National Writer: Charles Boehm

Top young-player performances in MLS Week 22

Clasicos, derbies – whatever your preferred term, rivalry clashes tend to crystallize teams’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the individual players involved. We saw proof of that in MLS Week 22 as regional showdowns in California, Canada and Texas produced some of the league’s most impressive performances among young players.

We’ll start with that wild El Trafico at the Banc as part of Heineken Rivalry Week.

Questions swirled around the Uruguayan winger when he returned from his loan stint at Spanish side Almeria, a venture that was ideally supposed to end with a successful promotion to La Liga and his accompanying permanent transfer. That didn’t shake out, and Rodriguez has been quiet since rejoining LAFC in July.

Then Saturday happened.

Yeah, that kind of work will earn you the leadoff spot in YPPOTW. El Rayo’s explosion arrives none too soon for the Black & Gold, who are reportedly on the verge of transferring Diego Rossi to Turkey's Fenerbache and have dipped below the Western Conference playoff line with a 6-9-6 record that can only be seen as an underachievement. Rodriguez figures to be crucial for them down the stretch.

Don’t you just love to watch a talented, hard-working young’un shine like Pepi has lately? The 18-year-old grabbed the spotlight last week with his penalty shootout heroics at the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target and commitment to the US men’s national team. Then he celebrated by absolutely eviscerating naive Austin FC with two goals and an assist in an MLS Player of the Week display before jetting to Nashville for World Cup qualifying camp.

Granted, the Verde handed their in-state visitors the early advantage with their carelessness at the back, but don’t let that detract from the El Paso kid’s performance. Pepi’s movement is always intelligent and he was viciously, efficiently clinical in the box – as if he was still working through a finishing exercise like the one he aced in the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge presented by AT&T 5G.

You’ve read my words to this effect in past editions and so it remains: When both Pepi and Ferreira are on and tuned to the same wavelength, Dallas become a far, far more fearsome team overall. The homegrown duo share clean technique, a nose for space – particularly on the counter – and just understand one another well.

Though the question of Ferreira’s best position on the field has rumbled on for much of his first-team career, nights like Saturday underline how useful he can be when roaming and probing underneath a clever No. 9 like Pepi. Hmmm, I wonder if Gregg Berhalter might find that useful in the hectic World Cup qualifying windows on the horizon?

NYCFC’s 2-0 ambush of New England at Yankee Stadium epitomized why no one in the East wants to visit the Bronx in need of a positive result in the coming months: hectic, scrappy pace and quick transitions on that tight pitch, Maxi Moralez dropping dimes, Taty Castellanos prowling the penalty boxes to bag a brace.

If the Supporters’ Shield leaders – who it must be said were shorthanded in some key areas – can get got, anyone can. And increasingly it seems that the only one who can stop Castellanos is himself. Over the past month, the Argentine scored 6g/2a and laid on six key passes in seven matches across all competitions, pushing himself into the Landon Donovan MLS MVP conversation.

Injuries, poor team results and myriad pandemic-imposed delays and disruptions have slowed Teran’s progress since his signing last summer. Lately, however, we’re starting to see the quality in this Colombian center back, part of a rising trend of such imports to MLS.

Powerful, quick and commanding, he helped the Fire earn their first road win since October 2019 on their visit to the New York Red Bulls, not only weathering the RBNY press but also conjuring up the game-winning goal with a long throw-in – a somewhat unorthodox tool in his kit that we’ll surely see again and again if opponents struggle to cope with it.

(Brief aside: Long throws often get mocked for their brutish directness but even Spain’s Olympic team tried the tactic in Japan earlier this summer, a sure sign that critique has jumped the shark, at least at the pro level.)

Honorable mentions

Julian Araujo: Week in, week out, the Galaxy’s right back just keeps posting strong performances on both sides of the ball. In fact, even I find it striking that he’s not in this week’s top five after laying on two assists, including that dramatic late equalizer, to steal a point for the Gs at LAFC. But that’s the intensity of the competition for YPPOTW honors.

PS: If Araujo really is set to switch allegiance to Mexico, take note of any USMNT fans pretending he’s not a big loss and duly ding their credibility. He’s the top young fullback in MLS right now.

Djordje Mihailovic: CF Montréal’s assist king was at it again on Friday, helping create two of the Quebecois club’s goals to spearhead a 3-1 win over Canadian Classique enemies Toronto FC and also cracking the free kick whose rebound was tucked home by Samuel Piette. Mihailovic, a former Chicago homegrown, is now tied for second in the league assists race with eight.

Szabolcs Schön: Dallas’ young Hungarian continues to create consistent danger when he drifts in from the right flank, posting two assists in the rout of Austin. Now that Schön’s an obvious factor for adversaries to reckon with, it’s not hard to see how his mere presence opens up space for the likes of Pepi and Ferreira.

Javain Brown: One of the hidden gems of the YPPOTW player pool, Vancouver’s Jamaican rookie has earned a call-up to the Reggae Boyz’ first window of Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifying. The fullback shook off a poor outing in the midweek Canadian Championship upset loss to Pacific FC to produce a fine display in the 4-1 thumping of Real Salt Lake, highlighted by a Beckham-esque pinpoint cross to Ryan Gauld for Brown's fourth assist of 2021:

Dejan Joveljic: Two goals in an El Trafico barnburner is a pretty decent way to open your MLS account – an achievement unfairly obscured by Rodriguez’s golazo and LAFC’s late collapse on home turf. So far the 22-year-old Serbian looks like a smart acquisition, capable of both complementing and spelling Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez as the LA Galaxy hunt a deep playoff run this fall.


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.