Playing through a World Cup qualifying-heavy international window is not for the faint of heart, and MLS’ Week 23 slate offered some prized opportunities to young players where call-ups called on the next man up across the nine matches spanning last Friday and Saturday.

Here are the top standouts.

Riding an eight-game winless skid and a nine-game drought in clean sheets that have sunk them below the Western Conference playoff line, the Black & Gold half of Los Angeles desperately needed some defensive presence as Sporting Kansas City visited on Friday. And their 18-year-old Senegalese center back delivered.

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MLS Player of the Week finalist Fall met two delicious set-piece deliveries from Eduard Atuesta with excellently headed finishes for LAFC’s first two goals in a much-needed 4-0 win, the first via a well-timed, authoritative leap and the second steered inside the post with impressive body control. The Roger Espinoza red card they sandwiched surely made it much easier to see out the shutout, but Fall gets some credit for that, too.

It’s hard to ask for more from a substitute than what the elusive Colombian provided the Whitecaps in Saturday’s 2-1 comeback win over Austin FC. Showing aggression and precision, the winger produced four shots, all of them on target and one a clever chip that required a goal-line clearance to stay out of the goal. That was before he finally broke through to bag the winner in the 83rd minute, sniffing out the rebound of Brad Stuver’s save on Ryan Gauld’s dipping effort.

With the very, very prominent exception of the humbling Canadian Championship upset at the hands of Pacific FC – the final result before coach Marc Dos Santos’ dismissal – the once-downtrodden ‘Caps haven’t tasted defeat since July 7, and they’re now 3-0 at BC Place since their return to British Colombia. Caicedo is no minor part of that.

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Earlier this year Dike was rattling off goals like clockwork, only for the flow to peter out as injuries and fatigue piled up atop his heavy schedule. Now he seems to be gearing up again. Florida’s Lions were gratified to see him strike for a goal and an assist in the 3-2 win over Columbus.

The big US international shrugged off Aboubacar Keita before a tidy dribble into the penalty box set him up for an emphatic roofed finish to provide Orlando an early lead. Later he would help instigate Junior Urso’s dramatic game-winner after the Crew surged back to draw level.

Perhaps the most impressive result of the weekend was Nashville’s 3-1 defeat of in-form New York City FC at Nissan Stadium, maintaining the Golden Boys’ position in the East elite. With Hany Mukhtar hogging the headlines for his attacking exploits, Maher was the quiet catalyst at the back, anchoring NSC’s three-player backline in a wild one.

The milk-swilling 21-year-old blocked four shots, posted an 87.5% pass completion rate – and in a game with twin red cards and yellows flying everywhere, committed nary even a single foul despite an open, ragged tempo and plenty of NYCFC pressure.

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FC Dallas stumbled to a 3-2 loss at Real Salt Lake, yet Ferreira might just have been the most effective attacker on the pitch. Working in the hole behind Franco Jara thanks to Ricardo Pepi’s US men’s national team call-up, Ferreira laid on the pass that Jara converted into the opening goal – greatly helped by Jader Obrian’s clever dummy.

He then netted the visitors’ second with a stunning solo run after he created his own transition-friendly turnover in midfield, dedicating the golazo to his younger brother (and fellow baller) Matthew. In addition to the 1g/1a, Ferreira served three key passes, four accurate long balls and won the lion’s share of his duels.

Honorable mentions

Braian Galvan: The Argentine wide man was his usual buccaneering self in the red-hot Colorado Rapids’ last-gasp 1-0 road victory over San Jose, dangerous with the ball at his feet both on the dribble (2/2) and in front of goal (2/2 shots on target), in addition to helping pitch the shutout.

Franciso Ginella: Probably the best midfielder in LAFC’s big 4-0 win, “Pancho” completed passes above an 87% clip, including two KPs, and got stuck in when required.

Leon Flach: New England’s savvy and just-a-bit cynical 1-0 win marked a hard night for the listless, shorthanded Philadelphia Union. That said, Flach’s heavy industry in midfield showed how hard he was working to step up in the absence of so many teammates on international duty, even if he was involved in the hesitation that allowed Matt Polster’s opportunistic set-piece game-winner.

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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.

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