he has the necessary technical skills and creativity to be among the league’s best playmakers and, if everything goes right, he should be front in center in Roma’s plans for the future.”

What Actually Happened

Quite a bit actually. After struggling to break in with Roma initially, Paredes flourished on loan with Empoli during the 2014-2015 season, returning to the capital where he'd log 27 appearances for Luciano Spalletti during Roma's almost magical 2016-2017 season. Naturally, then, he was sold to Zenit St. Petersburg the following summer for €23 million before making a somewhat surprising move to PSG last summer. Lovely Leo, as we affectionately called him, was a bit of a divisive figure among Roma fans, but the Parisians saw enough in him to invest €40 million.

Verdict: Probably oversold him a bit, but he is playing for PSG after all and his bag of skills should keep him in Europe for another decade.

#5: Salih Uçan

International Champions Cup 2014 - AS Roma v FC Internazionale Milano Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

What We Said

“Given how long it took to secure his services and how much it will ultimately cost, Uçan doesn’t seem like one who will ride the pine for too long. So, it’s not hard to imagine him becoming an integral part of Garcia’s rotation this season, particularly as Kevin Strootman will remained sidelined until late 2014/early 2015.

Fast forward five years or so and who knows? The Zidane comparisons have been floating around lately which, though flattering, are probably just a bit hyperbolic, but because he has such a wide set of skills, it’s a bit hard to nail down a contemporary comparison; his career can go in so many different directions. However, if you want my pie-in-the-sky wild guess, he’s a slightly more slender Toni Kroos.”

What Actually Happened

Nothing good, though I still maintain they never actually gave him a shot—he played all of 346 minutes in a Roma shirt. That's absurd.

Verdict: I...I...I got nothing. This was one bad and I’m embarrassed

#4: Alessandro Florenzi


What We Said

“Florenzi has such a vast skillset and an unquestioned loved for the game and club, so at this point, it’s simply a matter of Garcia giving him a defined role so he can smooth out the edges and form an identity as a footballer.

At some point during this season, Florenzi will eclipse 100 Serie A appearances, an incredible feat for a player not yet 24-years-old, and, as we’ve seen thus far, he can do a little bit of everything, qualities which initially provoked the Perrotta comparisons. While those are still valid, if Florenzi can become just a bit more efficient in his playmaking and goal scoring, he can become much, much more.

At the end of the day, Florenzi’s heart, desire and considerable skills will keep him draped in Roman colors for many, many years to come. He is, in mind, body and spirit, primed to assume the mantle of city icon from fellow Romans Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi.”

What Actually Happened

Well, a bit of everything really. By 2014, Florenzi was already a key member of Roma's rotation, logging nearly 4,000 minutes of Serie A action by that summer. Florenzi would produce arguably his two best seasons in a Roma shirt between 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, making over 80 appearances in all competitions, registering 12 goals and 7 assists in Serie A across those two seasons. Then came the injuries—successive ACL tears the next two seasons—the full return in fall of 2017, and then the period of mixed results we've seen ever since.

Through it all, Florenzi has been a loyal and effective servant to his hometown club, and while he doesn't have all the defensive capabilities of a top fullback, his versatility and play-making have made him a mainstay in Roma's lineup for the past five years.

Verdict: Spot on, Florenzi has been as advertised: versatile, loyal and capable of rising to the occasion.

#3: Adem Ljajic

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-AS-ROMA-LAZIO Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

What We Said

“Ljajic, even at such a young age, is already famous for his poise on the ball, creativity, passing, through balls, key passes, long shots, free kicks, see where this is going, he’s limited only by his imagination and engagement. If he’s into it, he’s damn near the perfect attacking footballer.

Long term, the world is at his feet. If he can improve upon his 2012-2013 form, Ljajic may very well prove to be one of the best forwards in the game, one with pace, creativity, technique and vision. If, on the other hand, he can’t manage to pull it together, his always tantalizing potential will see him bounce from port-to-port, with each fan base hoping that theirs will be the change of scenery he so desperately needs.”

What Actually Happened

As we predicted, Ljajic's bag of skills, while entertaining and drool inducing, produced more stamps in his passport than moments of brilliance. While I still maintain he was one of the league's most efficient and effective forwards during his time in Rome, it didn't mean much at the end of the day, as he was loaned to Inter before ultimately being sold to Torino in the summer of 2016. Currently Ljajic is plying his trade with Beşiktaş.

Verdict: Many, many people predicted greatness for Ljajic, so I don't feel bad for following suit; Ljajic had it all, it just didn't work out.

