National Writer: Charles Boehm

Young-player standouts from the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs

We’re back, y’all!

Since we had so much fun doing Young Player Performances of the Week during the regular season, and the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are the final dash to cap that marathon, we thought it was only right to give some shine to the youngsters getting it done in the pressure-packed postseason environment.

Some coaches can’t help but reflexively lean on veteran experience in these games. Yet that conventional wisdom is changing, too, with several trusting their young’uns in the clutch, and a few gaining rich rewards as a result.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious success stories.

The 21-year-old has been a regular in NYCFC's attacking band of three since arriving on loan from sibling club Montevideo City Torque in June, and he’s found another gear in the postseason.

The well-rounded Uruguayan rifled home a fine first-time finish just minutes after kickoff to give NYC the perfect start at New England on Tuesday night. Rodriguez then kept busy on both sides of the ball across his 114 minutes on the pitch, passing at an 84% completion clip, including four key passes, winning seven fouls – a vital and often-overlooked element of controlling tempo – with nary a turnover.

It was quite likely his best performance in NYCFC colors to date. He was also effective in his 85-minute outing vs. Atlanta United in Round One, where he was somewhat less clean with the ball but made up for it with plenty of committed defensive work.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, I’m talking about possibly the most easily-overlooked player on the most easily-overlooked squad in the bracket – well, at least RSL merited that description at the start of the postseason. Everyone’s paying attention to the Utahns now, and their Argentine central midfielder has been a quiet colossus in the center of the park against both Seattle and Sporting KC.

The 22-year-old has always been a superb passer and lately he also seems to have embraced the blue-collar mindset at the heart of both Freddy Juarez and Pablo Mastroeni’s tenures in charge of the Claret-and-Cobalt. Ruiz completed 86% of his 50 passes in the face of Kansas City's press, including seven accurate long balls, and got stuck in as needed. He was less precise against the Sounders but still covered plenty of ground, helped with box defending and made sure to net his spot kick in the penalty shootout.

The young center back didn’t rack up gaudy statistics or make a litany of massive plays in Nashville SC’s playoff run, and that in and of itself is a big part of his presence on this list. The St. Louis native, who turned 22 a month ago, logged every minute of the Tennessee club’s two matches, mostly just handling his responsibilities in Gary Smith’s three-back system in a composed, understated manner.

Even accounting for Nashville’s painful loss to Philadelphia on penalties, it marks a highly promising end to Maher’s second season in MLS, especially considering that his year began with what was originally framed as a season-long loan to USL Championship side San Diego Loyal. Smith recalled him in June and the Generation adidas signing soon earned the coach’s trust, starting 18 league matches for one of the league’s best defenses.

Having looked like a legit trophy contender earlier in the campaign, the Lions’ one-and-done playoff run was harshly disappointing overall, and it heralded significant changes at OCSC this winter. Dike’s departure via what would surely be a multi-million-dollar transfer deal may well be one of those changes, with plenty of European clubs of note lusting after him after his monster 2021.

Whatever happens, though, the big striker can walk away from this season with his head held high. He was probably Orlando’s best player in the Round One loss at Nashville, scoring their only goal and working hard to create danger despite limited service or interplay with his teammates. Dike led the Lions in scoring this year (10g/3a) and will now aim to push his way back into the core of the US men’s national team ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifiers.

You didn’t think we’d forget about this year’s villain in chief, the heel par excellence, the entertainingly reckless 20-year-old smack talker who’s backstopping RSL’s Cinderella run, did you? If not exactly saving the best for last, he’s certainly the most controversial on this list – and even if you loathe him, you have to give the devil his due on this occasion.

With five saves made across two matches and pretty mediocre distribution overall, Ochoa’s individual stats haven’t been particularly dazzling. But when you earn the results that he and his teammates have, you’re performing at a high level, and his psychological hijinks are clearly having an effect on opponents (and their fans). Here we’ll share what his head coach, Pablo Mastroeni, told about the young goalkeeper and his fierce mentality:

“His maturity in going to Seattle, against attacking players that have run this league amok for years, and his composure to eliminate 35,000 fans and guys like \[Raul\] Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and \[Nicolas\] Lodeiro running at you, and still staying poised in the moment to make big plays, to manage the game the way that he did, to essentially say, ‘I'll take on the burden of all these fans. I'll let the 10 guys in front of me do their thing, and I'll take all this on,’ that's a very mature presence back there.”

Honorable mentions

Jack McGlynn: The success of the Philadelphia Union involves a whole lot more than just #PlayYourKids; for starters, just take a look at the ages of Jim Curtin’s starting XIs. But what a beautifully fitting moment it was, for a club that places its academy at the heart of everything it does, when the 18-year-old McGlynn was not only trusted to come off the bench to bolster the midfield in both of their playoff games so far, but also to take a penalty kick in the shootout against Nashville – which he dispatched coolly and clinically into the corner for what turned out to be the winning take.

Andres Reyes: The Colombian defender was arguably the New York Red Bulls’ top performer vs. Philly in Round One, strong in the air and in the challenge, brave in the chaos and clamor of a grindingly physical clash between two press-loving squads. The former Inter Miami man looks like one to build around in 2022.

Ezequiel Barco: Another Round One standout in a losing cause, The Boat was Atlanta United’s most dangerous attacking presence in the loss at NYCFC. What lies ahead for the Five Stripes’ first starlet, now approaching his 23rd birthday? During the Five Stripes’ season-ending media availability on Wednesday, technical director Carlos Bocanegra told reporters that Barco has sparked “quite a bit of interest” from potential buyers abroad. Whatever happens, he made a great step forward in his career in 2021, rising from overhyped bust to hard-running, consistent chance creator.