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Ajax, Reece James, FC Salzburg, Jonathan David – It’s time to take these teams and players seriously

Call it the "Leicester Effect." A soccer season is a long and arduous creature, capable of taking even the most promising of upstart stories and squashing it under the weight of money and time. We react to teams’ fast starts and fun individual breakout performances, but by May the same teams as ever top a given table, and the same players occupy the collective Best XI lists.

Some breakthroughs remain broken through, however. Lille won Ligue 1 last year, after all, and every young superstar, from Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland on down the list, was once a mere up-and-comer.

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With more than three months gone in the 2021-22 campaign, certain upstarts appear more sturdy than others. If you’re looking for a new hipster-friendly team to follow, or you’re wondering which hot, young prospects appear most likely to turn into hot, young stars, look no further. It’s time to buy in on the list below and even if they eventually fall just short or let us down, we’re going to enjoy ourselves along the way.

Jump to: FC Salzburg | Ajax | Amine Gouiri | Union St. Gilloise | Lorenzo Pellegrini | UEFA Europa Conference League | West Ham | Reece James | Real Sociedad | Jonathan David | Jude Bellingham | Vinicius Jr. FC Salzburg

Say this much for the Red Bull conglomerate: They’re a patient bunch. Sometimes they strike gold, as they have in Brazil , where Red Bull Bragantino went from a third-division club in 2018 to the first division in 2020, and borderline top-four and Copa Sudamericana runner-up in 2021. But in Europe they have long since accepted that their projects take a while. RB Leipzig ‘s rise in Germany certainly proved that, but so has that of the sister club in Salzburg.

Speaking of those EloFootball ratings referenced above, the club formerly known as SV Austria Salzburg averaged a ranking of 242nd in the five years before Red Bull got involved in 2005. They rose to an average of 110.8 over the next eight seasons (2005-06 to 2012-13), then finished in the 40s for three straight years, then the 30s for two, and now the 20s for three straight. They’re 22nd at the time of writing. No matter who leaves — Duje Caleta-Car , Amadou Haidara , Valon Berisha and Valentino Lazaro in 2018-19, Erling Haaland, Stefan Lainer and Takumi Minamino in 2019-20, Dominik Szoboszlai and Hee-chan Hwang in 2020-21, Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu in 2021-22 — they keep inching up the rankings.

Thanks to a favorable draw, they have a chance to make their biggest statement yet in the coming months. After having to battle Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in last season’s Champions League, they drew Group G — Lille, Wolfsburg, Sevilla — this time around, and despite back-to-back losses they still have a 66% […]

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