National Writer: Charles Boehm

Time to shine: Young players who will define the MLS Cup Playoffs

1013 young players playoffs

Playoffs? Don’t talk about – playoffs. You kiddin' me?! Playoffs?!?!

Yes: YPPOTW is proudly crashing the postseason party.

Remember Alan Hansen’s hoary old saw, “you can't win anything with kids”? With all respect to the Scottish Liverpool legend and his iconic footy career, that’s mince, innit. At least when it comes to young talent and the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Many of the under-23 standouts we’ve followed all year have advanced to the final chase for a league title – a murderers’ row all over the pitch; in fact, too many to truly fit here. We could easily have selected a rugged starting XI of YPPOTW-eligible ballers in these playoffs and still have enough quality left over for a stacked subs’ bench. That’s to say nothing of the high performers who’ve aged out of our pool by turning 23 since we kicked things off way back in February.

After a frankly brutal winnowing process, here’s our best take on the young players most likely to make or break their teams’ chances of hoisting the main hardware on Nov. 5.

For now at least, Carlos Vela remains the straw that stirs the Los Angeles Football Club; this is known. But who’s the foil, the supporting actor in this gaudy Hollywood project? Global superstar Gareth Bale? Classy European summer imports Denis Bouanga or Cristian Tello?

Nope. None among that trio have been as fundamental to LAFC’s attack as Mahala, the 21-year-old winger plucked from little Attram De Visser Soccer Academy in Ghana with scant fanfare two years ago. He’s come of age this season, with lightning quickness, willingness to run and relentless effervescence in both skills and attitude that’s elegantly complemented the older colleagues around him.

Opoku’s 7g/3a this season ties him for third on the Angelinos’ goal chart and seventh in assists, and in somewhat wonkier stats, his 11.5 npxG+xA (non-penalty kick expected goals + expected assists) ranks fourth on the team, behind only Vela, Chicho Arango and Jose Cifuentes and miles ahead of the rest of the squad. (He also came in at No. 9 on our 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list.)

If the star-studded regular-season champions are to sidestep the Supporters’ Shield curse that some believe still haunts MLS and make a Cup run, Mahala will probably be prominently involved.

On the one hand, Cheetah’s rise in the US men’s national team striker matrix provided him a priceless platform, and buzz, as he matured into a legit MLS star. It also piled on the scrutiny, however, raising the stakes enough to prompt a renewed focus on his own mental health in midseason. He kicked on to notch 18g/6a as FCD surged back into the playoff places in year one under Nico Estevez, a career-best campaign that matched his club’s all-time single-season goalscoring record.

“He has carried the team. He has shown a lot of mentality with his effort. And I think he's a complete player,” said Estevez after Ferreira’s brace in a 2-1 comeback win over eventual Shield winners LAFC on Sept. 10.

Now the first MLSer to climb from academy homegrown to Young Designated Player steps into the playoff pressure cooker as The Guy for the first time, with the additional angle of a deep run enhancing his prospects at the World Cup in Qatar. Though he’s flanked by able – dare we even say elite? – attacking partners in Paul Arriola and Alan Velasco, the buck starts and stops with Jesus on this young, talented, unproven FCD side.

From one vantage point, it’s obvious, right? Of COURSE the co-leading scorer and club-record transfer acquisition for a team that just achieved its first-ever MLS playoff qualification via one of the most dramatic year-over-year turnarounds in recent MLS history would appear on this list.

That reaction would drastically and unjustly minimize the scale of the 21-year-old Brazilian’s renaissance in Cincy, however. The young man who reportedly cost FCC an eye-watering $13 million fee last year only to get mired in the club’s collective underachievement, who submitted a transfer request just a few short months ago, seemingly unsettled far from home, has been borderline unstoppable during the Garys’ postseason push. 

Aggressive, Brenner just cruised to the MLS Player of the Month award via a sizzling streak of 9g/2a in Cincy’s last five games, wreaking utter havoc alongside Brandon Vazquez as Lucho Acosta pulls the playmaking strings. Lately that price tag doesn’t seem quite as astronomical as it once did. 

That trident will probably have to keep cooking if FCC’s inaugural playoff voyage is to last beyond Saturday’s Round One visit to the New York Red Bulls, considering that no one in the bracket has conceded more than Cincinnati’s leaky 56 goals against.

Few teams in these playoffs utilize their resources more efficiently than East runners-up CFM, who have just one Designated Player (Victor Wanyama) and rank 15th in the league in total roster compensation, according to MLS Players Association documents. Few are on a stronger run of form than the 11W-1L-3D record they compiled down the stretch, and few juggle tactical risk and reward more boldly than their boss, Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year award finalist Wilfried Nancy. 

