National Writer: Charles Boehm

Top young-player performances in MLS Week 32

Two more match weeks made for another busy batch of opportunities for players to earn a spot in YPPOTW.

After another difficult round of evaluation, here’s the best of the bunch.

One of the beautiful things about trusting and investing in young talent is how quickly they can blossom, how dramatically they’ll grow under the right circumstances. Take a glance at Gabriel Slonina’s official mug shot, for example: Most casual observers would say that’s a child staring back at them, a kid probably still waiting on his final growth spurt. 

But at 17, “Gaga” is very much the man in Chicago today. The Fire homegrown bagged two victories over the past week, surviving a 4-3 barn-burner in Cincinnati before stoning playoff-chasing Real Salt Lake for a 1-0 win in front of more than 31,000 at his club’s spirited 2021 home finale at Soldier Field. That’s his fourth clean sheet of the year and it brings his, and his club’s, record to 3-3-2 during his current string of starts, which began in mid-September. Extend that over an entire season and you’d have a very real playoff push in the Windy City right now.

“He’s a young goalkeeper by age but really, for me, it really doesn’t matter,” interim Fire boss Frank Klopas said of Slonina on Saturday. “If you have the quality to play, you will play. Age doesn’t really matter. I mean, you can just see how good [he is].”

The Mile High Club officially clinched an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth with their 2-0 home win over Portland and the 21-year-old Argentine was at the center of the action, serving up assists on both goals with good service from a left wingback role in a man-of-the-match performance. He also won his duels, logging several defensive actions across his 90-plus minutes.

Not quite an everyday starter for Colorado yet, Galvan remains a work in progress, but his talent is obvious. He’s often seemed most comfortable as an inverted attacking winger on the right flank, but building out his skill set and versatility under Robin Fraser is a boon for both player and team.

With flair and dynamism, Galvan's also a potential surprise difference-maker in the postseason – one key area in which the Rapids are relatively untested.

Luckless FCD fumbled away halftime leads against both Southern California teams last week, taking away one point when they could’ve had three. Ferreira did his part and then some, however, notching two assists vs. LAFC and bagging a clinical strike of his own from 20 yards out against the LA Galaxy.

With his season totals now up to 7g/8a, Ferreira has quietly become a silver lining to match his friend and attacking foil Ricardo Pepi in FCD’s mostly difficult 2021. After manning a range of different positional assignments over his pro career to date, he’s grown confident and effective as a No. 10/second-striker hybrid, a half-space merchant who can drift into dangerous pockets to good effect.

Might it earn him a return to the US men’s national team for next month’s World Cup qualifiers vs. Mexico and Jamaica? My colleague Michele Giannone over at TUDN has cheekily launched a “campaign” to that effect; all devoted Jesus followers are urged to hop on board.

Nobody in MLS is on more of a tear than RBNY, a team who in August lost twice to Chicago and couldn’t beat FC Cincinnati at home, but flipped some sort of switch last month and are currently unbeaten in eight. That turnaround has been fueled in no small part by their cadre of young players, and yet it also poses a challenge for the YPPOTW jury and others similarly tasked with recognizing individual excellence within Red Bull’s collectivist ethos.

Which young’un was more essential in Saturday’s dramatic road win over Columbus, for example? Midfield marauder Dru Yearwood, whose 15 defensive actions and two key passes were hugely influential? Or Casseres, who has shown a comparable engine-room toolkit, but has recently been impactful in a more advanced attacking role, posting a goal and an assist to slay the Crew?

Tough call! I’m going with Casseres because of the end product. Not only that he contributed 1g/1a; the Venezuelan international also got stuck in plenty, engaging in a team-high 20 duels. And if you’ve watched RBNY lately, you’ll note it’s not just winning duels that carries value – instigating them can lead to subsequent turnovers via the so-called gauntlet effect, setting the tone for imposing their torrid tempo of energy-drink soccer.

A funny thing happened while the Cade Cowell hype train was powering up and leaving the station: a smaller, older, quieter but statistically more productive engine got underway in its shadow.

That would be Kikanovic, who at 21 doesn’t get pulses racing quite the same as a teenage wunderkind, but was massive for the Quakes last week, scoring emphatically in both the 4-0 rout of Austin FC and the 1-1 home draw with Vancouver.

Kikanovic has now scored as many goals this season (four) as Cowell has, but in less than half the minutes – and his rate of improvement over that span suggests he’s got plenty more upside to explore.

The harsh reality is that the Quakes, while still mathematically alive, haven't collected enough points to be more central protagonists in the Western Conference playoff race. Still, there are useful materials to work with in 2022, and Matias Almeyda – assuming he’s still the one to piece them together – should make this local kid just as central to those plans as Cowell.

Honorable Mentions

Santiago Rodriguez: Plenty of standouts in NYCFC's 6-0 thrashing of D.C. United, including fellow YPPOTW-eligible Cityzen Thiago Andrade. But I’m picking the Uruguayan midfielder here because of his 89% (47/53) pass completion rate and three key passes, the type of contributions that tend to be particularly useful amid the helter-skelter of a typical game at Yankee Stadium.

Christian Makoun: Inter Miami stayed in the postseason reckoning with eight goals, two wins and six precious points last week, and their 21-year-old Venezuelan defender was enormous, scoring off a corner kick against Toronto and completing well over 90% of his passes in both matches, including some accurate long-range distribution. 

Mamadou Fall: LAFC did it the hard way, but nonetheless took four points from a two-game road swing to stay in playoff contention, and their 18-year-old defender played a big part. Working in both central and wide positions, Fall served in the cutting low cross that led to the late game-winner at FC Dallas and made a whopping 12 clearances to fend off Minnesota United over the weekend.

Maciel: Handed his first start in nearly two months as New England visited Orlando, the diminutive Brazilian did plenty of good grunt work in the middle, completing 37 of 39 passes and making five tackles across 90-plus minutes.


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.