National Writer: Charles Boehm

Top 5 young-player performances in Week 1

MLS is back, and so are the young talents pushing for bigger and bigger roles around the league.

With Week 1 of the 2021 season in the books, here’s a quick rundown of some of the weekend’s top performers among players aged 22 and under.

Many of us have been waiting to see who might become a poster child for the Rave Green’s slow, steady ramp-up of their player development pipeline. Their 19-year-old homegrown center mid certainly showed some credentials for being that guy in Friday’s 4-0 thumping of Minnesota United FC, anchoring the Sounders’ midfield with composed distribution and some very savvy reading of the game alongside veterans Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan.

Sounder at Heart’s Jeremiah Oshan broke down some of Atencio’s numbers, then posted a worthwhile thread with some of his most impressive moments:

Keep an eye on the kid from Bellevue.

If for some insane reason you didn’t read my list of 10 of MLS’s most promising young talents last week, Clark’s latest golazo – an instinctive, improvisational flick of a strike against Sporting Kansas City – should provide ample reason to do so now. In fact, maybe pencil in RBNY’s next match or two on your calendar.

Clark, who was grinding away for Red Bulls II in relative obscurity less than a year ago, has vaulted into the center of the #PlayYourKids conversation with his lively attacking play. Above all, it’s his wonderfully creative and opportunistic work in front of goal since he earned promotion from the second team last fall.

Beyond Clark’s technique and energy and vision, there’s just something special about the kid from Minnesota – a cleverness and fluidity that's rare – and he’s looking like an automatic starter for RBNY at just 17.

Toronto FC’s kids got lots of shine last week as they spearheaded a Concacaf Champions League upset of Liga MX’s Club Leon. It underlines the challenges facing young players in MLS that Mihailovic and his Montréal mates ambushed them so mercilessly in sultry Fort Lauderdale on Saturday afternoon.

CFM shelled out significantly to acquire Mihailovic from his hometown Chicago Fire FC over the winter. His debut went some ways toward justifying that as he orchestrated the attack, got stuck into 13 duels and emphatically thumped home his first goal in new colors to cap the 4-2 win.

The playmaker could use a strong start to the season after some uneven performances for the US under-23 men’s national team in last month’s Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. Both his contributions on the pitch and his defiant postgame remarks suggest he’s ready to show and prove.

In some ways, Robinson’s first career MLS goal – a simple tap-in unselfishly set up by his elder colleague Gonzalo Higuain – was the easy part at DRV PNK Stadium on Sunday.

The Clemson kid did plenty of other good work in his new deployment on the left side of Miami’s 4-2-3-1, completing 90% of his passes (including one key pass) and getting stuck into several tackles and duels in a 3-2 loss to the LA Galaxy.

Crucially, Robinson has earned the trust of Phil Neville, who said the coaching staff are “really pleased with his progress” and that last year’s No. 1 SuperDraft pick “could be really, really special” if he applies himself. It appears that left slot in the Herons’ attacking band of three is his until and unless someone else wrestles it away from him, and he could blossom quickly with such regular minutes.

Entering your season opener with three of your four goalkeepers sidelined by injury is a distinctly uncomfortable situation for any team. But Sporting Kansas City exited Week 1 with a big 2-1 road win over the New York Red Bulls thanks in part to the calm nerves of Pulskamp, who made a successful MLS debut at the tender age of 19 – the youngest ‘keeper in club history to achieve that and the youngest in the league since 2010.

Aside from an early bobble with the ball at his feet in the 15th minute, the California native handled the particular demands of RBNY’s press, ranging well off his line to deal with balls over the top and choosing safety over precision with his distribution. There was little he could do about Caden Clark’s inventive 48th-minute golazo, but he saved the Red Bulls’ only two other shots on goal.

Pulskamp took a winding road to this breakthrough. He spent two years in the LA Galaxy academy and also trialed at English club Bournemouth before landing in Kansas City in 2019. He proved himself in the USL Championship with Swope Park Rangers (their second team, now SKC II) and Sporting sent the Galaxy $50,000 in General Allocation Money to acquire his Homegrown rights and sign him ahead of the 2020 campaign.

He’s also an avid hiker and traveler who knows his way around a slackline, as he showed during Episode 2 of “MLS Idle: Soccer's Hidden Talents” a year ago.


Audi Goals Drive Progress

MLS Academies have been identified as one of the most important resources for building on-field talent in North America. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative, Audi has committed $1 million per season in an effort to advance academies league-wide, and to drive progress for the sport. For every goal scored in the regular season, Audi will contribute $500 into the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund to directly support each MLS Club Youth Academy.