National Writer: Charles Boehm

Top young-player performances in MLS Week 30

Did your star player(s) jet back from international duty just in time for the weekend’s match? Are some key contributors worn down or carrying knocks? Is your side in desperate need of points in the fall playoff push? Or maybe you’re a legit #PlayYourKids believer who’s just continuing standard operating procedures.

Across a variety of circumstances, young players answered the call yet again in MLS Week 30, stepping up to make plays and change games as the season enters its stretch drive. That made this week’s YPPOTW ballot extra-competitive, and narrowly missing the cut were Gabriel Slonina, Efrain Alvarez and Griffin Dorsey, whose performances would safely merit mention in most other editions.

Cristian Casseres, straight off the plane from Chile, right onto the scoresheet! A dramatic start to the derby!”

Jon Champion’s call on Sunday's ESPN broadcast underlined not only the energy and timeliness of RBNY's game-winning goal against their crosstown rivals NYCFC, but also the magnitude of Casseres’ achievement in being the one to score it.

Less than 72 hours after logging 22-plus minutes off the bench for Venezuela in their 3-0 Conmebol World Cup qualifying defeat at Chile, the hard-running central midfielder was popping up in the Cityzens’ six-yard box to slot home the decider in 2021’s final regular-season installment of the Hudson River Derby. It was the highlight of a man-of-the-match performance from Casseres, who’s doing his part and then some in the Red Bulls’ late dash for an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth.

Like most of his United States teammates, the 19-year-old wingback endured a rough night in the ugly 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss at Panama. As coaches love to emphasize, though, either you win or you learn – and Bello flashed proof of that in ATLUTD's 2-0 victory in Toronto.

The teenager was a constant menace along his left flank. First he saw a deflected shot clang off the crossbar, then he assisted on Luiz Araujo's opener after a nifty give-and-go, one of several probing deliveries into dangerous areas. And Bello even played a part in Marcelino Moreno's late clincher, showing impressive endurance to surge forward into attack yet again deep into injury time.

The Chicago kid’s breakout year continues. He notched another assist in the Quebecois club’s rainy 2-2 home draw with Philadelphia, a disappointing result in some ways but also a sign of Mihailovic’s centrality to their upstart campaign: CFM are now 8W-1L-3D when he logs an assist.

He now has 14 helpers in 29 league appearances, second in MLS behind only the brilliant Carles Gil’s 17. His overall passing numbers reflect incision and imagination as well as volume, and he’s also chipped in four goals in what’s far and away the best season of his career. Now he just has to steer Montréal through that crowded Eastern Conference mid-table and into the playoffs.

Despite his inclusion in a few YPPOTW rundowns, the rest of the league seems to still be sleeping on the Whitecaps’ diamond-in-the-rough Jamaican rookie, the No. 23 pick in this year’s SuperDraft – who, as far as I can tell, has logged more MLS minutes this year than anyone else taken in the first round. On Sunday he reminded us that he’s more than just a serviceable right back, shifting to the left wingback role and looking like a natural in a massive 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City.

Brown cranked out his usual endline-to-endline energy and flashed impressive two-footedness, bending a superb lefty cross onto Brian White's head to set the table for Ryan Gauld's opener. He loses points for not tracking back in time to prevent Johnny Russell's goal, but the Scot is a Best XI-quality finisher along that channel and Florian Jungwirth bears some culpability there as well.

I can almost hear a few of you back there in the peanut gallery: “Top-five placement for just 14-plus minutes on the pitch?!”

Yup. We’re all here on this mortal coil for a good time, not a long time, and the YPPOTW ruling council applies a similar logic to eligible players’ impacts on the matches they participate in. After starting two of Uruguay’s three October World Cup qualifiers and taking the 12,000-mile round trip from Los Angeles to Montevideo and back, “Rayo” wasn’t in a great position to log heavy minutes in the Black & Gold's massive 3-1 win over San Jose.

But he nonetheless contributed mightily, coming in off the bench after the Earthquakes had cut LAFC’s lead in half and were pressing for an equalizer. Rodriguez ran hard, won a handful of duels and completed every pass he attempted, including the game-icing assist on Cristian Arango's second strike of the afternoon.

Honorable mentions

Matko Miljevic: If you fancy yourself a USMNT stan and haven’t taken note of Miljevic's recent arrival in the City of Saints, give yourself a talking-to, then put him and CFM on your watchlist. The quad-eligible (Argentina, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, USA) attacker was a highly-valued prospect at Argentinos Juniors, making it something of a coup when Montréal recruited him on a free transfer in August after he played out his contract. And lo and behold, he scored in his first MLS start:

Ignacio Aliseda: Credit to Aliseda, Frank Klopas and the Chicago Fire, who are not going gently into the night despite a frustrating campaign and the exit of Raphael Wicky. Those formerly known as The Men in Red twice rallied from deficits to stymie league-leading New England on Saturday, with a late leveler arriving via Aliseda’s clever usage of DeJuan Jones to disguise his angled shot past Matt Turner.

Paxten Aaronson: As his big brother Brenden shines with the USMNT, “Pax10” looks to be methodically coming to grips with MLS. The 18-year-old playmaker scored the winner in Philly's Oct. 9 road win over FC Cincinnati and was one of the best players on the pitch in the 2-2 draw at Montréal.

Pablo Ruiz: Real Salt Lake’s 22-year-old engine-room cog does a lot of essential-but-not-spectacular passing and easy-to-overlook defensive work. So let’s all take a moment to hand Ruiz his flowers after the Utahns’ emphatic Rocky Mountain Cup win over Colorado, where he bossed the midfield and was only outshined by a worldie of a game from Damir Kreilach.

Sunusi Ibrahim: Yes, it’s yet another Montréal kid on this week’s list, a sign of Wilfried Nancy’s faith in youth. And the Nigerian striker, who just turned 19 a couple weeks ago, earned his spot with a dramatic equalizer that was both superbly timed and adeptly executed, contorting his body to glance a deft cross from another young’un – 22-year-old Mustafa Kizza – past Matt Freese deep into injury time.


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.