#2: Juan Iturbe

AS Roma v Empoli FC - TIM Cup Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

What We Said

“Iturbe with the ball at his feet is already one of the league’s deadliest weapons, one which will grow more dangerous as he adjusts to his new, more talented surroundings.

Although he makes his money on the flanks, the bulk of Iturbes key passes last season came directly in front of the goal, a testament to his ability to cut in and create in the middle of the park; a highly desirable skill in an offense as intricate and as fluid as Rudi Garcia’s. Ditto for his dribbles, as one would imagine, when you beat defenders off the ball 99 times in your rookie season, there really are no constraints to where your damage is wrought.

Lest you think Iturbe is a one trick pony, or worse, a selfish player, consider his crosses, which were ample and accurate. Manu averaged 0.8 crosses per match last season, completing an impressive 23%, figures which would have both ranked third on Roma last season, and were leaps and bounds ahead of Roma’s wide forwards, Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi

...given his stature, his ability to blow past defenders, to create all over the pitch, to threaten from set pieces and provide service from the flanks, perhaps Luca Toni was onto something when he compared Iturbe to Franck Ribery.“

What Actually Happened

Apart from the club actually ignoring and/or misdiagnosing a torn knee ligament, the onus for this one going bust falls squarely on Iturbe; he just wasn't good enough. His breakout season with Verona proved to be a flash in the pan, and after making 27 league appearances for Roma in his first season with the club, he was summarily sent on loan to Bournemouth in January of 2016. Loan moves to Torino and then Tijuana in the Mexican league would follow in 2017 and 2018, with the Mexican club making the signing permanent after Iturbe met certain sporting objectives, after which he was sent to Pumas UNAM, for whom he currently plays.

It was a swift and ignominious fall from grace for a kid who once seemed to have the world at his feet, but he always played hard, so I hope he finds some measure of success.

Verdict: Perhaps the worst prediction we ever made.

#1: Mattia Destro

AS Roma v Aris Thessaloniki FC - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

What We Said

“You don’t need a PhD to dissect Destro’s game; he’s as true a striker as you’ll find in the game today, making his home right at the goal mouth. But it’s what he does once he’s there that is so impressive. Destro was incredibly accurate and efficient inside the area last season, particularly when you consider how little of the ball he actually saw.

Destro ranked 44th in total shot attempts, some 120 attempts behind Mario Balotelli, who grabbed only one more goal than Destro, yet he put a club leading 63% of his shots on target last season and converted an absurd 37% of those shots into goals. In that light, Destro begins to look like a Miroslav Klose type striker, one who remains extremely efficient and accurate despite his low usage rate. In other words, his effectiveness isn’t tied to a lot of touches.

While these traits aren’t as sexy as a flurry of step overs or other forms of self-aggrandizement, they are characteristics required of any top striker and ones which, as Klose proves, age quite well. Destro won’t grab headlines with his athleticism or creativity, but his efficiency, his technique and his movements make him a star.

In the long run, the world may very well be in the palm of his hands. If he can cut down on the offsides, improve his passing, and become just a bit more selfish and show more initiative on the ball, he can fit into virtually any offensive setup and be an annual threat for 15-20 goals. He could be an Inzaghi, a Klose or even a Christian Vieri.”

What Actually Happened

Outside of his incredible run in the spring of 2014, when he was arguably the most efficient and effective striker in the league, Destro never seemed to put it all together in a Roma shirt, moving on loan to AC Milan in January of 2015. Destro would never return to Rome, instead finding a permanent home in Bologna in the summer of 2015, where he's remained ever since.

Sure, Destro never lived up to my lofty expectations, but was Mr. Right really that bad? All told, Destro scored 29 goals in 68 competitive matches for Roma, good for 0.65 goals per 90 minutes in a Roma shirt (if my math is correct), so I remain as confused as ever why they were so quick to dismiss him. But on the subject of Mattia Destro, I'm far from objective, so I digress.

Verdict: Obviously well off, but Destro is 28-years-old and has 77 goals to his credit (all comps), and if he can keep going for another several years, he could retire with over 100 goals, and that's a decent career anyway you slice it.

Well, there you have it. Five years on and most of these kids careers have been a bit of a mixed bag (as one would expect), but if nothing else looking back like this tends to normalize one's expectations and/or adjust one's barometer for success. Sure, Destro and Romagnoli didn't become the world-beating foundation upon with Roma's Scudetto winning teams were built, but they've each carved out solid top flight careers for themselves, and given how few people in the world can actually say that, I'd call that a success any day of the week.

Look for our next batch of U23 profiles to start next week, hopefully with a few more hits than misses.