National Writer: Charles Boehm

Top young-player performances in MLS for Weeks 25 & 26

A packed week of fixtures was graced by some virtuoso performances from young players, several of whom look to be integral figures in their teams’ stretch runs towards the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. We’ll start at perhaps the most surprising result of the past seven days.

Surely luckless RBNY’s nationally-televised visit to white-hot Inter Miami on Friday night would be a beatdown, a showcase for Robbie Robinson and the Herons’ wealth of attacking options, right? WRONG.

Handed just his second MLS start of the season, Fernandez was arguably the best player on the pitch in Fort Lauderdale. The homegrown pressed energetically, completed 87.5% of his passes – including a gobsmacking seven key passes – and victimized a criminally static Miami backline to score the visitors’ second goal off a long throw-in, his first strike of the year and a key milestone on the path to the Red Bulls’ 4-0 rout.

With not one but two Hudson River Derby clashes this week and games in hand on their rivals for the East’s final postseason slots, RBNY still have a small window to salvage this campaign and Fernandez has earned the chance to play a bigger role in those tests.

You’ve probably seen how thoroughly New England’s Carles Gil is dominating the league’s assist chart, key pass category and thus the Landon Donovan MLS MVP conversation. What you may have missed is who is hottest on the Spaniard’s trail, at least in statistical terms:

It’s Djordje.

With his deft, delicate dime to Romell Quioto in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Chicago – his third assist of the week and the icing atop a 25/31 passing, five fouls won, one assist, three key passes performance – Mihailovic now stands on 11 helpers in 2021, second in MLS behind Gil. He’s also sixth in the league in fouls sustained (56) and tied for seventh in key passes played (50), both hallmarks of impactful playmakers.

The Chicago product has now moved past descriptors like “solid season” and “career year” and into “Best XI candidate” territory, especially considering that his unfancied Montréal side are well on course for the playoffs.

It took a few years, several managers and some dramatic ups and downs both on and off the pitch. But we’re finally seeing the true extent of Barco’s talent as he powers the league’s hottest team forward.

The Boat notched a goal and an assist in both the 4-0 midweek demolition of FC Cincinnati and Saturday's important 3-2 slugfest win over D.C. United, marked by an AT&T Goal of the Week-nominated free-kick heater in the latter.

His performances have been influential, productive and pleasing to the eye for some time now, and if he keeps this up, the Five Stripes will finally be back in the MLS Cup contenders’ conversation.

Like Barco, Dorsey is here for the second week in a row as he extended his strong run of form in Houston’s fall revival. The once-lifeless Dynamo are suddenly 2W-0L-1D in their last three games, with seven goals scored and three conceded, and Dorsey has chipped in two goals and an assist over that stretch.

Just like last week’s strike vs. Austin, his opener against Dallas was the result of a well-timed back-post run and hit harder because it arrived so early in the match. Dorsey’s underlying numbers might be even more impressive, particularly in terms of his pressing and passing work. When you group the Week 25 and 26 data together, he bossed the goals added charts, well ahead of names like Adam Buksa, Carles Gil and Marcelino Moreno.

Like his teammate Barco, ATLUTD’s left wingback is becoming a YPPOTW fixture. On Monday he also got his first MLS Team of the Week presented by Audi nod of 2021, after handling his business in all departments and scoring what turned out to be the game-winner in that barnburner vs. D.C.

You can certainly make the case that Bello was the lucky beneficiary of a superb solo run and cross by Marcelino Moreno on his goal, as long as you don’t lose sight of the fact that even a tap-in that easy-looking is the product of excellent vision and timing.

Honorable mentions

Marcos Lopez: The San Jose Earthquakes’ left back picked a great time to net his first goal of the season, steering a corner-kick header past Brad Stuver to equalize against Austin FC and send the Quakes on their way to a massive 4-3 road win. The Peruvian was also solid with his passing and could prove a key cog in his team’s dash for the postseason.

Jacob Shaffelburg: The 21-year-old homegrown was instrumental in Toronto FC’s slump-snapping win over Nashville, beating the NSC offside trap to latch onto Auro’s perceptive ball over the top and finish calmly. Whatever direction the Reds decide to go with their next choice of head coach and master plan, he looks like a valuable piece for them.

Jose Cifuentes: For all the difficulties LAFC are having lately, their Ecuadorian center mid is still putting in work. Cifu assisted on Danny Musovski’s late winner in the road win over Austin at midweek and played three key passes in the loss at Portland.

Cameron Duke: The 20-year-old academy product scored his second career MLS goal – a deceptively difficult finish in technical terms, by the way – and completed 92.5% of his passes as Sporting KC romped all over their Midwestern counterparts from Minnesota on Wednesday.

Moussa Djitte: “What a difference it makes to have a true center forward in the team,” said Austin broadcast commentator Michael Lahoud, and so it was. Making his first MLS start, the Senegalese striker played a central role in Verde’s opening goal vs. San Jose and was a reference point throughout his 45-plus minutes on the pitch. Unfortunately for ATX, he was substituted out at halftime and the Quakes ran riot down the stretch.


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.