And few hand heftier responsibilities to a young central midfielder than Montréal do with Koné, who turned 20 in June and has already notched 1,587 league minutes as Wanyama’s engine-room partner this year. It's not so much the stats (2g/5a, 86.3% pass completion rate, 58 accurate long balls and 11 key passes, to name a few) so much as his bravery, two-way engine, comfort on the ball and all-around skill set at such a tender age, rising from obscurity. 

“A year-and-a-half ago, Ismaël was nobody,” was how CFM sporting director Olivier Renard recently put it to The Athletic, adding that now it’s clear “he’s a special guy.” One who’s vaulted up the Canadian national team's depth chart ahead of their first World Cup in more than three decades, and has already drawn unsuccessful seven-figure transfer bids from English Championship sides Sheffield United and Norwich City.

The Quebecois club has lately become a fashionable dark-horse MLS Cup contender, with ample justification. Those prospects effectively hinge on better-than-average performances, at the very least, from Koné’s first (and perhaps only, if the bids keep rolling in) playoff go-round.

Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner have built Philly into a ferocious blue-collar collective that has elevated many reputations. Dogged d-mid Jose “Brujo” Martinez, breakout playmaker Daniel Gazdag, the ageless Swiss Army Knife that is Alejandro Bedoya, the thriving Julian Carranza-Mikael Uhre and Jack Elliott-Jakob Glesnes partnerships at either end of that spine come quickly to mind.

We went back and forth about which of the kids in the midst of this project will be more crucial to the DOOPers’ Cup prospects. Besides the simple fact that we just can’t tell exactly how Curtin will fit what amounts to five excellent options (Brujo, Gazdag, Flach, McGlynn and the might-be-fit-again Bedoya) in his usual four-man midfield, this wound up being such a fascinating yin-yang comparison that we had to share some of it with you.

Flach, still just 21, flies under the radar because of the easily-overlooked nature of his contributions. The German-American terrier logs the hard yards, shielding the back line, breaking up opposition attacks, recovering the ball and advancing it to the creators further up the pitch. It’s a tribute to Curtin’s regard for him that Flach has appeared in every single Union regular-season match since his arrival last year, starting all but four of them.

Compare his to McGlynn’s numbers via the data engine of your choice, and you’ll see an almost diametrically opposite toolkit. Flach defends and destroys at A to A+ levels; McGlynn advances buildups and creates chances on par with the best in his positional profile. The Union need healthy measures of both if they are to fulfill their ambitions over the next month, and Curtin’s ability to find that balance will be pivotal.

Honorable Mentions

Austin FC start their first postseason experience with Real Salt Lake’s ABC-televised visit to Q2 Stadium on Sunday afternoon (3 pm ET). As names like Sebastian Driussi, Brad Stuver and Diego Fagundez tend to dominate the ATXFC discourse, we’ve got our eye on their young holding mid, whose nearly 90% pass completion rate is tops among the Verde’s regular rotation.

The 2021 SuperDraft No. 1 overall pick’s ability to protect the back four, win the midfield battles and build possession in tandem with Alex Ring is crucial – and after picking up a costly red card in Austin’s loss at RSL earlier in the season, his motivation should be sky high.

With 2g/6a, 38 key passes, 45 successful tackles, 191 duels won, 23.3 pressures per 90 minutes and elite numbers in a range of other metrics valued by the New York Red Bulls, the 22-year-old Venezuelan central mid and longtime YPPOTW regular is a walking embodiment of ‘energy drink soccer.’ Little doubt, then, that RBNY’s postseason prospects will hinge on his performances.

You’ve probably read and heard all about the influence of Gonzalo Higuain’s renewed leadership and productivity on Inter Miami’s successful playoffs push, and understandably so. More easily overlooked is the value of the 21-year-old who’s quietly contributed so much – both creatively and destructively – in the spaces just behind Pipa.

Even with a relatively modest 1,476 minutes played, Duke leads the Herons in assists (seven) and his youthful energy could be an X factor for IMCF vs. New York City FC. But don’t just take our word for it – just listen to their legendary broadcast commentator Ray Hudson lamenting Phil Neville’s decision to bench Duke in the Decision Day loss to Montréal:

Will NYCFC have to defend their MLS Cup title without their most dangerous attacker? With Talles Magno’s status in doubt following a shoulder injury picked up in their regular-season finale at Atlanta, that could well be the case, and it would pile more responsibility on Rodriguez, the versatile Uruguayan who can press, conduct and finish with equal aplomb. Those two co-led the Pigeons in G+A this year with 17 apiece, which gives you a decent idea of their importance.

Not too many observers are giving Orlando City much of a chance in their Round One visit to Montréal on Sunday evening. If the Lions are to defy the prognosticators, they’ll need another inspired showing from their Young Designated Player. With 9g/10a, the winger has been OCSC’s most reliable attacker this season; we’re curious to see if the club-record signing from Peñarol can sustain his elite passing numbers in the playoff cauldron.