The 2021 MLS regular season is in the books, and its final week served up more proving ground for young players around the league to push their teams forward. Some played key roles in Decision Day achievements to book or improve their places in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, while others could only take consolation into the long, cold offseason.

The playoffs, practically a season unto themselves, still lie ahead; some of these names will have their chances to shine on that stage, too.

FC Cincinnati gave playoff-chasing Atlanta United a good scare on Sunday before Josef Martinez conjured up a worldie of a game-winner to bail them out, and Bailey was a big factor. The former LA Galaxy academy prospect quietly became a regular at right back down the stretch, starting Cincy’s last seven games, and was particularly excellent in the first half against ATL, completing 100% of his passes and combining cleverly with Luciano Acosta for this lovely weaker-foot strike, his first in MLS:

The Nevada native subbed off just shy of the hour mark with a 96.9% pass completion rate, including one key pass and two accurate long balls, and wins in the majority of his tackles and duels. Still just 21, Bailey has already done his share of traveling in this game, with stints in LA, Sweden and Denmark; he looks to have earned a chance to make a home in Cincy.

I wrote this story about Bassett in the wake of his team’s impressive capture of first place in the Western Conference standings on Sunday, an achievement that vindicated his decision to pass on a move to Benfica over the summer in order to chase MLS Cup with the Rapids.

And yet, it’s been a testing stretch run for the 20-year-old just the same, because coach Robin Fraser clearly isn’t handing him a single minute of playing time that he hasn’t earned – he’s only started about half of Colorado’s games over the past two months. He had to come off the bench against LAFC, and made his 34 minutes count with a goal and an assist, both of which showcased the vision, intelligence and quick feet that have attracted so many overseas scouts:

Looks like a potential postseason X-factor to me!

Whatever the rest of their careers may hold in store, Lopez and Cade Cowell will go down in history as providers on the final goal in Chris Wondolowski’s glittering career, combining to serve him up for the opener in the 1-1 draw with FC Dallas:

Lopez was solid throughout, playing three key passes, winning a bevy of duels and drawing five fouls. As San Jose brace for a roster overhaul this winter, the YPPOTW board of directors certainly hope the left back role is marked down as his to lose. Already a regular Peru call-up at age 21, he probably wasn’t utilized to his fullest extent across the Quakes’ tumultuous and largely disappointing 2021 campaign and that should change next year.

With star turns for not one but three sides – Orlando, Barnsley and the US men’s national team – it’s been a marathon year for Dike. On Sunday he made sure it will continue on for at least another few weeks, leading the Lions to a clutch 2-0 win at CF Montréal to finally clinch their playoff place. His late strike, a coolly-taken transition breakaway, iced the victory and extended his hot streak to seven goals in his last nine matches:

While USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter has somewhat mysteriously decided that there’s nothing at all Dike can offer his squad in this month’s World Cup qualifiers vs. Mexico and Jamaica, a multitude of European clubs have reached the opposite conclusion and you can expect the transfer chatter to simmer feverishly in the coming months. What price will be sufficient for OCSC to let go of their crown jewel?

It’s fitting that Barco features in YPPOTW’s regular-season swan song, because this series has in essence tracked his slow, steady climb from talented, inconsistent fringe player to dependable attacking orchestrator across the course of the year. As my colleague Matt Doyle would probably note, he’s still got work to do on nuanced elements of his game, particularly his decision-making. But when he’s on, he’s so key for Atlanta.

At Cincinnati he served up several threatening set-piece deliveries, one of which Miles Robinson thumped home for the equalizer, among five key passes, five successful dribbles and five free kicks earned. Many are speculating that Thiago Almada’s reportedly imminent arrival in Five Stripes land signals Barco’s departure; if that turns out to be the case, he’s come through adversity to emerge a more complete player from his time in MLS.

Honorable mentions

Brian Rodriguez: LAFC may – may! – have seen the end of an era with Sunday’s humbling 5-2 loss at Colorado, which killed off the playoff hopes that were on life support and advanced a heap of questions about where Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela and others will be come opening day 2022. “Rayo” Rodriguez didn’t go gently into that good night, scoring one goal and assisting on another, playing four key passes and going three of four on dribbles.

Julian Araujo: Some assigned him the goat’s horns for his LA Galaxy’s stunning 3-3 faceplant at home vs. Minnesota United, which tumbled LA right out of the playoff places, because of his own goal and his role in keeping Adrien Hunou onside in the Loons’ counterattack opener. Let’s look beyond the boxscore, though. Araujo was STILL one of his team’s top performers with an assist, an array of defensive actions and four key passes among his 32/37 completions. The 20-year-old was one of the Galaxy’s best players this year, period.

Cristian Casseres Jr.: We here at YPPOTW have been continually impressed by the Venezuelan’s consistent performances in the New York Red Bulls attack going back some weeks now. He’s been integral to RBNY’s rocket ride up the standings, and on Decision Day he delivered the telling cross to Fabio for the opening-minute goal that set them toward successful postseason qualification.

David Ochoa: Real Salt Lake’s young goalkeeper had been getting shellacked over the past few months, and the three goals they leaked to Portland at midweek appeared to have dealt their playoff push a devastating blow. But no – the kid merely led his side into the Children’s Mercy Park cauldron and posted his first clean sheet since mid-September, earning the massive 1-0 win over Sporting KC that snared RSL the West bracket's last playoff berth.

Brandon Servania: Here’s another bright spot in FC Dallas’ largely painful season, though admittedly perhaps an indictment of their transfer business. As the esteemed Steve Davis points out, several of their young homegrowns are keeping their higher-paid foreign imports on the bench lately, including Servania, who completed 41 of 44 passes in the engine room in the finale at San Jose, in addition to going 4/5 on dribbles and completing nine defensive actions.

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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.