Next Gen Tracker: The five best under-21s so far in our Liberty Ones To Watch

WATCH: The incredible highlight reel of Bayern Munich-bound Nestory Irankunda, who tops the 'Next Gen Tracker' after one month of Isuzu UTE A-League action

After one month of the Isuzu UTE A-League season, the first votes are in for the newly-established Liberty Next Gen tracker, keeping tabs on the ones to watch aged 21 or under!

In both the Isuzu UTE A-League and Liberty A-League this year, we’re keeping tabs on the Next Gen Tracker, ranking the top five players who were 21 or under at the start of the season every month.

On this week’s episode of the Official Isuzu UTE A-League Podcast, host David Weiner and KEEPUP’s Tom Smithies and David Davutovic were tasked with casting the first allotment of votes for the A-League Men season.

Adelaide United teen Nestory Irankunda is the clear leader after the first month of the 2023-24 season – but below the Bayern Munich-bound winger, debate raged among the podcast crew over which four young players would join Irankunda in the monthly voting.

Noah Botic, Jonny Yull, Clayton Taylor, Franco Lino and Lucas Mauragis all featured in the conversation, but didn’t make the final cut for the first round of votes distributed to five of the brightest young stars in Australian football.

Liberty A-League Next Gen Tracker: The five best under-21s so far in our Liberty Ones To Watch

5 votes: Nestory Irankunda

Nestory Irankunda earns all five votes in the first month of voting on the Next Gen Tracker for 2023-24. The 17-year-old is starting games this season for the first time in his short career, and earned October’s Young Footballer of the Year nomination after a sublime free-kick in a 6-0 win over Melbourne City in Round 2 which highlighted a pair of starts and victories for the Reds to start the season.

A red card against Melbourne Victory in Round 3 saw Irankunda sidelined for Round 4 – but since his last appearance in the league, the teenager has signed for German giant Bayern Munich.

Irankunda will spend the rest of the 2023-24 A-League Men season at the Reds before departing to the Bundesliga club.

“Off the back of him signing off on that extraordinary transfer to Bayern Munich… thankfully we’ll see Irankunda here for the rest of the season before he moves to the Bavarian giants,” Davutovic said.

“(The red card) was a blip. The kid is going to have to work on a few things in terms of his composure… but he’s an immense talent, he’s back from his one-game suspension and I look forward to seeing him play this weekend.

“I think he’s going to go from strength to strength this season.”

4 votes: Thomas Waddingham

Brisbane Roar talent Thomas Waddingham lit up the Australia Cup in the off-season, and the 18-year-old has carried his superb form into the Isuzu UTE A-League.

Waddingham earns four votes on the Next Gen Tracker after his first league goal in Round 4, netted against Central Coast Mariners in his third start in as many games for Ross Aloisi’s side in 2023-24.

The Roar spearhead scored four Australia Cup goals in 2023 – including a strike in the final against Sydney FC.

“He kind of has to succeed, because Brisbane doesn’t really have a plan B!” Smithies said.

“And I know that’s the number one concern: that if something was to happen to him, or they lose him to national team (camps) they don’t really have many alternatives. But so far, touch wood, the kid seems able to cope with expectations.

“He’s got good movement, he’s strong, I like the fact the goal he scored last weekend showed the ability to switch his feet, allow the ball to come across him and use the other foot.

“There’s lots technically to like about him, but also he’s got that sense of being in the right place… he’s made a big impact already this season.”

3 votes: Jaiden Kucharski

Sydney FC academy product Jaiden Kucharski was used as a substitute through the first three games of the new season – but after former head coach Steve Corica’s departure, was thrust straight into the starting side by new Sky Blues boss Ufuk Talay in Round 4.

The 21-year-old didn’t disappoint in his first-ever Isuzu UTE A-League start, scoring two first-half goals in Sydney’s stunning 5-1 rout of Adelaide United on the road.

Kucharski earns three votes from the Official Isuzu UTE A-League Podcast team in the first batch of Next Gen Tracker voting after the destructive form he showed in 69 minutes against the Reds in Round 4.

“If you’re looking at form right now, Kucharski off the back of his brace last week absolutely gets into the (votes),” Davutovic said.

2 votes: Raphael Borges Rodrigues

An off-season move to Macarthur FC has unleashed Olyroos talent Raphael Borges Rodrigues, who is relishing a starting role under new head coach Mile Sterjovski after struggling to break into a star-studded Melbourne City attack.

Raphael had made just three starts in four seasons at City before his move to Macarthur; he’s started four of four games under Sterjovski this season, scoring a goal and looking increasingly dangerous operating off the wing for the Bulls.

“He’s benefited from regular football,” said Davutovic. “He started for the Olyroos (against Qatar) and had a very, very good performance, and was right in the mix… he’s looked lively, he’s quite versatile in the front third.

“He was at Melbourne City for quite some time and is the son of former Adelaide United striker Cristiano, but was just so far down the pecking order because you’ve got that stacked City attack of Socceroos.

“He is now a bona fide starter and he’s looking very good.”

1 vote: Ryan Teague

Ryan Teague is enjoying a stellar start to life at Melbourne Victory, relishing his return to Australia after more than three years abroad.

Teague left Sydney FC, and the country, just days after his 18th birthday to join Portuguese side FC Famalicão, but returned home in pursuit of regular match minutes – and that’s exactly what he’s received under Victory boss Tony Popovic.

Teague scored his first Isuzu UTE A-League goal in a 1-1 draw with Wellington Phoenix in Round 4; it was just reward for the 21-year-old’s form as one of the key cogs in Victory’s midfield.

“He’s been outstanding this season,” Davutovic said. 

“He’s taken that number six, or number eight, position and he’s claimed it. He’s got a Johnny Warren Medal winner Jake Brimmer on the bench, the veteran Leigh Broxham who is still in very, very good nick – even Rai Marchan, the Spanish midfielder. He’s been keeping those players out of the squad. Very elegant, great range of passing and last week scored a goal as well, just to cap off his all-round game.

“He probably could be a little bit higher considering his consistency. We probably have a tendency to favour the rockstars, the goalscorers in that attacking third. But Ryan Teague has been phenomenal this season. 

Liberty Next Gen Tracker voting

  • 5 votes: Nestory Irankunda (Adelaide United)
  • 4 votes: Thomas Waddingham (Brisbane Roar)
  • 3 votes: Jaiden Kucharski (Sydney FC)
  • 2 votes: Raphael Borges Rodrigues (Macarthur FC)
  • 1 vote: Ryan Teague (Melbourne Victory)