As we begin our annual countdown of the best and brightest of Roma's U-23 talents, let me offer a quick reminder/introduction to the series. While we initially used the term prospect in this series, given the lack of reliable data at the Primavera level and our limited resources, we reimagined the series as a strict ranking of the 10 best players aged 23 or younger by opening day each season. We hope someday to expand or augment the ranking by including U-18, but for now, we'll stick with the semi-grownups.
While it's safe to say that Mattia Destro and Juan Iturbe didn't live up to our lofty expectations during our first countdown in 2014, we've gotten slightly better at setting expectations for the Giallorossi's youngest talents (Destro has had a fine career, though). Over the past few years, our rankings have included Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo, Roger Ibañez, and several other players who have already established themselves in the top flight (or soon will).
Given the time constraints placed on us by the earlier start to the season (Thanks, FIFA and Qatar!), we're going to dispense with our honorable mentions and go straight to the main course. And we're kicking off this summer's countdown with perhaps the biggest enigma on the entire roster.
Number Ten: Mile Svilar
Prior Club: Benfica
Shades Of: More powerful Yann Sommer, Memo Ochoa with slightly worse hair, yard sale Alisson Becker.
Who is He?
We won't re-invent the wheel here, so let's turn to our resident Belgian, Jonas, who profiled the dual Belgian-Serbian citizen last month:
Mile Svilar. Don’t let his name fool you, Mile is a born and bred Belgian. Starting his football career in Antwerp as a kid and joining Belgium’s most prestigious club Anderlecht (well, currently there’s a lot of debate going on about that in the land of fries and waffles) through his teenage years. Then he left his home country at the age of 18 to play for Benfica, another prestigious club. Curiously, Mile didn’t play a single official minute in Belgium but obviously, Benfica’s scouts saw something promising in him.
Son of former Serbia and Antwerp goalkeeper Ratko Svilar, Mile has featured in all of Belgium’s youth teams but eventually chose the Serbian NT since he has a double passport.
What Can He Do?
Well, here's the tricky part: We don't really know. After all, we're talking about a kid with an extremely limited professional résumé. As Jonas outlined, even though Svilar has always been pretty well-regarded, he has practically zero top-flight experience. During his four-year stretch with Benfica, Svilar only featured in nine competitive matches, though three of those were in the Champions League when he was only 17 years old—the youngest keeper in the competition's history.
But take a look at his highlight package and tell me you're not excited:
Svilar isn't a statuesque keeper, but at 6’2”, he settles right in the Goalkeeping Goldilocks Zone: Tall enough to cover the corners and protect the crossbar yet not so tall where he can't drop to the ground in a flash to smother a low shot. And as you can see in that highlight reel, he's not exactly bashful coming off his line either. This can be dicey for a young keeper, but with a bit more seasoning, that aggression will become a distinct advantage.
What Can He Become?
If there's one thing I've learned in my decade covering this team, it's this: forecasting a young keeper's career is a fool's errand. Alisson came to Roma from Internacional with a certain amount of cachet, but did anyone expect him to become the best keeper in the world two years after he arrived? Conversely—and while they're not Roma players—have über prospects like Alessio Cragno, Alex Meret, Simone Scuffet, and Marco Sportiello really lived up to the hype?
The lesson: Goalkeeping is a fickle business. Truly excellent goalkeepers are a rare commodity, making it nearly impossible to predict which kids will fulfill their promise and which ones will toil in anonymity. There's a reason Gianluigi Buffon played for so long—he was just that much better than the rest, even as he advanced through his 30s.
The good news for Svilar is that he's essentially entering a two-year apprenticeship program under the watchful eyes of José Mourinho and Rui Patricio, both of whom are signed through June 2024. With no pressure to seize the job until next fall at the earliest, Svilar is free to observe from a distance, honing his craft in training sessions, picking up tips from Patricio, and testing his mettle in early round cup clashes and the odd league match when Patricio needs a breather.
If Svilar can buck the trend of so many promising keepers gone wrong, we're looking at a supremely agile, aggressive, and technically sound goalie. The kind you can drop in between the sticks for a decade and never break a sweat.
Keep your fingers crossed, this kid looks as promising as any young keeper we've covered over the past decade.